How do you solve a PR problem like Mike Ashley?

I, for my sins, am a Newcastle United fan. If that wasn’t enough bad news to deliver in the opening paragraph of a blog, here’s another thunderbolt of an admission. I, for my sins, am a PR man through and through.

 

What, you may ask, is the point of telling you this? Well, I guess it provides a succinct explanation for my on-going fascination with the man who runs my football club, and surely presents the biggest PR challenge in the UK.

 

Step forward Mr Mike Ashley.

 

I would say love him or hate him, but it seems a waste of characters as so few (even Sunderland fans) would ever proclaim to fall into the more positive of those two camps.

 

And you only need to look at the potted highlights of his media charge sheet to understand why. Zero hour contracts, two relegations, Victorian working conditions, Joe Kinnear, the SportsDirect Arena, a parliamentary inquiry, the Cockney Mafia – it’s enough to make any self-respecting evil despot cross the street when they see him approaching.

 

Not even Mike Ashley’s PR arrangements escape being tarred with… well… with the Mike Ashley brush. The reason? His PR agent, Keith Bishop Associates is 51% owned by none other than Mike Ashley’s SportsDirect. An arrangement that has come into a great deal of criticism from both investors and governance experts,  with Paul Lee, head of corporate governance at Aberdeen Asset Management suggesting Ashley and SportsDirect, “need to bolster the independence of the advice they receive.”

 

So, back to the burning question – how exactly do you solve a PR problem like Mike Ashley?

 

It’s no exaggeration to say that he has made the task extremely difficult.

 

He was quick to alienate Newcastle supporters, despite digging the club out of debt and delivering Kevin Keegan as manager within months of his takeover. And a similar story can be told with his main business venture. We all know where to go to buy low cost, good quality sportswear and clothes on the high street. But the bad publicity surrounding working conditions, practices and business morals do tend to leave a bad taste in most mouths after shopping at SportsDirect.

 

But chip beneath the layers and layers of bad PR and at the core you find a British boy made good story – one with a true lad’s lad at its heart. Like Alan Sugar with Spurs, and Dean Hoyle at Huddersfield, here’s a man who built his own business, amassed a fortune in the process, and then splashed out on the ultimate boy’s toy – a football club.

 

Unlike either Sugar or Hoyle, Ashley’s motives for buying into the beautiful game were clearly driven by his love of money and the opportunity to make more of it, rather than the club he was throwing sacks full of millions at.

 

But in those early months at Newcastle, Ashley demonstrated a side of his personality that, had it been nurtured, could have seen the writing of a completely different story.

 

Even now, despite everything that has been said and reported, virtually every article about Ashley does, albeit begrudgingly, allude to a witty and occasionally charming man. Yes, he’s said to have a huge ego, but then can you find me a self-made billionaire who doesn’t?

 

And let’s be totally honest about the man and his business’ many short-comings. I’m sure the vast majority of those large-egoed, self-made billionaires won’t be without a few scratches on their boardroom tables that they’d like to polish out. And no, that’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact. Business can be brutal, and to come out perched atop a mountain of cash does mean backs will have been stabbed, toes steam-rollered and employees given the rawest of deals.

 

But, and this is what it all boils down to, it has been Ashley’s short-comings that have been become media fodder rather than the positives – and surprisingly, there are a few.

  • SportsDirect employs close to 20,000 people in the UK
  • The Donnay, Dunlop Slazenger, Kangol, Karrimor and Lonsdale brands have all had new life breathed into them as a result of Ashley ownership
  • Newcastle United have been bailed out by Ashley again and again – and despite the St James’ Park garden looking relatively rosy at the moment, I’m sure he’ll have to dig deep again in the not so distant future.

And then there’s the man himself. He has a story to tell. And I’m sure given the glimpses we’ve seen of him it’d be a highly entertaining one.

 

Take for example the board-meeting antics that have come to light as a result of his latest court battle (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-40517276)  – taking a nap under the table when things got boring; drinking competitions that result in the victor vomiting to wild applause from his fellow directors; claims to be a power drink. It’s pure Lad’s Bible stuff, and I really can picture Graham Norton slapping his thighs in delight as the story is retold on BBC1 late on a Friday night.

 

So, that solution to the problem of Mike Ashley? Well, it’s simpler than you think. The man has to be persuaded out of the shadows and into the limelight that he, his business acumen and the choices he’s made have created. He is the roughest of rough diamonds, but given the right amount of elbow grease he could well be polished into the latest businessman turned media darling. And then who knows whose footsteps he could follow in…

Written by Daniel Kennedy, 07/07/2017