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A PR own goal – why football club’s “embarrassing” tweet backfired with its own fans

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Football is a passionate game, one which stirs strong emotions and even stronger opinions among its legions of fans. And the practice (for want of a better word) of football fans venting their anger at refereeing decisions which they perceive – often through rose-tinted spectacles – to have gone against their side is almost as old as the game itself.

But in this age of carefully crafted corporate communications, it’s very unusual to see football clubs make the kind of emotional and angry comments that you might hear on the terraces. Which is why Nottingham Forest’s incendiary statement on X (formerly Twitter) in the wake of their side’s 2-0 defeat to relegation rivals Everton caused such a commotion.

For any non-football fans who may have missed the controversy, the tweet centred around three contentious refereeing decisions which all went against Forest – or as the statement put it, “Three extremely poor decisions – three penalty decisions not given – which we simply cannot accept.” While the robust language here is striking enough, it was the club’s claim that they had “warned” the PGMOL (the body which selects match officials to referee games) before the match that the VAR (video assistant referee) was a fan of Luton Town (another club involved in the relegation battle) that really provoked the backlash.

Many saw it as an outrageous attack on the professional integrity of a match official which simply went too far. Speaking on the BBC’s Football Daily Podcast, the Daily Telegraph’s northern football writer Luke Edwards described Forest’s statement as “over the top”, “inflammatory” and “dangerous”. But while such a response might have been expected from supposedly impartial observers in the media, what did Forest’s own supporters make of it all?

Speaking on the same podcast, former Manchester City defender Nedum Onuoha suggested that the tweet was very much aimed at Forest fans rather than the general public, or indeed the football authorities, adding: “Their fans will believe this is part of some conspiracy against them.” The implication here is that Forest may have been somehow trying to galvanise its fanbase by creating a siege mentality in the hope this would bring the club, its players and its supporters closer together as they battled to avoid relegation.

But if that was the intention, it appeared to have backfired quite spectacularly. In such a tribal and partisan game, you might have expected Forest fans to come out fighting in support of their club. Instead, most of them disowned the statement – “wrong”, “stupid”, “ridiculous” and “embarrassing” were just some of the adjectives used by Forest supporters who called into BBC Radio Five Live’s football phone-in 606 to discuss the controversy.

The general consensus was that while they agreed that the refereeing decisions were poor, the club had undermined its own reputation by issuing such a statement. In one rather telling remark, a Forest fan called Harley described the statement as “right” before adding “as a club, it’s wrong.” The suggestion being that while fans can say what they like, the club itself should maintain higher standards.

All of which has interesting implications for the wider world of PR. It is generally considered desirable for an organisation to be aligned with its members, both in terms of the values they hold and the language they use. The reaction by the club’s own supporters to Nottingham Forest’s now infamous tweet shows this isn’t always the case.

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