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The Mystery Of Communications Own Goals: Chelsea The Latest To Fall Foul

By David Alexander | March 17, 2022

David Alexander, Founder and Managing Director of Calacus PR, evaluates the response of Chelsea Football Club to their owner, Roman Abramovich, being sanctioned by the UK government.

For anyone working in and around football, Chelsea’s rise to the pinnacle of English and international club football is nothing of a surprise.

The club were already developing into a decent cup team when Ken Bates agreed a sale, with their finances precarious, which saw Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich take over.

His tenure has seen unprecedented success for the club including five Premier League trophies, five FA Cups, three League Cups, two Europa Leagues and two Champions League trophies alongside the FIFA Club World Cup.

“It started with a vague and confusing statement to hand control of the club to a Foundation which raised more questions than answers.”

The club’s dominance has led to the source and propriety of Abramovich’s wealth and connections to Russia being glossed over, but the annexation of Crimea eight years ago and Abramovich’s struggles to secure a British visa should have been a warning sign that things may get difficult in future.

The recent invasion of Ukraine has focused hearts and minds to the depth of involvement of oligarchs with the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That aggression and the exile of Russia from much of the commercial and sporting landscape should have been something that the club and its directors would anticipate as a possible development.

But from soon after the war commenced, Chelsea’s communications have been shambolic.

It started with a vague and confusing statement to hand control of the club to a Foundation which raised more questions than answers.

In a statement, Abramovich said: “I have always taken decisions with the Club’s best interest at heart. I remain committed to these values. That is why I am today giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable Foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC. I believe that currently they are in the best position to look after the interests of the Club, players, staff, and fans.”

However, the trustees had clearly not been consulted and raised immediate concerns and enlisted the Foundation’s lawyers to determine whether the plan would actually be compatible with UK charity law.

Within days, Abramovich’s confused strategy saw a further statement announcing his intent to sell the club: “The sale of the Club will not be fast-tracked but will follow due process. I will not be asking for any loans to be repaid. This has never been about business nor money for me, but about pure passion for the game and Club. 

“Why should the coach, players and fans have to speak on his behalf during the club’s biggest crisis in generations?”

“Moreover, I have instructed my team to set up a charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale will be donated. The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine. This includes providing critical funds towards the urgent and immediate needs of victims, as well as supporting the long-term work of recovery.”

Abramovich has always denied having close ties to Putin, but it was no surprise that British authorities soon said that he was “associated with a person who is or has been involved in destabilising Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin, with whom Abramovich has had a close relationship for decades.” 

In some regards, despite accusations of being tone deaf, you can understand why some fans were chanting the name of Abramovich during a minute’s applause in support of the victims of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine when the team faced Burnley.

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel condemned the supporters’ chants: “It’s not the moment to do this. It’s the moment to show respect. We do it for Ukraine and there is no second opinion about this situation. They have our thoughts and our support and we should stand together.”

Sanctions imposed on Abramovich have essentially turned the club from princes to temporary paupers, unable to sell merchandise, additional tickets or negotiate player contracts or (future) transfers.

Sponsors such as Three and Hyundai have suspended their deals with the club, creating more drama and animosity amongst its fanbase.

Three, the club’s shirt sponsor, have suspended their deal with the club.

Tuchel and players such as Kai Havertz have been left to field the inevitable barrage of media questions about the future of the club and its ability to even fund travel to away games.

Why has Abramovich not had the courage to speak to the media, to explain himself, if he is so confident in his innocence?

Why have Petr Cech, Chelsea’s technical and performance adviser, and key director Marina Granovskaia not addressed the media as the crisis evolves, rather than leaving it to the playing staff, even when new allegations have emerged?

Why did the club not come out and condemn the Russian invasion and distance itself from the Kremlin unless those links with Abramovich really do exist?

Why should the coach, players and fans have to speak on his behalf during the club’s biggest crisis in generations?

At a time where the club needs to focus on a clear, coherent and transparent plan for its staff, players and the wider sporting and political landscape, they scored another own goal by requesting that the upcoming FA Cup tie at Middlesbrough be played behind closed doors due to their inability to sell tickets.

“It is important for the competition that the match against Middlesbrough goes ahead, however it is with extreme reluctance that we are asking the FA board to direct that the game be played behind closed doors for matters of sporting integrity,” their statement said, before the appeal was dismissed by the Football Association.

The request has done little to warm the wider football community to Chelsea’s plight with former defender Graeme Le Saux tweeting: “I can’t think of a more embarrassing statement to come out of the club that I played for for 12yrs. Either ignorant or arrogant. I am confident it doesn’t represent the feelings of the coaching and playing staff.”

According to The Times, a government source said: “This statement threatening Middlesbrough and the rest of the Football League shows they do not seem to understand the seriousness of the situation they are in, being owned by an entity who has been sanctioned because of links responsible for appalling acts in Ukraine.”

Boro Chairman Steve Gibson was even firmer, telling the Telegraph that: “The words ‘sporting integrity’ and Chelsea don’t belong in the same sentence. For 19 years, money has fuelled the success of Chelsea Football Club.

“This entire chapter is a perfect example of poor communication based on a lack or preparation or a reluctance of senior executives to follow the crisis communications playbook which their PR team may well have wished to follow.”

“This has to be kicked out and [Chelsea chairman] Bruce Buck should be kicked out. This rotten football club, Chelsea. We pick up the newspapers and read about Abramovich and the way he conducted his life, and we see what’s going on in Ukraine, and it’s beyond comprehension. It really is.”

With the club in a state of flux as it plans for a sale and so much uncertainty about its future, this entire chapter is a perfect example of poor communication based on a lack or preparation or a reluctance of senior executives to follow the crisis communications playbook which their PR team may well have wished to follow.

It’s further proof that communications directors and consultants must be given the time and opportunity to devise strategies to deal with all expected and unexpected developments.

A failure to do so can have an impact that sound communications advice could have averted.

If you need crisis communications or wider PR support, please contact David at Calacus PR, (https://calacus.com) or you can find him on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/davidwalexander).

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