Putting Up a Wall – The Bundesliga Clubs’ New Media Strategy

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – these days footballers have a wide variety of social media channels to communicate with their fans. Both the players and the clubs have jumped upon the social media ship, as it allows them to dictate the story line themselves. Social media is immediate, and give the fans the feeling of being even closer to the players. At best.

However, these days nothing is left to chance in the world of professional football. Many players use PR-agencies to do their social media work for them. The thoughts expressed on social media are watered down, often times meaningless or simply feel good stuff, not making anybody any the wiser.

Holiday pics on Instagram, fluffy interviews on the club TV website and Tweets with fan friendly content is what the clubs are serving up to the public. Journalists these days have a much harder time of getting their stories than 10 or 20 years ago.

Some news stories are simply presented on the club home page and the media outlets are being told that they can quote the club’s channel or leave the story alone.

One of those examples was the retirement of Xabi Alonso which was announced on Bayern TV. with the press not being informed via a press conference. In the end the journos covering the story had to copy and paste the club’s content right into their article.

In that way Bayern maintained control over what was written. These days FCB employ media content workers in offices in New York, Cairo and Shanghai, allowing the club to create content for its fans all around the world in any given time zone.

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Authentic guys vs. keeping control

Many clubs state that their players have been represented poorly by the media. Being quoted out of context or twisting words isn’t something that does happen on the clubs own media pages. In that way, players can be represented accurately. In an interview with t-online.de 1. FC Nürnberg players Hanno Behrens and Tim Leibold note that the way the Bundesliga has been covered by the media has led to players being more cautious when answering question. Behrens said:

“As a player it’s not really possible to give an honest opinion. Every word is critically observed.”

His teammate Leibold added: “One gets confronted with stuff one has said years ago. That leads to players being more cautious and as a result of that the authenticity of the players gets lost.”

It might not necessarily be the press itself that is at fault for this development. With the emergence of the internet it’s now possible to take a closer look at everything that has been said by a player over the years. However, with quotes being worked into different articles time and time again, the context of what a player has said can get lost or change over the years, which isn’t the fault of the player or the club. Even though this can happen, the question is if it really does happen on a regular basis?

Furthermore, this doesn’t answer the question why the players of the Bundesliga and their clubs have adopted a new media strategy over the last few years. A few years ago most players answered the phone when the local press called. Today most newspapers still have the phone numbers of the players, but, when they call the players won’t pick up.

To get to the player journalists now have to go through the clubs. The press officers and officials can now decide when the time has come for a player to talk to the press. The way the media is handled now doesn’t only increase the distance between players and the journalists, but also between players and the fans.

Furthermore, the clubs often times ask to check over the copy before any given quotes make it to the public. Four years ago the German paper Welt picked up a few good quotes by Aaron Hunt that were critical of the way Werder Bremen were developing.

After the press office at the Weserstadion had gone over the quotes the journalists at the paper couldn’t publish any of those interesting quotes. In the end they made a point of highlighting that they decided to drop those doctored quotes from the article, as they weren’t telling the story Hunt was giving them.

Nowadays critical questions need to be asked in mixed zones in the aftermath of a match. The players give the answers they have been trained to give during their media training. There’s little time for reflection, and as for insight there’s often times very little to be found in those post match quotes.

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Agents and publicists playing the game

Another way of getting to a player is through their agent or publicists. I’ve some personal experience doing this and it is not a pleasure going down this route in order to secure an interview. First off, most publicists want questions to be answered via email, not phone. Which leaves no or little room for follow ups.

Furthermore, some questions get removed before they even reach the player. In the end one is stuck with an interview that most likely has been cleaned up in order to make the player look as good as he possibly can.

Some publicists have gone so far that I was asked to hand over the article for approval before publishing it. In the end I was given a list of things to change. Every minor detail was glanced over before some of those rather benign articles could go online.

If one is lucky enough to get the chance to talk to the player directly one is often times given a certain set of limitations or suggestions of what not to talk about and what one should bring up during the chat with the player. Having said that, there are fortunately still some agents and media handlers who allow their players to speak freely and simply put you in touch with them. In my limited experience those people are in the minority.

Between agents, publicists, clubs and media handlers the Bundesliga is running the danger of creating a picture of itself that no fan is going to believe. A number of fans have already left the league, searching for proper football with authentic players and guys who talk their mind elsewhere. If the clubs keep going down the road they have embarked upon, this trend might very well continue and grow in strength.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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