by Luke Bliss, Director, Fuse

Unwrapping the cotton wool…

Less than two weeks before England’s opening World Cup fixture, The FA hosted an open media day at St. George’s Park, putting every single player in the squad up for interview (including Raheem Sterling, who faced criticism of his leg tattoo just days earlier).

Furthermore, these interviews took place without the presence of a protective press officer and without restrictions on the lines of questioning. It was informal, totally transparent and an unprecedented move for The FA. In Gareth Southgate’s own words, the time had come for the England players “to be treated like adults”.

Sam Cunningham, Football Correspondent for the i who attended the day, described proceedings as “new territory for everyone involved”, saying:

“On other recent meetings with the media here, in a shift from other, tighter regimes, Southgate has booked out the whole of the on-site hotel, placed table tennis and pool tables in the wide lobby and encouraged the players to feel relaxed among everyone: FA staff, journalists, players”.

Cunningham goes on to say, “Some of the players even appeared to enjoy it”.

Hold on. An England player enjoying media interviews two weeks before a World Cup campaign? Surely not…

By football’s standards in this country, this new approach was ground-breaking. But what led us to this point? And did it pay off?

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done you get the same results.” – Gareth Southgate

The relationship between footballers and the UK press has history – and over the years has become a negative cycle of suspicion and ever more tightly controlled interviews. Crippled by a sense of paranoia, players are briefed to say very little in interviews, leaving journalists with little to write about. This lack of substance can lead to interpretation and sensationalism, with resulting coverage damaging the relationship between both parties.

That is what made this media day so significant. It represented a clear breakthrough in the relationship between the press and the national side. It was a PR masterstroke from the FA, with net sentiment around news mentions of the England squad after the media day on the 5th rising by 29%.

Even more impressive was the increase in sentiment across all online sources, which jumped 44% on the FA media day while simultaneously surpassing average net sentiment over the last month.

But is this approach really that ground-breaking?

It wouldn’t be considered so in the USA where athletes are expected to host media interviews in locker rooms, considered strictly off limits in football in the UK, and the relationships between press, the athletes and the rights holders that grant access to them, tend to be much more positive and transparent.

And it seems that it was the USA’s model of media relations that inspired the England camp. In February this year, Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff attended the 52nd Super Bowl to witness this system first hand. In an interview at the time, the England Coach said:

“I think sometimes around major tournaments the relationships between our guys and the media has been a bit confrontational and I don’t think it has to be that way. So this [Super Bowl] seems very open, a lot more relaxed, there seems to be a lot more respect between people.

Southgate reminded us in that interview that “If you keep doing what you’ve always done you get the same results.” Most importantly, though, he believed that his players could cope with the new approach he planned to implement on the eve of the World Cup.

Trust them, they’re used to it.

With the youngest average team age in the World Cup and a combined Instagram following of over 33 million, this England team is a generation of digitally native players entirely comfortable broadcasting their true personalities to the world via social media.

Now Gareth Southgate has empowered them to operate with the same confidence when talking to the press. He has urged them to be honest in interviews, to tell their own stories and therefore strike a chord with the people who read them. This approach is designed to help the nation re-connect with the England side, rebuilding a relationship that has dwindled over time.

Moreover, this relaxed way of communicating has its benefits for the press themselves. We live in a world where weird and wonderful online content gets more clicks than serious news and where personality drives interest, so news outlets are eager to showcase this. Suddenly the open media day – a relaxed environment where the players can be themselves and the media can operate without constrains – seems obvious.

It was reported that at one stage during the media day, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was on his feet, at the side of his white table, dancing along with a TV presenter. This may be the perfect representation of a world where footballers and the media can live in harmony. And the ‘open press conference’ move by The FA may well represent a new trend for transparency that we’ll see repeated more widely in the sport.

So, if what happens on the pitch at the World Cup makes us want to forget, let’s hope that proceedings off the pitch and a new-found respect between the media and the national side, can be remembered.