PR Lessons From Accrington Stanley and the Soccer Game That Never Was

Most media pitches fail. Probably because they follow the norm – ordinary stories that neither journalist nor reader will have any interest in. What’s needed to win coverage, and in turn boost SEO, is something that really stands out, that intrigues a journalist – and often what intrigues a journalist is not just the news, but the way a story is told.

And you don’t need a big PR team to make it happen, as this story from a small soccer club in England shows.

Probably everyone has heard of Manchester United, whether you think of them as a “soccer” or football” club. But not many people outside English football circles would have heard about Accrington Stanley, a small club in Lancashire.

All that changed with a clever, inexpensive PR exercise that grabbed huge attention with stories on the BBC, The Guardian, NBC, and many others. Here are the 119,000 results of a search for “Accrington Stanley” on Google News:


Playing a match against Manchester United is the dream of all clubs outside the elite English Premier League. And in this year’s FA Cup, Accrington Stanley only had to beat one team to attain their dream.

Unfortunately they lost and their dream died.

But that didn’t stop Accrington Stanley coming up with a whopper of a story.

There’s no mileage of course in a story like:

“After the defeat, Accrington Stanley won’t play Man Utd”

But there certainly is mileage in the story:

“Accrington Stanley sell tickets to match with that will never happen”

It’s an intriguing story that has the journalist asking, “What is this all about?” And if the journalist is curious, he knows that so too will his potential readers – in other words, it will make a great story.

The story won coverage and editorial links from the BBC


…and NBC Sports.


So Accrington Stanley looked at their defeat with a storyteller’s eyes. They took an unusual perspective and realized that there was a story about the match that would now never be played.

The club printed “commemorative match tickets,” offered them for sale at £20 each (around $30), and told the story on their website. That was all the initial promotion they did – simply publish a story on their own website.

Then, the story was picked up by local journalists who regularly read the site, then U.K. national titles took an interest, followed by international media.

The resulting media buzz meant that the tickets were quickly sold out as the website shows:


The story caught the media’s attention big time and analyzing the success of such stories is useful – and provides models to follow in our own future PR.

So what can the Accrington Stanley story teach us?

There are three important points:

  1. Most people won’t see a story. Every business or organization has a story to tell but the problem is that they often don’t realize that they’ve got a potential story. Part of the public relations job is to take the initiative in spotting and developing potential stories. And that means going beyond the ordinary to get great results.
  2. Examples of great storytelling are all around us. Just look at how published PR stories are constructed. What was unusual that made the story stand out? Why did the journalist become interested? Who else took up the story? Collecting great stories, analyzing them, and learning from them is the best PR education you can get. (See also 10 Online PR Lessons From the Huge Success of Phonebloks.)
  3. Create something to link to. Accrington Stanley printed tickets and told their story on their own website. This gave journalists who covered the story something to link to. It’s surprising just how often PR departments can miss this important SEO opportunity. So it’s worthwhile putting a lot of thought into what might be link-worthy. (See also 10 Ways to Increase the Odds of Getting Editorial Links.)

According to club chairman, Peter Marsden, Accrington Stanley doesn’t take itself too seriously. “This was just a wild, whacky idea that has taken off and triggered a massive media reaction. The club is held in great affection in England – but this has triggered international attention that has surprised us. We’re just PR amateurs but who knows where this might lead next.”

And one final tip – always keep an eye to a future story. In our interview, Marsden hinted that a future friendly match with Manchester United might take place.

That’s a wonderful way to set up a future media opportunity.

Homepage image source.

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