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Meet the Football Club Who Think They Control What Fans Post on Social Media

12/08/2016 12:33 | Updated 12 August 2016
Catherine Ivill - AMA via Getty Images

Some people still don't get it do they?

The ownership and senior management at Charlton Athletic, the football club I support, certainly don't. They have proven time and again over the last three years that they don't 'get it'. A once proud football club has been run into the ground through mismanagement, arrogance and many believe, a hidden agenda that has nothing to do with results on the pitch.

That is the subject for another blog though, and there have been plenty, this being the most recent.

I want to focus on just one area that Charlton don't get, something that they have excelled in and indeed, led the way in their industry in the past but, like so many areas, seem to be discounting lessons previously understood. That area is social media.

Despite it being all around us 24/7 now and a core part of our lives, it is easy to forget that social media is still a relatively young medium. And like all new technologies, there is a learning curve. Many companies have had to learn the hard way that sites such as Facebook and Twitter have changed the relationship between customers and brands. Our customers can now be more critical, in greater numbers, in a much more public forum than ever before.

Many companies have tried to control the social media output of their customers in the past, rarely with positive results. They have often had to learn the hard way that you have to engage on social media rather than fight or try to control. Brands have had to learn to interact with their customer base in a different way to that of the past.

The relationship between football club and its followers has always been different to the tradiitonal supplier/customer axis. Supporters don't, for example, see themselves as 'customers' (despite what the Charlton Athletic CEO Katrien Meire might think) but as 'fans'. At a club like Charlton, where fan action has saved the club from extinction on more than one occasion, this relationship is even stronger, with fans feeling like they are a key part of the club.

The recent poor running of the club has, therefore, led to social media being a major battleground. Protests at matches and around the training ground have caught the headlines but the fire has been stoked on social media.

You could, therefore, understand the club seeking to address the debate on social media. But, rather than trying to engage with enraged fans there, or leave the fire to burn away, the club seems to have taken a different route.

One supporter recently received a letter from the club's 'Duty Safety Officer' after applying for a season ticket. Acknowledging supporters' 'concerns' and claiming to have 'listened and acted upon' some of them, the letter expresses concerns that this particular fan has posted comments on social media sites that are 'not particularly constructive'.

Going on to suggest that 'it is not helpful when inflammatory comments are posted on such websites', the letter goes on to say that a season ticket will only be issued after a meeting with the safety officer and the signing of an 'Agreed Behaviour Contract' (the wonderfully acronymed 'ABC'!).

In other words, we will only sell to you if you sign away your rights to express your opinion about our product on social media!

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At this point I should be clear that, while I know the person involved to say hello to, I don't know the nature of the comments referred to in the letter. This letter was passed to me by mutual friends.

While I have no reason to believe that they were, if the comments in question were either racist or defamatory, then I would have absolutely no issue with the club taking action. The letter, however, does not state that and as I say, I have no indication otherwise that this was the case.

And if they were, there are better ways of dealing with such issues.

No, this letter simply states that the comments were derogatory, inflammatory and 'not particularly helpful'.

This is possibly the most clumsy, overbearing response to social media criticism I have seen from any company towards their 'customer'. And there has been some really strong competition. A football club that seems to stumble from one PR disaster to another seems to be on the verge of scoring another spectacular own goal.

There are, of course, limits to the amount of abuse that companies can take on social media and many comments do try the patience of a saint. I certainly feel sorry for Charlton's social media team who do put up with a lot of abusive comments despite the fact that they are only trying to do their job in trying circumstances. It must be tempting to respond in kind at times and they do very well not to.

Sales of season tickets that are conditional on a meeting with a 'safety officer' and the signing of a contract restricting social media activity is not the way forward though. Surely this goes against everything we have learned about social media engagement and the new relationship brands have with their followers online?

But then, as Charlton fans we have learned to expect the unexpected, and incredibly crass, in recent times.

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