Gareth Southgate and the beautifully self-deprecating game

This might not be front of mind for most football fans, but for a communications expert the 2018 World Cup has stood out for more than England’s unfamiliar run of success in matches.

By my reckoning, it’s the first time an England manager’s PR-strategy has been talked over in mainstream sports coverage.

Unlike characterful boxing promoter Don King, who talks up any and everything in fevered hyperbole, Gareth Southgate’s strategy has been to carefully manage expectations.

The youth and (relative) inexperience of the squad has been stressed in the run-up. It was suggested that they’re a good team for four years’ time. Fans have been reminded that football should be fun, win or lose.

In Southgate’s own words: ‘We have all been hurt by disappointment but maybe some of our expectations have been a little unrealistic. Whenever I have been to a tournament, not as a player, it has been a carnival and a festival of football and we have often overlooked that. We should all enjoy the journey.’

Hardly Henry V on the morning of Agincourt, but he’s getting praise for it, as well as England’s performance.

It takes very good judgement to get this sort of self-deprecation right, because we’ve become quite cynical about it.

Political leaders do it before elections – scared of headlines saying they under-performed. There it gets a sceptical response from political reporters who know, and point out, what they are up to.

And here’s another risk, given football is meant to be entertainment – don’t we all like to get excited? The highs and the lows of the game are part of its attraction for fans.

How is Gareth Southgate getting it so right? Here’s a few thoughts:

1. He’s new to the job. ‘Give me a chance I only just got here,’ is a line that’s credible at the moment.

2. The message has been welded to a back-story that people really like – the young team, the manager many saw as an interim – as success has unfolded, fans have been moved by the underdog narrative.

3. He’s hinted that the side should be held to higher expectations in the future – in reality it’s vague to talk about ‘the next one’, but he sounds like he’s telling everyone there’s a plan. It’s part of a story.

4. His likeability – this goes such a long way in PR. (Twitter hashtag #GarethSouthgateWould confirms he can do no wrong at the moment)

So far, so good. His next challenge if England go further is to keep control of the story. Already, following the victory penalty shoot-out, he’s being credited with breaking England’s ‘curse’. Supernatural powers, you see?

Obama was always studiously cautious about what his presidency could achieve – but supporters imposed huge expectations anyway from his first inauguration onwards. He tried to manage expectations, but his supporters weren’t listening.

If Gareth Southgate is as good at PR as I suspect he is, his strategy will develop – next year he won’t be using the same lines he’s using this year. And if he does that, he’ll find he’s longer in the job as well.

If you’d like advice on how to make the right promises and manage expectations, I hope you’ll get in touch.

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