There are two usual responses to telling people you are a Norwich City supporter. Firstly the question: are you being promoted/relegated this season? Not unfair for one of English football’s yo-yo clubs. Secondly, the kindly (if slightly patronising): ‘you’re a well run, community club’.
Generally this is also true, with Norwich in recent years being a model of sustainability, having high levels of supporter engagement and a connection with the city itself. Combined with an attractive and entertaining, if slightly self-destructive, style of play and benevolent local owners, it makes for a club that is very hard to dislike (although Robbie Savage has given it his best effort).
However after celebrating promotion back to the Premier League, Norwich managed to begin their off-season with a rather spectacular public relations own-goal – the unveiling and then almost immediate collapse of a £5 million shirt sponsorship deal with the sports betting company BK8.
Gambling company sponsorship has been common in English football for some time, with companies often outside of the UK willing to pay high fees for the exposure that being visible on a premier league shirt brings – especially in markets where advertising gambling products may be otherwise illegal. Norwich are no exception to this pattern, with previous partnerships with Dafabet and Leo Vegas.
The ethical problems with the relationship between football and gambling are also well documented, and while fan unrest has rarely been serious, the reception to these companies taking their place on the yellow and green shirt has not been positive amongst supporters. In-depth investigations have been done around the harmful relationship between football and the gambling industry, but there’s another lesson from Norwich City’s commercial mess and it’s one that applies to companies, charities and individuals alike.
Partnership due diligence is not optional. Norwich’s new sponsors might have been a local story confined to fan complaints on Facebook and Twitter, had it not also emerged that BK8 had been promoting its products with a style that at best can be described as ‘soft porn’ and at worst incredibly sexist and offensive. It didn’t take long for the story to appear in the national press.
As generally happens in these situations the response was apologies, crisis management statements and a social media cleanup by BK8. A statement from the club read that they ‘worked swiftly with BK8 to remove the posts following the announcement of the new partnership. These posts and marketing do not align with the wider Norwich City vision and values and we will be reviewing our due diligence process going forward.’
However, with the story going national and fan anger rising, cleaning up was never going to be enough. Within days, the club ended the agreement with BK8 and has since concluded a shirt sponsorship deal with the Norfolk-based sports car manufacturer and racing team Lotus; a popular decision that has served to soothe fan outrage, although will almost certainly have come with a drop in income.
But we shouldn’t let a ‘happy ending’ to the story gloss over a pretty clear lesson.
The fact remains that a multi-million pound company, concluding a multi-million pound partnership agreement, didn’t even undertake the sort of background check that most people would perform before going on a Tinder date – a simple search on social media.
It’s a rather humiliating public reminder that online profiles say a lot about the personality or culture of their owner, and whatever is out there will be quickly found by anyone with a smartphone. Social media can be an incredible asset, but it can also be a major liability and this needs to be kept in mind when building external relationships.
So what can you do about due diligence?
- Check, check and check again – browse your new partner’s social media feeds and browse from the beginning. You never know what might be there. Whether it’s a company’s two employee start-up phase or the teenage posts someone never deleted, make sure you read through.
- Discuss security arrangements – is your partner being careful with passwords and who has access to the accounts? It’s not going to look good if the account is hacked or an employee goes rogue. Think carefully about privacy settings.
- Think about high-profile individuals associated with an organisation. Their profiles and online behaviour may well be linked, or their views taken as representative.
- Don’t forget about web archives – these are effectively screenshots of the internet throughout time. A large organisation’s public presence or posts may well be searchable after it has been deleted. The Wayback Machine is a good place to start.
- Verification – does the account have the magic blue tick? This is especially relevant for organisations that undergo a period of rapid growth. They might go from ignored to copied very quickly.
- Quality control – does your new partner put time and effort into their accounts and posts? Are they going to tag or feature you and your brand in typo-strewn, pixelated posts when your brand is all about quality?
- Develop a crisis management strategy – if the worst happens, are you prepared? Before a partnership becomes public knowledge, consider how you would respond to any unpleasant surprises. Put some time aside when you are not in the public eye.
If all of the tips above look quite basic to you, that’s because they are. But due diligence gets forgotten or ignored with astonishing regularity. Be careful with how your partners are promoted (see what I did there?). It might just help you avoid an embarrassing, public and costly mistake.