Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal and control of the message

MU press conferenceMuch has been written about the shoddy treatment meted out by Manchester United to its manager Louis van Gaal, who after months of speculation learnt of his sacking from unofficial sources just minutes after his team won one of the world’s most coveted sporting trophies, the FA Cup. The news appeared to emanate from the camp of his planned successor, Jose Mourinho, but either way this was, to say the least, terrible timing and a dreadful piece of media handling. It soured what should have been the club’s sweetest moment of recent times, crowning what had been a very difficult season. Instead of course, the reported sacking overshadowed what should have been a triumphant post-match press conference, as well as the dominating many of the headlines the following day. The way the issue was handled made Manchester United look chaotic, callous, unsporting.

Timing is all when it comes to big announcements, and in countless smaller ways companies frequently get it wrong as well. Information can be leaked accidentally or maliciously. Often a new product announcement becomes a damp squib when journalists feel they have reported so many rumours already that it’s no longer a story. In media training courses I often find spokespeople will reveal far more about their future plans than they had intended, simply because the journalist asks them. When this is allowed to happen it means the organisation – like Manchester United – has completely lost control of the story.

Anyone who might be media-facing should have it made extremely clear to them what can be said at a particular point and what can’t be said. By contrast, in my experience organisations are too often focused on their internal processes, rather than controlling the information flow to external audiences. If it’s a stockmarket-quoted company and the information is market-sensitive, then for legal reasons management knows it has to keep a very tight grip on things. But at a lower level all sorts of information can gradually leak out via conversations with clients, journalists and business partners. In the case of Manchester United, the club had allowed rumours to circulate for months, even if it it was not the source of this particular leak. It has further diminished its reputation by its brutal timing – sacking a manager shortly after winning the FA Cup, then taking a further 48 hours to confirm what had become public knowledge. An extreme example of failure to control the message.