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Uneasy Relations

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Show me an Aston Villa fan keen to criticise owner Randy Lerner, and I’ll show you a man desperate to be miserable.

The improvements made under the American have been profound both on and off the pitch. Manager Martin O’Neill has been backed in big money transfers for Stiliyan Petrov, Ashley Young, Curtis Davies, Luke Young, James Milner and Carlos Cuéllar, and plenty of others besides.

All told, O’Neill took Villa from 16th to sixth in two seasons. His signings this season suggest he wants even more.

The new regime has won the battle for hearts as well as minds. The Holte pub has been restored to its glorious best, while mosaics which now adorn the Holte End façade indicate Lerner’s uncanny feel for the spirit of Aston Villa.

The club’s landmark shirt sponsorship deal with Acorns has won praise from all over the football world.

While the fans fawn, however, there is a pair of dissenting voices in the press. BBC man Pat Murphy and the Birmingham Evening Mail’s Villa reporter, Bill Howell, have both been outspoken in their criticism of the club’s approach to relations with the media.

Murphy’s most vicious outburst came in January this year, when he finally aired concerns which had clearly been bubbling under the surface for some time.

Lerner had raised the ire of the journalist by speaking to a pair of newspapers about a donation to the National Portrait Gallery. Murphy, reliant of course upon broadcast for his living, retaliated in some style. In a piece entitled ‘Slow Lerner needs PR lesson’, Murphy questioned sarcastically Lerner’s now-legendary shyness of publicity. Quite apart from the lack of respect, he failed to realise that, in light of the fact that the supporters are largely in favour of Lerner’s quietly-spoken approach, his article came across as a transparent and selfish rant. Maybe it isn’t Lerner in need of a ‘PR lesson’.

Bill Howell is our Pat’s seemingly solitary sympathiser. Howell has received his share of unfair mickey-taking from the Villa support. It was, therefore, both unsurprising and irresistible to fans waiting to have a pop at the local paper man when he lunged into action to accuse Villa of ignoring the local media in the distribution of news. Again, it’s a very popular strategy among the fans.

Public relations is about mobilising influencers to speak to your ‘customers’. That’s a simplistic view of an indefinable term, but you get the idea. Traditionally, those influencers have been journalists, but bloggers in particular are increasingly being treated with similar importance in certain industries.

Every club, Aston Villa included, has several methods of approaching P.R. Relationships with friendly or useful journalists are supplemented by leaks, back-scratching and a mutual professional respect born of necessity rather than desire. Troublesome hacks are handled with kid gloves in order to keep them vaguely onside and, more importantly, on message.

In other words, journalists are not used to the new Villa approach: dealing directly with supporters with a mixture of punctual official website announcements and the involvement of a board member in the fans’ murky online underworld. The bitter reactions of Howell and Murphy arise from the fact that all three points of the triangle — clubs, journalists and supporters — have only their own interests at heart. And while Villa have the goodwill of the fans who, in turn, feel in touch with the club they love, journalists still need to make a living.

Sadly for Bill Howell and Pat Murphy, they are likely to find themselves struggling for exclusive material from Villa for the foreseeable future. History is not in their favour, for they are both perceived as ‘Ellis-friendly’ by the supporters. Consequently, any outspoken criticism of Lerner’s regime is viewed simply as residual upset over the sale of the club by their Villa ear.

In Howell’s defence, this idea is faintly ridiculous. He was banned from club facilities during the final days of Doug Ellis and David O’Leary’s unholy reign. He has also made admirable attempts to patch up a thoroughly frosty relationship with the fans. Though not backing down on his opinions, Bill has used his new blog to address his issues in a less duplicitous manner and, to his eternal credit, seems genuinely welcoming in encouraging fans to exercise their right to reply.

The whole affair raises intriguing questions about the wider sphere of media and supporter relations for football clubs. The new Villa regime has found unprecedented backing among the fans. But the press are not happy, it appears. And to an extent that is understandable.

Can they do anything about it? It could be that Mr. Howell has finally found the right tree, rather than urinating on it and then barking up the next. If the clubs can interact directly with supporters, why shouldn’t journalists?

It seems certain that Aston Villa have some way to go to appease one or two key influencers, but is it worth bothering when the supporters are happy enough to dismiss media criticism as envious naysaying? It is a learning curve for all. In this wiki generation, it is obvious that all three parties must collaborate to form a more fruitful relationship.

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