Talking Point: Getting it right – and wrong – with PR in sport

TalkingPointGetting it right and wrong

In sport and business, reputation is everything. However, from time to time, a company’s internal public relations activities are misjudged to such an extent that a problem becomes a crisis.

The case of G4S

Take G4S as an example. The security firm ran into severe recruiting problems in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, falling considerably short of their 10,400 staffing target. Just weeks before the problems were exposed publicly, though, leading executives from G4S were boasting in media interviews of the company’s capacity for coping for such projects. When nearly 5,000 British troops were drafted in to cover G4S’s shortfall, many thought the humiliation was complete.
However, the UK Home Affairs Committee has now accused G4S of giving false reassurances to the organisers of the Games and the Home Secretary before finally admitting a little over two weeks before the Opening Ceremony that it would not be able to fulfil its contract. And against the backdrop of criticism, chief executive Nick Buckles then left many MPs stunned by saying that he expected the Games’ organising committee to fulfil its £235 million contract for Olympic security, and insisted that G4S had “delivered a significant portion of the contract”.
“With the G4S situation, when it became clear that there was a problem, obviously honesty should have been the best policy,” an experienced sports PR professional, who did not wish to be named, told GlobalSportsJobs. “But there would appear to have been a communication breakdown if their executives were still extolling the company’s virtues just days before the high-profile shambles became apparent. Once something like this has happened, it is about damage limitation to the reputation of a business, but it is unlikely this will be achieved by defending what many people would see as indefensible.”
Many journalists will tell you that good PR professionals are often difficult to come by. For example, it is common for many sports club communications departments to fail to respond to emails and phone calls, even following a major announcement. If they are reached, it is common for the “no comment” line to be used repeatedly, leaving the journalist frustrated and more ready than ever to write something negative. Such an unhelpful approach is symptomatic of a lack of understanding of how the media works.
“The worst thing you can do is say nothing,” the PR professional added. “They expect you to appreciate that the ‘one-size’ approach does not fit all in media communications, and they expect a swift response to enquiries. Remember, you are not just dealing with bad news. If you are proactive with good ideas that fit the medium and audience they work with, you’ll quickly build connections that will carry your message.”

Building respect

So how can an aspiring sports PR professional make sure they develop into someone who is respected, rather than denigrated?
Andrew Walker, one of the sports sector’s leading marketing and communications professionals, was recognised by SportsBusiness Journal as one of the industry’s leading young executives last year when he was named as one of their ’40 under 40’. He is currently head of marketing at the Women’s Tennis Association.
“For anyone in an industry like sport there are relatively few opportunities,” he told GlobalSportsJobs. “It is important to meet as many people as you can and build relationships within the industry, even if you are on the outside. So much of it is about timing – who you meet and with whom you make the right impression – so you need to network as much as possible. Then you will have the relevant experience to be an attractive candidate, but you will have also picked up lessons about how to deal with people.
Sports PR ranks have been swelled by sports journalists who have moved over to a sector that, on the whole, offers better pay and better job security. Appreciating the needs of the media is a clear advantage to having garnered journalistic experience. However, efficiency and credibility are traits that all aspiring PR professionals can aspire to, regardless of their backgrounds. 
“Believability and credibility is essential to being a good communications professional, and particularly in sports,” Walker added. “People are so cynical these days. There is no doubt that some PR people put the best possible storyline out there even when there isn’t a good story to tell, but you always have to be credible or you are dead in the water.”

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