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Supporting an Epic Swindle

May 13, 2011

For the past few days I have been obsessively reading Epic Swindle: 44 months with a pair of cowboys, which recounts Tom Hicks and George Gillett time as owners of Liverpool Football Club.  It’s a great read for any fan, especially as it’s a very recent event that ended with a dramatic crescendo at the High Court. The Guardian’s live blog of the court case was unparalleled and utterly, utterly engrossing. The end result was euphoric.

Brian Reade’s book does a good job of charting the methods that a devoted core of fans employed to get the owners out. The Spirit of Shankly Supporters Union – which adopted a trade union mode of organising – was an instrumental vehicle for fans to exercise pressure. The union also had a smaller core of fans who represented blogs, fanzines and groups, that came together as a more action orientated group.

The supporters made superb use of the digital tools at their disposal. I remember being impressed by how a photo that a fan took of one of the owners sitting on a bench outside J.P Morgan Chase in New York, led to fans bombarding the bank with emails pleading with them not to lend the owners money. The story made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Digital technology meant that Hicks and Gillett’s every move may be up for scrutiny.

Other banks received similar treatment from fans – and it proved influential. Leading campaigners received phone calls from private equity and bank heads who had been linked with the owners, worried by the flood of emails they were receiving from fans all over the world.

This email campaign is what impressed me the most. These were initially standard emails copied and pasted by fans, written to carefully plead their case whilst not offending or abusing the banks. But  after a phone call with a senior executive at  RBS (the main bank that needed to be influenced as they financed the loan that the Americans had used to buy the club), one of the fans realised they had the attention of the bank, and that their approach needed to change.

The fan asked others to stop sending standard emails and to start sending personal ones; emails conveyiong their own stories, feelings and aspirations for the club that pleaded with the bankers to stop financing the parasitic owners. Thousands of fans did so.

The personalisation of messages is something I am keen to explore through our work on local digital activism. Template emails and petitions are valuable tools, but I can’t help but think they offer an easy ‘get out clause’ for their targets; I can imagine that in their heads, they would think that this has just been copied and pasted, so I will delete the whole lot and ignore it. In fact, I’ve heard politicians say this very thing.

But if the issue is so powerful that it compels individuals to write their own emails to decision makers, putting forward their justification for a change of course, then it is undoubtedly much more difficult to ignore and much more engaging for the activist.

These two aren’t mutual exclusive of course – they  go hand in hand. But even though it’s probably a case of stating the obvious, the more personal, emotional messages will – in my opinion – be the most powerful. From now on, these will be the only ones that I will send about the issues that matter to me.

More about the Liverpool supporters online campaign can also be read on Dan Roan’s BBC blog.

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