Season ticket payments the latest in a long line of PR issues at Man City

Joe Butterfield

The last few weeks have been a bit odd without any football being played and, naturally, more focus has been brought to the off-pitch matters. However, with so much of the off-field matters, whether it’s transfer rumours or the infamous “what comes next” with the Premier League, being so up in the air and nothing more than wild speculation, you can only really focus on what is actually happening.

So what is happening with Manchester City right now? Well, I can assure you that everything has been tip top, they’ve been doing everything correctly.

First, Manchester City announced that they were going to be making a donation of all of the food prepared for the Arsenal and Burnley home games, which were the first games to be cancelled due to the rise of coronavirus cases, to local homeless shelters and charities in the area. They were doing their bit to support the community in what was soon to become an even more trying time for the homeless than it already was. Great job, City!

Following on from this, Manchester City and United combined to make a joint £100,000 donation to local foodbanks around the city. This huge donation would help the community immeasurably and allow for those who would suffer most from the impending crisis to get help where they otherwise may not have done. It was a true show of support for those who have supported the club financially for, in some cases, their whole life. More stellar work from the club.

Shortly after this, the club announced, in a remarkable show of generosity, that they were actually going to pay their matchday staff, despite the fact that no matches are currently scheduled to be played. Roughly 1,000 staff members who would otherwise be unable to pay bills or buy food without the matchday work had been saved by this incredible display of unity. The club was standing by its staff members in a global pandemic. Absolutely class.

Of course, all of this was totally unprovoked and was done in good time, naturally. Manchester City are a slick operation, they’re often lauded for the efficiency and precision of their owners and board. Just look at the squad the club has put together, look at how smoothly the club has made its way from 2008, mid-table mediocrity to the powerhouse it is now. No club like this would make such obvious PR blunders along the way, right?

If only this were true.

Let’s begin with the donation of matchday food to local homeless shelters. The announcement was well-received, though it came the day after Aston Villa and other clubs had already made the same commitment and followed a huge outcry on Twitter from City fans, particularly MCFC Fans Foodbank Support, who played a huge part in raising awareness amongst the fanbase in a call to action for the club. Eventually, the club relented and made the announcement that they would, indeed, be donating.

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Moving on to the £100,000 donation to the local foodbanks, the whole situation was incredibly poorly handled from the start. @MCFCfoodbank has been trying to reach out to the club for any level of support for a long, long time and has received virtually no acknowledgement from the club at all. When the COVID-19 situation arose and, inevitably, so would the need for foodbanks as many lost their jobs, Manchester City continued to remain tight-lipped.

On 14th March, Liverpool and their playing staff had committed to showing support for the city’s foodbanks. Fans urged City via social media to step up and do the same in the week which followed and, during this time, a donation came in from @SFoodbanks, a scouse foodbank charity which brings together both Liverpool and Everton fans, of £3,000. £3,000 more than Manchester City had donated. Remarkable support which truly showed that hunger does not wear club colours.

On 18th March, the Manchester City and Manchester United fans foodbank support groups published an open letter to the clubs in the Manchester Evening News. This ramped up the publicity the campaign was getting and, very soon, Football365, MUNDIAL Magazine, and Coronation Street star, Ryan Clayton, amongst countless others, were sharing the campaign. The noise was becoming impossible to ignore.

On 21st March, after it had reached a point where it was almost impossible to ignore, Manchester City announced they would be partnering up with Manchester United to donate a combined £100,000 to the cause.

Now for the matchday staff, and possibly the most galling part of the whole thing. As soon as the Premier League announced that games were to be postponed, Manchester City went into immediate shutdown on the employee front. Despite hundreds of people trying to get in touch with the club to get some kind of update on where their next paycheque was coming from, the club issued absolutely no response of any kind and, once again, MCFC Fans Foodbank Support were there to bring light to the issue.

Not long after, Jack Gaughan wrote a piece detailing the stories of some members of staff who had been met by “a wall of silence” from the club and had also been given word from inside sources at the club that the issue was “complex”. By this point, Brighton and other clubs had already committed to fully paying their staff during the time that games would be postponed, so it evidently wasn’t as complex for other clubs as it was for Manchester City.

Then, at long last, on 25th March, almost three weeks after the Arsenal game was the first home game to be suspended due to the virus, Manchester City finally announced that they would be paying their matchday staff throughout the period that games would be suspended.

So, unfortunately, it wasn’t quite a smooth operation that many would like to think the club operate under and, in the past couple of years, there have been plenty of occasions, often quite small, of City just blundering the PR front. However, the last month or so has been catastrophically bad from a PR perspective and has left a lot of fans questioning the club’s commitment to its own fanbase and community.

The matchday food being donated to homeless shelters was, almost certainly, something the club was already doing. The announcement was made on the Saturday when the Arsenal game had meant to have been three days before, so the food had presumably already been donated by that point. It’s just baffling to think, as somebody who works in marketing, why a marketing team would not take the obvious open goal to score a few brownie points amongst the fanbase, especially when other clubs had done so the previous day. Of course, the announcement came eventually and the result was ultimately what the fans had been calling for, though by that point it felt like it was a gesture which had been made to placate fans rather than genuine charity.

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The feeling of “just to placate fans” was compounded when it came to the foodbank donation. It’s difficult not to sound ungrateful for the support that the two clubs provided to the cause, especially when the donation was as massive as it was, a genuine game changer, however it’s very clear to see that the donation was a panicked response to the huge amount of publicity the campaign had received.

Liverpool didn’t hesitate in donating to foodbanks, announcing they would do so the moment that the first weekend’s fixtures were postponed, yet it took an open letter in the local newspaper which went somewhat viral amongst global brands like Football365 and MUNDIAL to get one of the richest clubs in world football to donate £50,000, probably ⅙ of Kevin De Bruyne’s wage, to donate to the local community’s foodbanks.

Foodbanks which, ironically, many of their staff members may have had to visit due to the club’s ridiculous inactivity in the face of their matchday staff’s requests to know whether they actually still had a job or not. Upon the announcement, the club said they “would have liked to provide an update sooner”, though they felt that they would rather give a detailed answer than a sketchy one.

I kind of understand this logic and it very much falls in line with the club’s previous actions (see the lack of response to the UEFA ban until Soriano knew exactly what he could and couldn’t say) but this isn’t dealing with some nasty articles, this is people’s livelihoods. Whether you can provide a full breakdown of when they will or won’t be paid is irrelevant, even a simple “we will pay you, though we are still working out the details of when these payments will be made” would be enough to stop a worker worrying about whether or not they can afford to feed their children.

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Again, it’s difficult to say all of this without sounding ungrateful and, truly, I’m not. I’m glad that City have done the correct thing in the end, whether it came as a result of fan backlash or not. However it’s possible to acknowledge that the correct thing was done whilst also saying that it was a huge failure from a PR perspective and, amongst many fans, has probably done the club’s image more harm than good in spite of the correct result.

A good example of where Manchester City have got it absolutely spot-on is the situation with the elderly and the disabled supporters. The club has gone out of their way to call each of these fans to check in on them and make sure that they’re coping with the current situation, telling fans who may be struggling that they are willing to assist if needed.

Something like this is genuinely lovely and shows that the club has the capability to get it right without any prompting from the fans. Nobody was really asking for this and I don’t think there’d have been a huge uproar if it hadn’t happened, so the fact City did it anyway is a huge plus. The fans need to see more of this from the club.

Still, at least that’s pretty much all of the problems dealt with. Right?

Er, maybe not. In the midst of writing this article, I received an email from the club, as did every season ticket holder. The email confirms that, during this time, the April direct debit payment will be taken from fans as normal, despite the fact that there’s no game scheduled to be played in April.

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This has obviously annoyed a lot of people because, quite frankly, £50-60 being taken out of your account when you’re potentially experiencing financial difficulties or just outright out of work because of the coronavirus situation is the last thing that you want. The obvious counter-argument, one which I’ve seen on Twitter, is that if you’re somebody who paid for their ticket in full at the start of the season then you’re not getting the same benefit as somebody who’s having their direct debit payment delayed. This is true, but nobody’s asking for the payment to be voided. What is the harm in delaying the payment to whatever month the games are confirmed to go ahead? Why does it have to be taken now?

The club’s reasoning is that it will “ensure that you are able to return to the stadium as soon as the season resumes”, as if there’s any chance of that happening at a moment’s notice out of the blue. If the football is going to return, there’ll be at least 2-3 weeks’ notice because, as Kevin De Bruyne correctly points out, after this much time away from playing, players will need some kind of mini pre-season in order to be up to speed and not to just immediately get injured. The club could very easily wait for the announcement for when football will return and then take the payments accordingly, rather than doing it now.

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If you’re a Manchester City fan who’s just been laid off their zero-hour contract at Wetherspoons, this £50-60 could cripple you for the next month. Yet the club seem not to care as long as their bottom line is kept intact. This is, yet again, such an obvious open goal for the club to just delay the payments to earn some goodwill from the fans, to show that the club understands that fans are having legitimate financial issues which has been caused by a global pandemic and that they are willing to do anything they can to help. Alas, it appears this isn’t the case. The club have made their token donations to foodbanks and have committed to paying their staff, as if this shouldn’t be expected from an organisation which is valued at £5 billion, so they’ve done their part now.

The final kicker in the email is the admission that, whilst refunds are available for any cup games (which at this point is basically just referring to the Real Madrid game), you’re entitled to do so. However, this will come at the expense of your place on the relevant cup scheme, which can be the difference between somebody being able to attend a final and sitting at home watching it on their sofa, especially in the Champions League. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s blackmail, but the club is certainly doing everything it can to deter any fans from actually claiming back any money they’ve spent with the club. Again, as long as the bottom line is okay, nothing else matters.

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The club has done a lot of the right things. No matter how long it took, they have ultimately done the right things for the fan and the community in a lot of cases. The dedication to the elderly and disabled and willing to assist those of them who will need support is a genuine show of compassion and should, quite rightly, be applauded by the fanbase.

However, when you look at the areas have been poorly handled, there is one common factor throughout - money. Specifically, spending money. There is a clear disconnect between those who are willing to do the good things in the community and those who are making the financial decisions at the top and, unfortunately, it’s those at the top who are making the decisions at the cost of basic PR in the midst of a global crisis.

The good will amongst the fans towards the club has been so up and down in the last few weeks and, with the email regarding ticket payments, it’s currently on a downward trajectory. The sooner City’s top brass get on the same wavelength as Manchester City fans, the better.

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You can follow the author here: @joebutters

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