Gary Neville once said that a footballer needed a lawyer and an accountant and that is it but the reality for the player or manager of today is that even an agent is not enough. Publicists and media advisers now play a key role in the modern game but what exactly do they do?
Firstly, perhaps it make sense to clarify what they do not do.
“I have clients who have an agent but I am the publicist,” says Dean Eldredge of Oporto Sports. “If someone makes an offer for my client, I would hand that to the agent. You do not cross that line. Otherwise, people will just think you are trying to poach their client.”
In this scenario, Eldredge handles his clients’ media commitments.
“How our clients are perceived is absolutely what we are about. We want to make sure they are likeable and they are in the right kind of media, controlling their own narrative.
“Agents do a great job in getting deals over the line. Clubs look after the employee until they are no longer an employee. But the industry has changed and we identified a gap. There are personal trainers, nutritionists, managers, agents. There is a role for the publicist.
“Why shouldn’t we have experts in every field?”
Eldredge, does also do work as an agent, specialising in managers. He was even the press officer for Leicester City at one point. But this one-time gatekeeper is now trying to open doors for his clients, whether that is media work with a view to a punditry career or securing that next managerial job.
“Everyone has their own objectives. What is the purpose to it? Some people may want to just work in the media and be busy every day speaking about the clubs they played for and their experience. Others want to utilise the media to get back in as a manager or a coach.
“For some people, it is about using the media to make money and have an income. That is totally understandable. For others, it is whether they can use it for positive PR and raise their profile by discussing some of their achievements in order to become a manager.
“It is about having a plan. Do some research on the individual. Look at what they have done already. Look at their career. Then map out the plan for what is realistic for them in the long term. The key thing is to tailor the service to that. You do not do the same for every client.”
Getting into management
It is one of football’s great truisms that the sport remains a results business but how those results are perceived can dictate managerial reputations. They are shaped by the public and the media but the manager has a role to play in setting the agenda by framing the narrative.
When a manager is complaining about officials or opponents, bemoaning the injury list or even criticising the players, it is often an attempt to ensure this becomes the accepted story.
“I have always been fascinated by the growing importance of what is said by the manager,” says Eldredge. “It is an extremely important part of modern football. Perception is key.”
Oporto Sports’ clients include Sven Goran Eriksson and Nigel Pearson, two managers with very different public images, but Eldredge is acutely aware that with both men, their image will play a part in getting them the job – and keeping them in it once they have it.
“With somebody like Nigel, you are not going to change him. But the beauty of someone like him is his authenticity. He is a leader, a great communicator, with a very good record as a manager and a good relationship with players. He just has a way of dealing with things.
“The magical element you want to bring to every client is likeability. Naturally, if they are liked then people are going to support them and want them to succeed or, when they are going through a bad patch, likely to give them more time and cut them more slack.
“My job is to remind clients of the narrative and how they can use it suit them. To use Nigel as an example, I would often talk to him about how he will be pigeonholed as a relegation survival specialist so that is ultimately the most likely role that he is going to be offered.
“But actually, Nigel is a builder of teams who can do that over a longer period, lowering the wage bill and the average age of the team. So how do you get that across? Well, you talk about where you have done that. You accentuate those examples and frame the narrative.
“Working with someone like Sven Goran Eriksson, what can I teach Sven, really? His experiences are far more global than mine. But if you remind people of the narrative and arm them with information that helps them then hopefully they will take that on board.”
Getting into punditry
For those pursuing a career in the media, it is not easy to stand out. “This is a very saturated market,” explains Eldredge. “Hundreds of people want to be on TV and only a few can be.” But the advice of a publicist can be the difference between making an impression and not.
“Something I always say, whether it is a manager or a player, and you have a minute to talk about a clip and are stuck for what to say, talk about what you would have done in that situation or how you would have been feeling. Give your relevant experience.
“It is easy to do that and it still gives insight. This is an ex-footballer talking about taking a free-kick having messed up the last one and what is going through the player’s mind. Or a goalkeeper talking about the positional sense with a keeper after making a mistake.
“You want to bring colour to it too. Let’s not forget that this is entertainment. You can break down all the data and have done four days of preparation for your big appearance on Sky Sports but how are you going to bring that across in an engaging manner?
“It is a bit like practising penalties with no crowd, nothing prepares you. I go as far as telling people to smile. It is so easy to forget that because you are caught up in not saying the wrong thing and getting the facts right but people like people smiling – they smile back.”
Should you stick to sports?
For those chasing greater publicity, the rewards can be significantly higher if prepared to venture beyond the confines of sport and into the world of celebrity – but so can the risks.
“I think you make a very big and brave decision if you walk outside of the football world and enter the world of general celebrity news, chat shows, breakfast shows, reality television.
“That is a legitimate route to go down to make the most of your name but it is one you need to go into with your eyes wide open because it is a different world and suddenly your personal life will come under more scrutiny. The way that media works is totally different.
“If someone has had a past that involved difficult relationships then they might not want to drag that up again. Is it necessarily a bad career decision? No, because you can make a lot of money. But you need to know that you are out of that comfort zone of football.
“Harry Redknapp has done really well, crossing over into the public’s living room. He is popular and likeable. But not everyone can do that. You have to have the right ingredients.”
Power of social media
One area of publicity that even public relations experts struggle to control is the world of social media. Some players seek to handle that themselves but there are countless examples of how that can blow up in the faces of high-profile figures with very real consequences.
“Having social media as a tool is great but how you use it is the next step and that is more difficult. We all have our touchpoints but they are not lived out in the public eye. A player might end up doing something with the best of intentions in the heat of the moment.
“Social media is a powerful tool if used correctly but now that players are able to communicate more directly that also means that they can send out the wrong messages, things that you would not advise. It is all down to how invested they are in doing that.
“If you put unadvisable stuff on there then you leave yourself open to more intrusion. In that situation, all I can do is outline the pitfalls and how you avoid them. Talk to them about when they use it. Don’t use it when you have had a drink or are emotional after a game.
“It depends on the relationship with the client but you have to work with that individual to make sure they are not going to land themselves in trouble because whatever scrutiny they were under will increase. They will become a story through their own actions.
“I would love for all of the work that we do to be proactive – this is what we are going to do, this is how we are going to do it and these will be the consequences of it. But when you have to deal with reactive things, everything can quickly be out of your hands.”
And yet, social media can also be a catalyst for positive action. Marcus Rashford used it to garner public goodwill and engage the nation for his free-school meals initiative. Raheem Sterling was also able to push back on how he and other black players are misrepresented.
Eldredge helped write Emile Heskey’s autobiography and believes that the former Liverpool and England striker would have welcomed certain aspects of social media in his playing career. “Emile feels it has readdressed how you can communicate with people,” he says.
“In the ’90s, if he said something in an interview while playing for Leicester, the interview could be twisted and there was nothing he could do about it. People would tell him not to worry because it would be forgotten about and he would always be frustrated by that.
“Emile talked in the book about Raheem and the way that he has been able to show the media twisting a narrative that influences the public’s image of a player. That is really powerful but Raheem took on a lot by doing that, almost taking on the establishment.”
Ultimately, the key is to strike the right balance between being measured and being real. “I manage some accounts for my clients but the content is always from them. You get found out very quickly otherwise. It comes back to authenticity. I think that is important.”
Authenticity is key
Charitable foundations and personal projects need publicity too. Rashford has signed up to Roc Nation, an agency specialising in helping public figures campaign for social justice.
“People might just be focused on their career and donating to charity but your name, your profile, can really make a difference. If you are prepared to make it public that you are doing the work for good that Marcus has done then why shouldn’t you do that?
“That is not fake. That is you as an individual going down a path that means something to you. For Marcus, it was personal. I think people empathised and engaged with that and understood it. Because he had lived the experiences, people understood that he was in a position to comment on it, rather than being perceived as a rich person trying to do good.
“Actually, he has been through it and does not want others to go through it. It comes back to authenticity. You do not want people thinking that you are doing some charity work just because you had some bad stuff go on a year ago and want to change the perception.
“What are you interested in? What are your passions? What do you want to gain from our partnership? You tell us. It does not have to be on the scale of Marcus Rashford, it might be helping younger footballers. Publicists should be there to help facilitate that.”
The game is changing and there is a greater appreciation now of the influence that players and managers can wield far beyond the pitch. Everything that an individual says and does is public relations and footballers are no different. Lawyers and accountants are not enough.