How Duchatelet lost the communications game

In early 2016 Charlton were set to appoint their first head of communications for two and a half years. Former incumbent MATT WRIGHT wrote this piece for VOTV125 setting out how the department had been systematically undermined by the club's ownership. Now, five years after taking over, Roland Duchatelet is STILL complaining on national radio that his problems at the club were caused by the communications staff he inherited. But what really happened in those first two years?

The Charlton matchday media team at Colchester in January 2016, including (right) George Jones and Olly Groome

Your first day at work can be a nerve-racking experience. What will the office look like? Will I get on with my colleagues? Will the job be what I’m expecting?


If all that’s not enough to prompt feelings of anxiety, now imagine you’re starting work as Charlton’s new head of communications…


News that an appointment had been made was first announced by Addicks chief executive Katrien Meire during the fans’ meeting on November 10th.


Remember those halcyon days? New interim head coach Karel Fraeye had just won his first game, Charlton were still outside of the relegation places, and details had yet to emerge of Meire’s comments at a web summit that had recently taken place in Dublin.


Fast forward two months and supporters are in open revolt against their own club, fans distrust every word issued, and the credibility of the club’s senior management lies in tatters. Welcome to Charlton.


The task is made more difficult by the expectations. Over the last few months, all three of Meire, owner Roland Duchâtelet and non-executive chairman Richard Murray have acknowledged that the club has failed to communicate adequately with fans.


A huge improvement is urgently needed. And has been repeatedly promised. If it’s not already too late (and there are many who believe it is), the new head of comms is walking into a last-chance saloon with an empty gun. That’s not her fault, though. And to find out why, we have to take a look at how the communications department, directly overseen by Meire for the last two years, has been systematically under-resourced and undermined.


I should start by declaring my particular interest. It’s two-and-a-half years since I left the club and, as the last incumbent of the role, I’ve obviously been following this area more closely than most. But I’ve watched in disbelief as the previously impeccable reputation of the club’s comms team – both with Addicks supporters and within the wider football world – has been shattered, potentially irrevocably.


Since the Duchâtelet regime took control in January 2014, there have been THREE public recruitment campaigns, THREE consultants expensively hired to offer advice, and FIVE members of communications staff who have left. Indeed, at the start of 2016, the department had just three full-time employees – one fewer than when the club was in League One.


The first interviews for a new head of comms took place soon after I departed (under the Jimenez/Slater regime). They were notable for my deputy, Gary Haines, who applied for the role, only finding out that he had not progressed to a second interview when two other candidates walked through the office on the way to theirs.


However, that incompetence would soon be surpassed by Meire and co, who subsequently ran two further failed attempts we know of to find someone to lead the department. Despite increasing the salary to up to £60,000 – almost a third higher than previously and significantly more than the equivalent role at similarly-sized clubs – there was seemingly no one suitable.


One of the reasons might have been the fact that the position was only advertised on LinkedIn and the website of newly appointed business analyst Rachel Hawley, who runs her own recruitment firm, rather than the methods commonly used by the industry.


The suggestion that the role could be advertised on www.cafc.co.uk and the club’s social media channels was rejected. Given this was completely free, took little effort, and the club’s Twitter service, for example, reaches millions and is often held up as an example of best practice in the sector, this seemed bizarre to say the least.


Then there were the poorly constructed adverts themselves, which in one case left out any mention of football, never mind Charlton Athletic. It’s hardly a surprise that several interviews proved a waste of time when the candidates learned they had to work a certain number of away games per season.


Nevertheless, and despite Charlton’s plummeting reputation in the English game, I’m aware of several people who applied for the role who were perfectly suitable. That none of them was appointed illustrates the extent of the recruitment mess.


The first consultant to arrive under Meire was Nick Soldinger, who just happened to be a close friend of new HR manager Heather Dancey. A former deputy editor of the digital edition of men’s magazine Nuts, Soldinger’s first grand idea was that www.cafc.co.uk should start running film reviews.


He also spent several weeks reviewing the website, before recommending Charlton should launch a new one independent of the Football League interactive (FLi) deal – despite having been told numerous times that the club was tied into a contract until 2017 and to break that would result in having to pay back hundreds of thousands of pounds. 


The club told last month’s fans’ forum it was now planning to take the club’s website in-house from 2017, but it’s hard to imagine they have a grasp of whether the decision stacks up financially or the work involved. The poor functionality of the new ticketing website launched last summer doesn’t inspire confidence either.


Two other arrivals through Hawley were commercial manager Mark Hassan-Ali (more of him later) and Scott Newman, who it was later discovered had been interviewed for a mysteriously unspecified production role at the club several months before a vacancy in that area unexpectedly opened up. 


Production manager Newman later passed on to his new colleagues that Hawley and Soldinger believed that the communications department should be “burned to the ground” – a stance hardly contradicted by Meire when she told a fans’ meeting in Bromley that she didn’t trust her own staff when it came to communicating business issues rather than day-to-day football content.


Trust was proving as hard to come by as Championship points. When the club was seeking to replace digital manager Jimmy Stone, it emerged that despite discussing the recruitment process with the staff, Hawley and co had been privately arranging interviews with candidates behind everyone’s backs. 


This became clear one morning when Valley reception staff called through to the communications department to let them know a candidate had turned up for their interview!


None of Dancey, Hawley, Hassan-Ali, Soldinger or Newman are still at the club – or even lasted longer than 12 months.


Before the turn of the year, consultant Paul Tyrrell, former head of communications at Liverpool, Everton and Rangers, was employed to advise the club. He was succeeded by Philip Dorward, previously the PR director for the Premier League, last month when Tyrrell took up a new role at Derby County.


Their appointments, likely to have been extremely expensive, have had little impact as the club’s relationship with fans has hit rock bottom. But then what can you do when the chief executive is making such a series of disastrous public comments and bad decisions?


Why is the recruitment process for the new head of communications so important? Because a head of comms would no doubt question, and challenge, many decisions that have been made. The lack of priority given to their appointment exposes how irrelevant the regime regards this role to be.

 

To name but two examples, a head of comms would have advised not to issue a strong statement backing Bob Peeters when his dismissal a few days later was such a possibility, and suggested that it was ludicrous for Meire even to go to Dublin during such a period of instability after Guy Luzon’s sacking.


A head of comms would also have recommended that Meire go for media training to remedy the supercilious manner she displays at public meetings. 


All the above have probably been suggested by existing staff, but a properly qualified and experienced head of comms would have greater authority to get their view across.
Meire has regularly claimed to have been “misquoted” or “taken out of context”.

 

Regardless of whether this is true (and it’s laughable in the case of Dublin and her other performances on video), her complaints or corrections have often come fully a month later, too late to make any difference to the public perception.


The club wields huge influence through its media contacts and its official channels. By communicating openly and coherently, it has the ability to shape any debate about the club. Instead it resorts to claiming its messages are being misunderstood or distorted.


One such claim has been made about plans to discontinue, or cut to a much smaller size, the matchday programme – described last month by Meire as merely a “rumour”. If a rumour is something that’s been proposed by the chief executive, debated and argued about among the senior management team, and prompted research that showed producing a programme is actually a Football League requirement, then yes, it is a rumour. Most normal people call those rumours “facts”.


It seems the major criticism of the Valley Review is that it takes too much effort to produce. ‘Twas always so. But while compiling 25 or so issues per season is resource intensive, it’s also a great opportunity to communicate with fans in a completely controlled way – invaluable if your message is being “distorted”, no?


It’s a product that as recently as three years ago was reaping profits of well in excess of £100,000 per year – although that was before the chief executive decided to suddenly sack the distribution and sales company, against all advice, and then spend the best part of nine months putting in place any adequate replacement. 


It’s easy to run a service down and then claim it isn’t financially viable, but don’t expect people to believe you.


Then we come to the bizarre stunts, chief of which remains the decision to market hiring the Valley pitch with a “sex video”, a project led by Hassan-Ali with the involvement of Soldinger and an external firm.


Whatever you think of the video (my view is that it was utterly crass and completely conflicted with Charlton’s family and community values), that Meire allowed it to be issued without either her or the communications team having seen the final version is testament to her lack of control and judgement.


Some claim the fact the video went viral proved its success, or that it was a bit of fun which caused no lasting damage. Unfortunately, it resulted in no meaningful increase in pitch-hire bookings on two years previously (when the pitch was in equivalent condition); was later censored by the Advertising Standards Agency; and, as for no lasting damage, it still appears on the first page of results when you Google “Charlton pitch hire”.


Perhaps more importantly, and cruelly irrespective of their actual involvement, it made a laughing stock of Charlton’s comms department; one comms director of a major Premier League club notably telling their peers and journalists how “horrendous” it was.
Since then we’ve had the pitchside sofa and the house DJ in Crossbars, just two of many decisions to embarrass supporters on a regular basis. 


But let’s focus on the much lesser known shambles of a documentary project called Play.Love.Shoot, an “international TV series” intended to present an “authentic and refreshing portrait of the wives and girlfriends of footballers” to coincide with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.


With the weight of Duchâtelet firmly behind the project, communications and commercial staff were forced to attend dozens of meetings about Play.Love.Shoot – even travelling to Belgium for discussions while the team was in the thick of a relegation battle at the end of 2013/14.


The intention was that the series would feature on the front of the club’s shirts as the main kit sponsor. But like so many other of the club’s grand ideas, it turned out to be a complete waste of everyone’s time.


One of the last things I did before leaving Charlton was recommend that the club hired Olly Groome, who had been assisting the department for some time and had proved a hugely valuable asset. 


Given the deterioration of my relationship with then chief operations officer Steve Bradshaw, I have no idea if my efforts helped or hindered Olly, but nevertheless he joined the team shortly afterwards in a junior role to support Gary, Jimmy and Iain Liddle.


Within 20 months he was the only one left, with the other trio having been driven to leave through a lack of trust and resources, and despair at the direction of the club. 


Given the circumstances, and the atmosphere around the department described to me as “poisonous”, it’s testament to the dedication and talent of the likes of Olly, designer Louie Brown and co that the communications department has managed to function at all.


Whether anything will change with the arrival of a new head of communications remains to be seen. They have my good wishes (and my help, should that ever be wanted). 
But all that will count for nothing without the support and trust of those in authority.

 

2019 footnote: new head of communcations Mel Baroni lasted six weeks. She quit in response to Duchatelet's insistence that her staff post, unedited, on the club's official website, an incoherent rant about supporters. He was widely ridiculed for it in the media.

Voice of The Valley is part of the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (click logo for more details)

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