How the FA ensure a likeable England team is presented in its best light
Being inside an empty football stadium is like being in school after dark. It feels oddly incriminating, as though you’re trespassing on an intimate moment you weren’t meant to see.
It goes a step further when you venture into Wembley on a matchday – at least it does when that match happens to be taking place thousands of miles away in Moscow. The Home of Football is a quiet place given that Football is still making its way Home.
It isn’t totally empty, though: Wembley is rarely totally empty.
There is always a new building going up around the stadium (the area is in the midst of a vast regeneration project), a group of schoolkids on a stadium tour, or the FA’s digital media team whose offices are housed in the stadium.
During this World Cup, the Home of Football has been the war room from which most of the FA’s social and digital media content has been overseen, which certainly feels apt. The team has united a nation behind them, changing the mood of the summer. But the fact that the country has taken to them so much is in no small part down to how they’ve been presented online.
Today, England will face Sweden for the chance to get to a semi-final of a World Cup for the first time since 1990. Before the victory over Colombia last week, Digital Sport asked what the mood is like behind the scenes at Wembley on a World Cup matchday:
“Excitement!” says Damien Cullen, senior video manager, The FA. “I’ve been here seven years and I’ve only seen one World Cup, so these things don’t come around very often.”
“We don’t want to get too excited, but we want to enjoy it. Tomorrow morning, we could be in a World Cup quarter final and everyone could be coming in bouncing off the walls or we could be coming in with a sobering feeling, but ready to go again – because there’ll be another tournament and another World Cup.”
— England (@England) July 5, 2018
The best social media accounts in football are the ones whose managers have realised that they’re speaking directly to fans on a fan-centred platform. Sometimes they have to be official in order to break important news, but for the most part it works best when they take the same tone that fans are taking themselves.
Alongside the likes of AS Roma and Bayern Munich, the England account is a great example of that.
“For the last few England games we’ve had something like 150-200 staff stay behind after work and watch that together – today everyone’s in England shirt!” says Russell James, digital engagement director at the FA, who was himself dressed for the occasion, with three lions peeking out from underneath a blazer.
“Everybody here is a fan first,” he added, “and whatever your profession, we’re all fans and we’re all going through the same emotions as everyone else.”
— England (@England) May 16, 2018
Right from the squad announcement, that tone has shone through, especially in the video content. From the start of the tournament, the Lions’ Den live show has been produced daily and has garnered a cult following. While access to players will always give a show like this a boost over others, the fact that the participating stars are so comfortable chatting to presenter Craig Mitch is what makes it so compelling.
“That’s why we get the access,” says Cullen. “They know that we’ve got that trust already and it’s not really a ‘media interview’, the first thing he asks is if they want a milkshake – the idea is to set that tone very quickly that, yes we’ll ask the questions, but it’s going to be a fun time, it’s not Jeremy Paxman!”
Fair to say @ericdier enjoyed seeing how you celebrated his penalty! ????
— England (@England) July 5, 2018
The technical difficulties of producing a live show every day are great, especially when England can be playing at different times and in different locations across a vast country. That means the show can go live at different times every day – and yet it’s still been a hit.
That’s encouraging for the future. After the World Cup is over, it might feel as though the spectacle has ended: the Premier League will return and the attention will go back to the club game. For the FA, the club game will be of huge importance in due course, too, but there’s always a national team to promote. Next season the focus may not be on the England men’s team, but rather the Women’s side who will be gearing up to compete in the World Cup in France next summer.
“Whenever the tournament ends for us – whatever the final outcome is – we move on: there’s a Euros, there’s a World Cup and other teams. So we have to get that message out, and the last one will probably be the most important show,”says Cullen.
Whatever happens, the World Cup has been a successful one for digital media engagement at the FA. But that’s all just a platform to build upon in the future with the Lionesses next summer and at Euro 2020, when Wembley will no longer be empty and Football will well and truly be Home.
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