How Southgate hit the back of the media net

It turns out football isn’t coming home after all.

But while we wipe away our tears and rearrange our plans for Sunday, there is undoubtedly much which can be admired about the England football team and in particular manager Gareth Southgate.

From making a nation rediscover its footballing mojo and being credited with unifying the nation, to somehow making waistcoats a must-have item during one of the hottest summers on record, Southgate it appears can do no wrong.

And we also feel he is pretty good with the media.

Here are six lessons PRs and spokespeople can learn from the Three Lions and their manager:


Attitude to journalists

In previous tournaments, there has been an almost toxic relationship between the media and the England football team.

But with Southgate in charge, there appeared to be a new determination to improve relations.

Of course it's easier to get along and gain good coverage when things are going well.

But the foundations for the new approach were put in place long before the team arrived in Russia.

Ahead of the final pre-tournament friendly, the entire England squad was made available for broadcast and print interviews at the same time in the same room in a format one of the players compared to speed dating.

According to reports from the media, there were no rules on what could be asked and no FA PR officials flanking the players watching their words.



This relaxed and mutually respectful approach continued during the tournament itself where the players reportedly played darts with some of the journalists. 



Southgate himself, who has previously worked as a TV pundit, seemed to have a clear understanding of the demands of the media.


On our media training courses, we often find that delegates are very wary of journalists and may have pre-conceived ideas about how they work. But gaining an understanding of what they do and what they need from you, and providing open lines of communication can help foster much better relationships between an organisation and the media.


Interview skills

In every interview the England manager appeared confident, sincere and honest. He maintained good eye contact with the journalist and kept his messages clear and simple, backing them up with examples.

But he also came to the interviews with something to say and embraced the power of the sound bite – a crucial skill in the modern world where many of us want to receive our news in bite-size chunks.

After the penalty shoot-out victory over Columbia – a first for England in a World Cup - he said ‘we always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectation’.

After the semi-final defeat, he still managed to find strong quotes. He said: “We’re hugely disappointed not to take the country one step further and give them everything they had hoped for. But we want to be a team who are hitting quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals. That’s what we aimed to do in the long term.

“We’ve proved to ourselves and our country that is possible. Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation, a new scenario. Many of these players have come of age on an international stage. I couldn’t be prouder with what they’ve done.”

His performances have won praise from journalists. After his press conference previewing the semi-final, Sam Wallace from the Daily Telegraph said: “He was funny, he was warm, he was generous and he listened to the questions and answered the specifics of what was asked.

“I said to one of my colleagues if I had come out of a press conference and that had been the German or Italian manager I would have thought ‘what a charismatic guy’. He handled it brilliantly.”




Allowed players to tell their stories

One of the things we talk about in our media training courses, particularly with more experienced delegates, is how organisations can loosen the messaging noose and allow spokespeople to use their own words, anecdotes and examples.

Not only does this often increase confidence, but it also brings messages to life.

Southgate and the England PR team gave the players the freedom to tell their own stories. Danny Rose, for example, spoke openly about his own mental health and the pressures on a modern day athlete, which helped to show his human side.



Later, Fabian Delph spoke openly about being becoming a father again during the tournament and his experiences of popping home for a few days and escaping the World Cup bubble. Although I’m not sure his wife would have been too impressed with being described as an ‘absolute machine’. 




Didn’t avoid the difficult questions

All spokespeople face difficult questions at some point, it goes with the territory.

The key is how they are handled.

Southgate did not try to avoid difficult questions, whether they came during an interview immediately after a game or as part of the wider interview formats used in the build-up to matches.

Nor did he show any frustration apart from the occasional raised eyebrow.

Whether he was discussing a particular player’s performance or the unity of the nation, each question was met with a thoughtful, respectful and considered response delivered in a calm manner.

And this helped to foster the impression of transparency which surrounded the England team.



Dealt with the negatives quickly

It is important to remember that it hasn’t all been plain-sailing for the England team and media relations.

There were two stories which had the potential to undermine all the good work.

Before the tournament kicked-off, Raheem Sterling became the centre of a media storm after pictures emerged of a gun tattoo on his leg.

And then before one of the group games a photographer appeared to capture the England team sheet during a training session.

In both cases Southgate dealt with the issues quickly, preventing them from becoming bigger problems.

With the team sheet issue in particular, he not only played down the significance of the photograph, but also did it with humour, comparing relations with the media to a slightly strained family holiday.

He said: “The guys have to find stories and produce content. We have to get results. We’re all living in a slightly false thing . . . like when you go on holiday with your family.


“After you’ve been away a while, you’re a little bit sick of certain people and less so with others. That social dynamic is probably a fascinating social study for us to compare notes at the end.



Use multiple communication channels

This is undoubtedly due to the FA comms team rather than Southgate himself, but it is also worth noting how England did not just rely on the traditional media to get messages across during the tournament.

FA social media platform were filled with strong content, not just injury and team news, but also the more fun and light-hearted things that the players were getting up to. 




Football may be sleeping on a friend’s couch for at least another four years, but in the meantime comms teams and their spokespeople can learn a lot from the England manager’s attitude to media relations and how that added to the overall positivity surrounding the campaign.



Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.


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