Dealing with the modern rumour

A lie can be around the world before the truth has got out of bed – Paraphrasing Mark Twain (et al)

The rumours of a fall out between Julian Rhodes, Mark Lawn and Peter Taylor were scotched as quickly as they could be by Bradford City with Monday’s T&A having both sides dismissing the idea that Taylor had told Lawn to “pay him off and he would go away” and focusing on the season ahead but as the wheels of truth – and we assume that the club’s position on things is the accurate one although it must be said it has not always been in the past – ground into action the flight of fiction had already lit the sky.

The rumour quickly started to gain the appearance of fact in the hours after a 2-0 defeat to Port Vale and the long Sunday that followed. Even when presented with a disclaimer – “this might be rubbish but…” – the rumour became a source of debate. If Taylor was going who would replace him? What would be the effects of him going? The ramifications of Lawn falling out with a second manager in twelve months. Even without attesting to the validity of the rumour the debates that started from the assumption that it was true were in motion all before the club could make Monday’s statement.

In a sense the damage had already been done. The fiction might as well have been fact and when the truth came out it did so too late to wind back the thought processes of a weekend. Taylor had enjoyed the support of the full support (more or less) and now he does not and the rumour played a part in exposing that regardless of its truth. One might think that people are mad for saying that this manager should be replaced after six months but if the last two years at Valley Parade tell us anything then it is that eventually the manager’s critics will overwhelm him, and they will get their way.

Even if the rumour is not true it has started the end of Peter Taylor’s management career at Bradford City. It is just a matter of time now as to how long it is before the critics who proudly outed themselves this weekend get their way. The rumour has damaged Bradford City.

However Bradford City are not unique and like most public facing businesses in many industries they struggle to cope with the impact that new media and especially the contributory world wide web has had on their customer relationships. Be it selling football, selling widgets or selling salvation one can find someone on the web who will speak against you. Amazon has the highest customer satisfaction scores in the history of measuring these things but at 93% USA and 83% UK the company still have at least one in twenty people who are not happy. It is impossible to please all the people all of the time.

Nevertheless companies who invest much less in customer satisfaction as Amazon do will try and when they do they encounter problems. The rumour circulated for days without comment from Bradford City – and on an Official Message Board which the club police and thus take notice of – while previously statements had been issued in real time to dispute and challenge opinions. On the Telegraph and Argus website Bradford City board member Roger Owen was vocal in his defence of the club to one respondent inviting him to come down to the club for a conversation within an hour of a negative comment being made and the bizarreness of that approach was illustrated in this weekend of the rumour. For 48 hours the rumour went unaddressed by the same people who will invite you in for a talk an hour after you say something they do not care for and – rightly or wrongly – that lack of rebuttal added to the idea of validity.

The lack of a coherent media strategy is obvious but perhaps more difficult is coming up with a comprehensive and consistent way for this club – and any club – to deal with the discussions of supporters. Do Bradford City talk about Jake Speight from an ethical point of view? Do Manchester United address the reports of Wayne Rooney’s private life? Mike Harrison of the City Gent was talked about in high places for his comments but is there a need at all for clubs to respond to comments made by fans in anyway? To counter balance that if the club does not respond to anything which supporters say are they detached and aloof from the very people they should be engaging with most.

That City messed up when Owen engaged once instantly but waiting this time is not the result of a significant failing at the club just that the practice they are engaged in is massively difficult. How does one sit at the centre of comment and respond even handedly without appearing disconnected?

Ultimately City – like many businesses and public profiled people – struggle to balance the need to control misinformation with the dangers of appearing to validate some comments by not denying them.