PADDY HEANEY: Good PR helps but actions speak louder than words

People tend to be surprised when they find out I spent four years doing a degree in communication, advertising and marketing.

“Why did you pick a course like that?” they ask.

I never tell the real reason. Until now. The shameful truth is, my intentions where wholly immoral. Some teenagers want to be doctors. I wanted to be Don Draper.

I had watched a few programmes about what goes on in the creative departments of advertising agencies. Drinking, smoking, women, more drinking, more smoking and the occasional brilliant idea.

“That’s the job for me,” I said to myself as I filled out the application form. Fortunately, or unfortunately (I’m still not sure), it didn’t work out. Disgusted, I drifted into journalism.

As a result my extensive knowledge in advertising, marketing and PR is now redundant. At least as a sports journalist, the modules I took in PR proved to be useful as a constant source of amusement.

The comedy came from watching the GAA often doing the polar opposite of what is recommended by the PR profession. Indeed, to explain what not do in a crisis, someone could write a very good textbook using the GAA as their only example. The theory behind effective crisis management is astonishingly simple and often incredibly effective.

In short, organisations are advised to immediately issue a statement acknowledging that the incident took place. The statement should also express a commitment to make sure the problem will be resolved.

Simple? Yes. But wind the clock back a few years and virtually no one in the GAA had a clue about this basic PR strategy.

The Ulster Council was one of the worst culprits. When disaster struck, the shutters went up. The Ulster Council’s PR handbook had one page and five words. Their policy read: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” As a means of countering anti-terrorism interrogation techniques, it’s good practice. But as a PR strategy for running a sporting organisation, it’s an unmitigated disaster.

The result was that when a controversial story broke, the vacuum of silence from the GAA would be filled by one bad headline after another. A negative story could run for weeks.

Nowadays, the situation has changed beyond all recognition.

When Aaron Cunningham claimed he had been racially abused, the Ulster Council delivered a masterclass in public relations.

Less than two hours after Cunningham was interviewed in the Athletic Grounds, the Ulster Council emailed a statement to every media outlet in the country.

The press release said the council planned to “investigate the matter”.

It also asserted the GAA “is an anti-racist organisation by rule and will not tolerate, in the strongest and most emphatic terms, racist abuse of any type”. The following day, Ulster president Aogan Farrell was interviewed on television and repeated the GAA’s strident opposition to any form of prejudice. GAA president Liam O’Neill also fielded questions in Croker.

The net effect was the dreadful story of a player claiming he was racially abused only stayed in the headlines for a day.

Effective PR is based on the premise that people will listen to what organisations have to say, and judge them on what they do. When announcing that the Ulster Council had established an official investigation, the press release stated the investigation would be “based on the contents of the referee’s report”.

Match referee Joe McQuillan was nowhere near the area where the abuse took place. And the linesman closest to the incident informed Cunningham he didn’t hear anything.

It’s difficult to imagine how the referee’s report could contain any evidence that would lead to any Kilcoo player being suspended. Of course, it would be totally unjust to suspend any players if the necessary evidence doesn’t exist. However, there is other evidence that racial abuse took place. BBC reporter Mark Sidebottom was a spectator at the game and stated that he heard a Kilcoo supporter racially abusing Cunningham.

Other supporters have reportedly informed Ulster Council officials they heard these comments. And if the Ulster Council is willing to rely on the testimony of a neutral observer, then it should be able to follow the example of the Irish Football Association. In 2009, the IFA fined Ballymena United £1,250 (€1,548) after their disciplinary committee found the club’s supporters directed racist comments at Dungannon Swifts goal-keeper Alvin Rouse. They relied on the evidence of the referee and a match delegate.

A recent case concerning racial abuse at a GAA match in Cavan collapsed because of a lack of evidence. But the investigation surrounding Cunningham is different. There is evidence.

If the Irish FA can penalise clubs whose supporters engage in this behaviour, surely the GAA should be able to do the same.

For the past week, the GAA followed a public relations strategy claiming a determination to stamp out racial abuse.

Those men should be applauded for confronting the issue rather than running away from it.

But the GAA should be warned. If an organisation doesn’t follow talk with action, trust will be damaged. And once an organisation loses trust, no PR exercise in the world can save it.


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