We spoke to Partick Thistle’s Media and Communications Manager, George Francis, on his career journey to Thistle, how the club has evolved over the last couple of years, and of course, everyone’s favourite mascot, Kingsley.
Almost a year since the first interview appeared on the site, with Greig from Hibs, we’re delighted to bring you this one with George today. All 5,000 odd words of it! Hope you enjoy reading.
How did you initially make the move into the sports industry?
I came to Glasgow 10 years ago for university to study politics and philosophy, of all things, as an undergrad and went into a masters in political communications after that. Through that I did a couple of internships, one with a charity called Glasgow The Caring City and another with Glasgow Uni in their communications department. Through a combination of them both I ended up getting my first job at PR agency, BIG Partnership.
I worked at BIG for a couple of years doing very corporate stuff, which was brilliant. It’s a fantastic place, filled with really great people. People that’ll help you learn and grow. It was hard work, but it was a great place to serve your apprenticeship.
I’d always been interested in sport, and they put together a team of people to pitch for the Scottish League Cup, the year that St Mirren won it and it was sponsored by the government. The tender had been put out to get some PR, marketing and comms support on it, helping to activate it and get the most out of the sponsorship as the Scottish Communities League Cup. BIG put a group of people who were interested in sport to put the pitch together, won it, and the work fell to that team. The big focus was touring the trophy around the country. We went all over the place, up in Inverness, over at Fort William, Dundee, all over the country. Linking up with clubs, and getting the governments key messages across through the clubs, using their players and the local papers. It was a really good experience.
I was quite happy at BIG but one day one of those emails dropped into my inbox that everyone gets with a load of different jobs available and one of them was for a Media Manager at a newly promoted Scottish Premiership football club. Now at the time, only one team could be promoted so it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work out who it was. I applied for it, got an interview, had pretty much the worst first interview anyone has ever had. Luckily managed to get a second one which went great and they offered me the job. I’ve got family in Glasgow so from the age of 8 I spent periods of my summer up here, with my uncle taking me to Thistle games. It all fitted quite nicely with that historical family link.
It’s an absolute dream job for me, I’m just a massive football fan. It is very, very difficult to break into football. It’s often quite a closed shop. It’s people who’ve volunteered with the club, or it’s ex-journalists or ex-players who get into these roles and tend to stay in them for a very long time. To have got this opportunity without having to move out of the city I was in at the time was great, and to be able to work in a club where to start off with I was the only person in the communications team full time, was fantastic experience. It can be tough going to really stamp your mark and have a major influence on how things happen in this kind of environment but I always felt like I was in a position to make a real impact.
What is your current role at Partick Thistle then, and what does a typical week look like for you?
It’s changed quite a lot since I first started. The club has gone through a period of tremendous professionalisation on, and off, the pitch. We’ve got two sports scientists, we’ve got two physiotherapists, we do strength and conditioning stuff, we use GPS monitors, we take advantage of a lot of things on the pitch that we didn’t used to. And off the pitch as well, the back office team has expanded a little bit, it’s still a very small team though. There’s only 6 of us full time in the office which is quite a tight ship for running a Premiership football club. We’ve started getting more strategic in how we approach things in recent years and that goes across everything we do.
The thing I love about my job is there is no week, or even day, where you can come in, sit at your desk, and go ‘right, for the next 12 hours this is what I’m going to be doing’. It just does not work like that. It can be a horrendous thing, but most of the time, it’s a very good thing as it keeps you going, it keeps it interesting. I’ll generally come in and go through the papers. First and foremost, for any coverage or mentions of Partick Thistle or our sponsors, Kingsford Capital Management, anything that’s connected with us. Secondly, just to see what other clubs, other people are saying. Particularly if we’re going into press days, the manager will want to see what the opposition that we’re facing at the weekend has said. More so than anything though, just to see what other people are doing. You can learn a lot from what other clubs do and get success from. Just because it’s not you doing it, doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it. I’m always looking for new angles, new ways to get positive coverage for the club and it’s not always a case of reinventing the wheel.
In terms of how the week lays out, it builds up. On the Monday, we’ll have an internal meeting to reflect on the Saturday past if it’s been a home game and to look forward to the next weekend. Every matchday throws up something different so it’s always good to have a debrief. From there, Tuesday tends to be a day in the office, or if we’ve got any corporate photoshoots or photos we need to get, we tend to do them on a Tuesday as the players are in for a double session. You’ve got a little bit more time. Wednesday is the players’ day off during the week so it tends to be mine as well if I can take it. Tuesday and Wednesday though are generally quite good days for getting through the bulk of your non-matchday related stuff. Thursday is our press day. The manager speaks every week, and a player as well. So that takes up a good chunk of your Thursday, preparing for that. It’s all fairly mechanical but it’s important to get it right. It’s important to make sure the players are comfortable, if there’s any major issues, making sure the players are aware of what the line is, and how to respond to any difficult questions. Perhaps if we’re on a bad run or there’s something particular going on on or off the pitch. Anything at all really that the players need to be aware of. Friday is preparation for the game. Kind of an event planning day almost. Making sure the press passes are ready, checking the wifi works. That sort of thing.
On to Saturday and the game, which is my favourite time of the week. From kick off to full time is generally the quietest time I’ve got all week. By that point, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. I’m a football fan at the end of the day, so I can just sit back and enjoy the game and hope for a win. A massive amount of work gets done by volunteers on a match day and I simply wouldn’t be able to do what I do without them. In fact that goes for the rest of the week too, it’s a really hardworking team and, even though there are only two of us who work full time, there are countless hours put in by others to make sure everything works.
That’s a simple view at how the week looks, but there are other things too. General upkeep of the website, maintaining the overall media strategy, any additional press releases or PR that we’re doing around the club or new partnerships we’ve got. I could sit here for an hour and tell you all the things that go on during the week. There’s never two weeks the same. You can plan and plan and plan, but there will always be something to keep you on your toes.
There’s yellow star-shaped elephant in the room that we have to address before we go any further. What was the role that you played in bringing Kingsley to our attention?
I’d love to say it was me that came up with him, designed him and launched him, but I only really came in at a late point. Right back to the beginning, Mike Wilkins, one of the senior men at Kingsford Capital Management, a hedge fund in California, is a big fan of the artist, David Shrigley, who’s a big Thistle fan. He went to the Glasgow School of Art and fell in love with Thistle. Mike had arranged to have dinner with David the night before an exhibition opening in San Francisco. He already had a lot of involvement in sport, he’s a stakeholder in the Golden State Warriors basketball team, plus various other franchises across the States. They got talking about sport, and David got on to Thistle, why he loves us, how we do things a bit differently. Mike liked the sound of it and wanted to get involved. He rang our managing director directly and said ‘here you go, I’d like to be involved in the club’. Part of our sponsorship agreement has traditionally been that the sponsor got to design and create a new mascot. We had it with Jaggy Macb when Macb Water were our sponsors. One thing Mike said was that he’d like David Shrigley to design the mascot.
We’d seen bits and pieces of Kingsley, scaled down models, that sort of thing. We all thought it looked a bit mad, but were quite happy with it and it fitted what we wanted to do. It wasn’t actually until the day we launched the sponsorship deal that we saw the suit itself in all its full glory. I have to say, a lot of people have reacted and thought it was a big scary thing but I swear, neither my managing director, Ian Maxwell, nor I, looked at it and thought that. My reaction was Sky Sports will love it, photographers will love it and it’ll make a great photo. At that point, I didn’t really think too much more into it…
Mike and David were up doing the press launch with a load of interviews. It was a good story in itself the way the sponsorship came about, the fact that an American financial services organisation was getting involved in Scottish football. About three quarters of the way through the day, Laura Brannan from STV came and asked if I’d seen Twitter. Normally when somebody says that to me one of the players has started Tweeting or there’s some major issue. She started showing me all the memes, videos, photos, people going mental about Kingsley. I got back to my desk at about 4 o’clock and had emails from Time Magazine, CNN, Fox News, The Times, Telegraph, The Guardian. Normally I get back to my desk after a press conference and I’m lucky I I’ve got an email from the Evening Times. The couple of days were amazing. A few days after it I’d had knee surgery and we were launching our new kit in George Square with Kingsley and 300 Jags fans. I was hobbling around George Square on crutches. From my hospital bed I was taking calls from America, trying to line up interviews with various people to go on Fox News while I was on heavy painkillers. The whole thing was absolutely incredible. The way it was received and the way it snowballed and snowballed.
— Partick Thistle FC (@ThistleTweet) June 22, 2015
Just recently we’ve unveiled the new man in the suit for this season, Craig Dunn, and every time we do anything major with Kingsley like that, it just gets a whole new bit of momentum. Everybody’s just crazy about it. You’ve seen so many different companies try too hard to make something go viral. It just looks naff, it looks rubbish. The thing with Kingsley is that it’s genuine, we were trying to get out and get good coverage for our new sponsor. It was never designed to go viral, but that in a way helped it go viral. It did come across as very honest. People couldn’t believe we’d launched it, some thought it was a mistake. Some people thought we were going to go back on it and reverse it. I’ll always remember the guys at the BBC coming down for an interview and asking whether it was just some PR line and whether it was actually our mascot for the next year. Asking whether we weren’t going to come out and go ‘only kidding!’ I think that genuine aspect to it helped. At the end of the day, we were getting great coverage to our new sponsor which is exactly what we wanted. I remember doing the coverage reports for that period and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was just incredible.
On that, how have you been measuring the reach of Kingsley?
We had some statistics that it got something like 167 million impressions on social media. The total circulation was way up into the tens of millions in terms of the press coverage. It was just incredible. I remember being back at BIG, working clients and you’d get your five or six pieces over the month for your client and everybody was absolutely delighted. It was absolutely incredible to be involved in. The one thing that is disappointing is that I doubt very much I’ll ever be involved in anything like it again. You genuinely felt like you were having an impact on the world stage. People wanting to hear from Partick Thistle and Partick Thistle being front and centre. We were one of the most talked about football clubs in the world that summer. We received more coverage than any Scottish signing has ever received. Probably getting up there with as much coverage as any player has ever received over the last 10 or 15 years for any transfer. It was just amazing and fantastic to be part of. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of people. As I say, it keeps rolling on now.
Can you give us an insight into the overarching media and comms strategy you’ve got in place at the club?
It’s something we work on all the time. I’m working on the strategy and calendar for the next 12 months at the moment actually. It’s something we’ve only really properly got into in the last two seasons and it’s made a huge difference. It’s about getting the key messages that we want to define our season as a club out to our supporter base and the broader Scottish footballing public. Moulding the impression people get of Partick Thistle. The big one last summer was to really highlight that professionalisation, that process that the club has gone through in all the things we’ve done. It’s a different club to what it was three or four years ago. Commercialisation is the only word to describe it. That was the key for last year. The long standing attitude towards us was ‘ohh, it’s just Partick Thistle’, combined with the phrase that was banded around that we’re the cuddly toy of Scottish football. Hold on a minute, we’ve been in the league a few years now, we’ve taken some scalps, and we’ve really stamped our mark on the league. We’re not here to mess about for the fun of it. We’re here to make an impression was the key message for last year. This year we’ll be looking to develop that again.
Obviously we don’t want those messages to remain the same, we want to be ambitious and move forward. The strategy starts with making sure that we have those key themes and messages, and we mould everything that we do around them. We’ll put together a calendar of key dates we want to hit, major announcements we’ve got to make, key periods of sales times. Christmas or January for half-season tickets and gifts, February/March is season ticket time which is huge. We’ve got sponsorship obligations, press conferences at different locations. All that fits into the calendar, and everything we do relates back into those key messages. That’s without even considering programmes, the website and social media content and the commercial side as well. Making sure we’re properly marketing the hospitality and the corporate advertising opportunities. As well as our own products, like Jagzone that we’ve launched this season.
The really important thing is structuring all of that, so that nothing is cutting the others throat. Making sure everything is planned and ensuring it comes back to that key messaging. I think last season it worked really nicely. It fitted in to how the club was at the time and to how we were playing. The fans bought into it, the whole ‘We are Thistle’, not so cuddly anymore. It all fitted in really nicely and a big part of that is to do with the supporters getting on board and buying into it. We can think about these key messages all we want, but if the supporters don’t buy into it then it’s not really going to work. It’s a huge chunk of work, getting that strategy and calendar in place, but it’s so important and it sets up the whole year. It makes your year a lot easier to deal with, when you’ve got a master document that everybody in your team, everybody in the club, can go into and know that’s when we’re doing this and that. It makes a big difference.
You mentioned Jagzone and the new website there. How important are both of those going to be going forward?
Absolutely vital. The new website has been a huge amount of work by a lot of people. It’s probably one of the hardest projects I’ve had to work on, just in terms of the amount of work that went into it to get it over the line. We are incredibly pleased with it, it looks brilliant, it functions fantastically, and the supporters’ feedback has been as high as 98/99% positive. That’s been a big part of our summer. It gives us the best possible platform to go forward into the season and get our messages out there.
Jagzone is something completely new. We had a similar subscription service, it was something that was devised when we were a 1st Division club and it served a purpose for a period but it became clear throughout last season that the club had outgrown it. Our supporters were looking for something different, and Jagzone came from taking that feedback on board. A lot of clubs have a similar product now. It’s in behind the scenes, it’s video interviews, it’s extended highlights, it’s full game replays. There’s a live stream element as well that is something that’s completely new to the club. I think the whole package is a very attractive one and it’s something we’ve received a lot of initial positive feedback on. It’s also something that takes a lot of work. Graham McRoberts, who started off as a volunteer at the club and, through hard work and good ideas, is now a full time staff member. A lot of his time now is taken up by Jagzone and he’s put a huge amount of work into planning that, making sure the content going up is interesting and attractive to supporters. Making sure it’s the sort of thing they want to see. It takes buy in from the manager, the players, the board, everybody at the club, for us to be able to get the resource and time. I’m hoping that it’s only going to grow and grow over the next 12 months.
How would you say the club can try and engage with the next generation of supporters? Ensuring they grow up as Partick Thistle fans instead of your city neighbours…
It’s the holy grail for everybody in football across the UK – getting the average age of the fans down. The reality is that the average age of football fans in the UK is going up and up and up. For obvious reasons, it’s not necessarily a great thing for the long term prospects of any football club. We offer free entry to under 16-year-olds, that’s across the board. It’s not ‘you get free entry if you bring three adults with you’, if an under 16-year-old turns up to our ground, they will get free entry into our ground. They can sign up for a free season ticket if they want, pick a particular seat but, ultimately, if an under 16 comes to Firhill, there is a free ticket for them. The challenge now is how we manage to really start converting, at a high percentage rate, the number of 16-year-olds that do become fans. How are we converting them from ‘I used to go to Thistle up until I was 16 and then stopped’, to guys that are ‘I’ve been a season ticket holder all my life, because I got a free one when I was under 16’.
Alongside young fans, we’re also looking at a lot of different areas. Families are a big one for us. A lot of that comes down to improving the matchday experience as a whole. Making the matchday so it’s not about going to see Thistle win, lose or draw on a rainy day in November. It’s about going and having a great day or night at the football, regardless of the score. You see that at the likes of the rugby with Glasgow Warriors, and the likes of Braehead Clan. The American sports market is the best example of that, you go because it’s a great day. You go because you want to spend a day at the baseball, or NASCAR. You don’t necessarily go just for the result and I think that’s something that Scottish football has been quite slow to click on to. It’s been very much focused on the result. If we’re doing well we’ll get high crowds, yes there’s an extent of that but now there’s so much competition for people’s time. That’s not really enough anymore.
Time is the key thing, probably more so than money. Although money has a big role to play. If you’re a family of four, you can take three or four hours out of your day to go to the football, or you can sit in and watch Man Utd playing, or watch Soccer Saturday, or go to the cinema. It’s not like it used to be where football is the only thing that was on on a Saturday, where it was the only thing a dad could do with their kids or a family could do together. You run out of fingers and toes with the amount of things you could spend a Saturday afternoon doing. I’ve said for a long time now that our major competitors aren’t Rangers, Celtic, Motherwell or St Mirren. They’re not other clubs. I’m not going to go and watch another club because it’s cheaper, or because they’re playing better football. It’s not like changing from a Sony TV to a Panasonic TV because one is better. It doesn’t work like that. I think the major competitors for football clubs are Sony Playstation, Xbox, PC games, World of Warcraft, Cineworld, Sky Sports, BT Sports, Sky Movies, DVDs, Netflix. They’re the main competitors that we’re dealing with now, and they certainly have a much bigger budget than the majority of Scottish football clubs have to spend.
As a national game, we have to get our heads around how we make football attractive as a destination, rather than because you want to go and support your team. It’s something more and more clubs are switching on to, because they have to now. It’s got to be more than the result, because sitting outside on a freezing cold November night isn’t hacking it up against curling up on the sofa watching the new series of Narcos on Netflix. For a lot of people that’s a more attractive prospect.
Is there something then that you think can improve Scottish football?
I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. You see it in the papers every year, when the first game gets called off for a waterlogged or frozen pitch. Summer football. Let’s go and do summer football. Summer football might make a difference, or it might not. As a game, and as clubs, we should visit a variety of different options. Go and have a look at summer football, at alcohol in grounds, changing the format of competitions.
The League Cup format changed this season and as it happens the response seems to have been roundly positive from a lot of different people. If we’d tried it, and it hadn’t worked, we’ll not do it next year. We’ll try something different. I don’t think we should be afraid of trying new things and trying to do things differently. At the end of the day, that’s what is needed in Scottish football. I’m not convinced that English football isn’t far behind us in that respect. We need to go and try different things. The league and the FA comes in for some stick, but it’s not easy. There’s a huge number of variables that makes changing things very difficult at times. I think we need to be open minded as a game, as a national league, as clubs, as individuals, managers, managing directors, about how we improve the national game as a product, to put it in blunt terms.
Are there any other clubs or organisations that you look at and admire for what they’re doing at the moment?
In Scotland, I think a lot of the things the guys at Hearts do are impressive. They’ve got a really slick team now. The way they handled themselves when they got relegated their bounce straight back up and the way they’ve restructured the club is very, very impressive. They do a lot of good stuff in the way they handle the media and what they offer through the website. Hibs as well. Some of the video content that Hibs do is very good. Those emotional, tugging at the heart strings videos around season ticket time or Christmas are very clever, very simple even. They work very well.
There are certain clubs down south as well. The corporate side of the game is probably better down south than it is up here, in terms of how they market it, how they get people on board for hospitality and sponsorship. A lot of clubs are really only just switching on to the social side. We saw a lot of different uses of social over the transfer market. Clubs having a bit of fun with it. Businesses and football clubs often seem to be quite slow to pick up the light-hearted nature of social media. Where you can have a bit of a laugh, be a bit cheeky and not take it quite so seriously. At times, it’s just used as a news outlet to pump out stories and you can use it that way, but it’s not using it to its full potential. Obviously you’ve got the likes of Man Utd and Man City, incredibly slick operations. They’ve got huge teams and massive resources available to them.
Up here as well, the Warriors and Braehead Clan are very impressive with what they do around the matchday experience. I’ve been very impressed with them. We have a fair bit to do with the Warriors, we share a sponsor and there’s been a few events we’ve been at together. Jeremy Bone, who does my job over there, used to be at BIG as well.
Ultimately, the best place to look is the States. They do sports marketing better than anybody in the world. They are so focused on making it something people want to go to out with supporting the team, out with the result. Making it a destination people want to go to regardless. It’s not just your Chicago Bulls or the Mets, it’s right across all sports. Chicago Fire are brilliant on social media, football is almost a niche sport there and they’re getting 10-15,000 people to their games. For the best examples for both matchday experience and sports marketing/communication, you have to look at the States. Again though, they’ve got a budget I could only dream of!
You’re always on the lookout for things that are different that you could steal from others that might make a difference for your supporters. There’s nothing wrong with stealing a good idea!
And finally, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to break into the sports marketing industry?
It’s all about who you know, sadly. That’d probably be the biggest thing for me. Firstly, in terms of getting an opportunity in the first place, and then making the most of it. I’ve been very lucky. When I came into the job, I came from a business background where you’ll scrape and beg to get every little bit of coverage or mention, to come from that environment to now where I have journalists ringing me up on a daily basis asking if they can speak to our players or asking if they could give our club coverage, was a big eye-opener for me. That helps you appreciate the situation football clubs are in.
A huge amount of communications, and in particular sports communications, is about talking and building relationships. I couldn’t do what I do if it wasn’t for the really good relationships I have with the press, with the broadcast guys at Sky Sports, BT, BBC and STV. The Evening Times have been absolutely brilliant with me, as well. Always looking to give us and our sponsors good coverage. They’ve got coverage of Thistle every day at the moment, which is absolutely brilliant. I could go through all the guys, Gareth Law and Kenny Millar at the Sun have both been superb with us, really backed us and helped us out and in return they get access to players for one-to-ones. I’m quite open, all of our players are sensible enough. A few people who do my job would be a default no unless a journalist can convince them. I tend to be a default yes. I’m quite happy for our players to be interviewed as long as it’s positive. It’s good for us to be in the papers. It also means when something negative does happen, and a few negative things have happened over the last few years, that you get the benefit of the doubt and the support from the papers. They’ll give you your chance to put your side of the story over.
It’s about building those relationships, and ultimately, hard work. It takes a lot of determination, commitment, focus. Old fashioned hard work. It doesn’t always go your way, you’ll have bad days, bad weeks. At the end of the day, you’ll get through it and it’s that buzz that a lot of people in this job thrive off.