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.’
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.