Inside Chelsea’s Propaganda Machine

‘This must be your dream job, I bet your dad must be really proud of you,’ is the first thing that almost everyone said to me after they found out that I was working as a scribe for Chelsea Football Club’s official publications. To nodding heads and blank stares I’d point out that the money was terrible, the people above me had no idea what the fans wanted from their publication, didn’t care what they had to say and had less of an idea of what made a good magazine, and that the stifling lack of creativity was not doing my writing or my career any good. The response was the same almost every time; ‘Still, Chelsea eh? Must be your dream job. And what happened with Mourinho eh? You must know something. Go on, tell us.’

Chelsea Magazine

It’s easy to see why people would think that working within the club you’ve passionately supported for the best part of 15 years would be the sort of job that would make your family proud, especially if they’re near enough all Chelsea fans, but the reality of the job is something very different indeed.

The first thing to bear in mind is that the magazine staff didn’t actually work for Chelsea at all, in that we weren’t paid by the club. In fact we were employed by a publishing house who was contracted to produce all Chelsea publications, including the Chelsea magazine and programme, the yearbook, media guide, staff newsletter, youth cup programmes and anything else that the club decided we were doing, usually at the last minute.

At the same time, the publishing house had a contract with the Football League that we had to fulfil, which meant that in the week leading up to the Carling Cup final I was sub-editing a truly appalling Henry Winter article on Joe Cole for the programme that began with this opening gambit; ‘If the ball could talk, it would flirt with Joe Cole.’ I don’t know about that myself, but I’m sure the ball wouldn’t flutter his eyelashes in quite the same coquettish fashion as loverman here. Amusingly it was subsequently revealed in The Independent that he was so outraged by my ‘censoring’ of his article that he demanded that his name be taken off it. I can imagine the Nazi look-a-like bashing his leather-gloved hands on his desk in piss-boiling Fuhrery, but if anything he owes me a pint for making his love letter readable.

The other problem with having two bosses is that while we were based in the same offices as the rest of the media department in the Shed End, we were only part of the ‘Chelsea Family’ when it suited them. For instance, if there was a piece of extraneous marketing bollocks that was needed to be done, it was plonked on our desks in the middle of a double deadline day, but when it came to tickets for the Champions League final, which the club was paying to take staff out to, we got; ‘ooh, sorry, you’re not Chelsea employees. You can’t come.’ As it happens the club reversed their decision, only for the mag staff to be told that they had to stay in the UK so they could produce all three play-off final programmes. Thankfully I had left by this point and made my own plans to Moscow.

Consequently there was a feeling of detachment from what was going on at the club and this translated into the work that we were doing for them. It didn’t help that there was practically no creativity or freedom of expression in almost any of the stuff we wrote. The head of editorial, who checked the pages before they went to print but would frequently add in pieces of atrocious grammar and unnecessary hyphens – central-defender anyone? – would so often hamper the process by making the most pathetic changes to copy, so much so that anything at all that could be considered criticism of the club or players was scrubbed out. Even in match reports players were ‘unlucky’ to miss from two yards out and almost any mention of red or yellow cards was strictly forbidden, let alone diving or incessant barracking of referees.

The letters pages, which had been a great source of dialogue between the club and supporters in Bridge News and Onside, the scruffier but much more informative magazines that preceded the shiny and glossy newer publications, became little more than propaganda sheets, informing its audience how great Chelsea were in every way. It was a strategy that led to an awful lot of correspondence ‘arriving by stork’.

Don’t even get me started on our style sheet, that read; ‘Inter Milan not Inter or Internazionale’ and ‘Sporting Lisbon not Sporting or Sporting Club De Portugal,’ or the time we were told not to run a story about a run in aid of Cancer Research because they weren’t CLIC Sargent (Chelsea’s official charity partner no less) and therefore a ‘rival cancer charity.

Because of all this what Chelsea produces is a sanitised product that patronises its audience and discourages discourse with supporters, something that I had heard numerous times before I joined and something that I quickly found out wasn’t a concern for the club. They don’t care if the supporters like it or not, as long as they can try and sell the latest toss from Samsung (the Tech page, that only featured reviews of products from club-affiliated companies, was a particularly shameless example of this) or the Megastore. Reading it gives you an idea of how much the club has changed in the last five years; instead of talking to its existing supporters directly they’re trying to lure new fans with big pictures of star players as part of their global strategy. It’s a disconcerting but all too predictable shift in priorities.

The most extreme example of this was Jose Mourinho’s departure from the club. That day I had to dodge numerous TV and radio crews on the way to the ground, but once we made it into our office it was almost as if nothing had happened. We were completely insulated from anything that was going on outside, any questions about what had happened were blanked, with our only communication coming via the official club press release. My phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to know what was going on, but if anything I had less idea than them – at least they could see what the news was reporting. Essentially we were told by the club: ‘shut up, you don’t need to know what happened. Oh and can you beef up Avram Grant’s CV for us? He’s the new manager. Cheers.’

So while I felt more like a corporate communications copywriter than a journalist, I did get an insight into the level of hubris that infests the club; what’s known as the ‘Chelsea Bubble’ surrounds the media department, shielding its inhabitants from the outside world and sucking the sense from them, as well as bouncing on all creativity and individual thought like a bad The Prisoner parody (by wilson at testsforge). To give you an idea of just how seriously they take themselves, they sent round an email to all employees about the new head of media that read;

‘I am delighted to announce that Steve Atkins will be joining the club as Head of Media [note the capping up of job titles] in June…
‘Steve is currently Deputy Press Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington…
‘Steve will be a fantastic addition to our team as he brings with him a wealth of experience from Washington dealing with complicated issues and the most high profile personalities at a strategic, pro-active and reactive daily media level. That makes him ideal for Chelsea where we face our own daily and longer term challenges.’ [Football club in loss of perspective non-shock.]

What on earth they need someone who has dealt with the international press and politics on the world stage to tell Martin Samuel that he needs to keep his half man, half wookie trap shut and that no Brian Woolnough, you can’t ask about Player X’s kiss-and-tell scandal is something only they can answer. Suffice to say we weren’t allowed to ask.

So there you have it; working for your club can be a pretty disillusioning experience, especially if your club is one that has become more of a corporate brand than a football club and drifting further away from its core support with each passing season as a result. Oh and before you ask, no I really don’t know what happened with Mourinho. Ask Brian Woolnough.


24 thoughts on “Inside Chelsea’s Propaganda Machine

  1. Jason (just)

    Can we assume we won’t be seeing you on Sky Soorts’ The Back Pages/The Sunday Review or whatever it’s called, anytime soon?

  2. Joe

    An interesting read but there’s an axe being ground here.

    You could argue the point that the superficial nature of the magazine merely reflects a proportion of new Chelsea fans who have come out of the woodwork and got on board with The Blue Revolution (TM).

  3. ST

    Certainly agree with the author regarding the state of the magazine. Some of it is cringe worthy to say the least. Not surprised in the slightest at the events that surround it.

  4. Valky

    This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Many genuine Chelsea fans are disenfranchised with the club.
    It is the same old argument – we are now being treated like customers rather than fans – however, customers get refunds when their products do not function!
    For all the progress on the pitch, the changes off it in the last twenty years have catered less for the genuine fan and more for the corporate sponsor. One example has been Chelsea fans not being able to hang flags in the West Upper as it invades the space of the people in the seats below them… and don’t get me started on Sky!

  5. The Liquidator

    An interesting read but there’s an axe being ground here.

    You could argue the point that the superficial nature of the magazine merely reflects a proportion of new Chelsea fans who have come out of the woodwork and got on board with The Blue Revolution (TM).

    Well yes, that’s kind of the exact point I made. And frankly I think it’s an appropriate axe to grind from both a professional point of view and that of a fan, as the posts from the two other Chelsea fans who have read the piece have shown. I must point out that the publishing house were/are equally culpable for the depressing nature of the experience, but that was mainly by being a bunch of fucking clueless clowns.

    As a writer and a sub-editor it annoyed me how poor the magazine was, especially as we had some talented people working there. But when you have 30 odd programmes and loads of other crap to do in a season it’s hard to put a month’s work into it, as we should have been. Often we would do a whole mag in a week, which isn’t good enough. I don’t have a problem with the people I worked with in the main, but the people running the show have got the whole process arse about face. What they’re producing is not good enough.

  6. stingers

    Excellent article. And largely what most Chelsea fans suspected about the magazine. It’s a glossy pile of c**p, and if it didn’t come free with the membership/season ticket I doubt anyone would read it. For all its tattiness I miss “Onside” (the publication that preceded it) which at least told you something about what was happening at the club.

  7. ursus arctos

    Bravo.

    Great to see you writing here.

    I think that the idea of these glossy propaganda sheets came from Italy, where paragons of journalistic virtue like “Hurra Juventus” have existed for decades. They fulfill a certain function in a country where a large proportion of supporters of the “big” clubs live hundreds of kilometres away from their club’s home ground, but no one has ever seen them as being anything other than official club mouthpieces (just as no one considers the club television channels to be anything other than 24/7 homerism).

    What the English clubs appear to have done with this “model” is to link that North Korean approach to “information” with relentless and oppressive commercialism, which is perfectly in keeping with the current direction of the “Greatest League in the World” (TM).

  8. historyman

    A thought provoking piece. It enables those of us on the outside to catch a glimpse into the machinations of the Chelsea juggernaut.

    The word ‘sanitised’ is an appropriate description of what often passes for football media and marketing these days. So much for constructive criticism and debate.

  9. alex

    I occasionally flick through Chelsea magazine when I’m idly wasting time in Smiths before I catch my train. It’s essentially Pravda, but with Chelsea FC the subject instead of the glorious Soviet Union.

    Enjoyed the corporate email regarding the new Head of Media, football really is eating itself.

  10. Pablo

    Great article. I just want to thank Pitch Invasion for bringing it to us, this is the kind of thing that we just don’t get to read in the mainstream papers, and it illustrates something that is happening at every Premier League club. This is exactly what is happening at Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and other places too.

    Terry, can I ask you about the relationship between the club and journalists like Rob Beasley or Neil Ashton? Even though Fernando Torres stated categorically he was happy at Liverpool and wanted to stay there, and he really has become a folk hero on Merseyside, there were articles written in the News of the World and Daily Mail stating categorically that Torres was apparently ‘unhappy with life in Liverpool’ and willing to play for Chelsea. This was all revealed from a ‘senior source’ at Chelsea, who basically was being utterly disingenuous, there was no truth to this at all.

    Are there certain journalists who are effectively plants for Chelsea in the press? The Torres ‘story’ first broke after Avram Grant was sacked, and it seemed like news managment and an attempt to distract attention from the bad news of the manager being fired, but the subsequent stories were just off the scale in terms of their sheer falsity. The employment of the former press attache of the embassy in Washington is a delightful detail, and may explain the source of this kind of Machiavellian news leaking and ‘senior sources’ hinting at this or that.

    Thanks again for writing this.

  11. Tom red

    I must admitt that while I never knew about the inside workings of the club ,after reading the
    club magazines and club programmes it comes as no surprise to have my suspicions confirmed about the new Chelsea, all singing all dancing brand.
    Iam a season ticket holder but find myself becoming disillusioned with the whole “brand Chelsea” both inside and outside the ground.

  12. Ben Fawkes

    Brilliant read, as a Chelsea fan I have seen this turn and have for the most part looked the other way, but everything you say is not surprising and also incredibly disappointing. Part of me always thought working for Chelsea would be sweet. Thanks for the insight. The ‘marketing’ department really do seem to have their strategy planned completely the wrong way around. All they will create is fair weather fans and ostracize the fans that have been their before we became a ‘global brand’.

    Hope you dont mind, a bit of shameless promotion I am afraid, but my website is having a serious overhaul – its called footballfilter. It was rubbish before but now if you look at the in development new page here I hope you might like it:

    http://new.footballfilter.com

    If any of you have any suggestions, criticisms etc I would love to hear them. As I said its not finished yet, the images and video sources will be improved very soon as will the whole lay out, and team specific pags will be made soon, we only have Chelsea and Derby at the moment which is who we support, the others will be up soon – but you get the idea, your comments would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to email me at footballfilter@gmail.com

    cheers
    Ben

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  14. Chelsea Ces

    Alas, the magazine and, to some extent, the matchday programme, are seen purely as marketing vehicles by the Chelsea hierarchy, rather than a method of communicating with the fans. What they fail to realise is that it is the character of the club that attracts new fans (apart from glory hunters) and these grey publications totally obliterate the wit, attitude and warmth that made me fall in love with Chelsea over 30 years ago.
    It is facile to point to our Russian ownership as the propigator of this sanitisation. We need look no further than the Chief Executive who, in a previous life, brought the world MUTV, which was christened Pravda by the Manchester United supporters. Luckily, the UK version of the official website remains largely untouched by the corporate tyranny. Yes, there are articles on our latest ‘branding’ exercise, but thanks to Jax, brought in by the old regime to figure out this new fangled web thingy, it remains a vibrant place for communication between the club and the fans and among the fans themselves. Long may it continue!
    Finally, the standard of copy editing in the magazine is shocking – many spelling mistakes and glaring grammatical errors. I suggest that if CFC wants to appear more professional they insist that their media company lackeys clean up their act. We never had this problem with Onside.

  15. Stowe

    As an American who has visited Stamford Bridge and, sad to say, bought an official Chelsea Matchday Programme, I have to say it was nothing out of the ordinary for me. Yes it’s fawning and over-simplified and no, I don’t really care who Shaun Wright Phillips’ last big night out was but isn’t that par from the course? American sports teams (I am thinking particularly of my local teams, the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Bobcats who fall all over themselves despite constant mediocrity) are as guilty at least and, because of that, the magazine didn’t particularly surprise me. Yes, it’d be nice to get a straight answer or a hard-hitting interview but clubs are about propaganda (or team spirit) and that’s just the way things are. Just like you wouldn’t go to Chelsea TV for a balanced view or any real insightful analysis. Right?

    I don’t mean to slag off your article in any way though. Enjoyed it immensely and the disconnect you talk about seems pretty rampant at the club these days. Whether it’s a lack of communication between coaches and executives, club and fans, etc. Chelsea have a lot of fractures to repair.

  16. The Liquidator

    Just like you wouldn’t go to Chelsea TV for a balanced view or any real insightful analysis. Right?

    I wouldn’t watch Chelsea TV if you paid me, frankly.

  17. ursus arctos

    Stowe, as someone who grew up in the US but has followed European football for more than 30 years and has lived here for almost a decade, I think that what you need to keep in mind is that this kind of no-holds-barred, “on message” commercialisation (or commercialization) of club communications is relatively new in the English context (though as I noted above, the big Italian clubs have been at it for a while, but then propaganda is an Italian word).

    The people who preceded Terry at Chelsea may not have had Woodward and Bernstein levels of editorial autonomy, but they were nowhere near as shackled as he was.

  18. Avram Grunt

    I worked for the company that produces Chelsea’s publications back when the glossy magazine/new programme format was first launched. I ended up walking out on them after three months such was my dissatisfaction with the company and anger at the petty nonsense foisted upon us by the CFC hierarchy. Sounds like the situation hasn’t changed much.

  19. Dino De Lellis

    Very interesting article , I really enjoyed this , I agree with you that Chelsea ( and several major publications for that matter ) has a powerful propaganda machine behind it. It uses this to create an image of perfection that so many people will tend to aspire to work be a part of it’s publication team , as you said a ” dream job”

    Sadly like so many , politics and profit is the major factor in this industry. Politics because the top brass of the company will base their decisions not on what is right but based on what will make their investors and partners happy ( even though it’s wrong ). And profit will drive its content , how it will draw in new buyers and how it will expand to new markets , so it is not surprising that the content of the present publications will differ greatly from the ones in the past.

  20. Ello, ello ello

    I liked the piece very much.
    I think you are spot on in a number of areas.
    The likes of peter kenyon and clueless Simon greenburg, who must have headhunted Steve Atkins are systematically ripping the soul out of our club.
    Their shelf-life is not long in the grand scheme of things so hopefully Roman will ditch them soon.
    I’ve just noticed that so-called fanzine ChelseaChelsea from chelseanet has had a revamp with content supplied by Chelsea FC themselves.
    Interviews with macienne and lampard plus a feature on the club photographer for christ’s sake!!
    It seems the desire to control even non-chelsea publications know no bounds.
    So beware if the likes of atkins come knocking on your door.
    Failing that – get a shed load of money from them for selling your soul!!