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'Despite Newbridge and Liam Miller outcomes, the GAA lost as it looked to be bullied by public opinion'

‘This is a GAA that clearly wasn’t reading the room, or the country’, writes Declan Lee.

Declan Lee

THERE’S A COMMON practice in PR circles when it comes to crisis communications, get to the worst possible point as quickly as you can and rebuild from there.

It’s fair to say the GAA has been taking the long road this summer and using its high horse to get there.

It has been the PR summer from hell for new president John Horan and director of communications Alan Milton, with ghost goals, Newbridge or Nowhere, “neutral” venues in June and #OpenThePairc, decided this day last week, seeing the GAA’s image continually dragged over the hot coals.

No one debates the great work the GAA does or its ability to generate revenue but the crisis around the Liam Miller tribute match was not about that. It was about its inability to make decisions in line with a modern Ireland that has embraced marriage equality and young women’s pregnancy options in recent years. There is no place for an archaic rulebooks in this Ireland.

We will never know what happened behind GAA doors since this match was first touted for Páirc Uí Chaoimh and to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men – “We couldn’t handle the truth”. Certainly not the social media snowflakes amongst us.

‘The GAA just stuck the headphones in’

A crisis is a stress test of any organisation and not just the structures, but the people working there. Once it hits everyone backs away, disassociating themselves from what they said, how they said it, when they said it, until they are in it. Then they realise they are in it, how do they get out of the hole with the least mud on their shirt? Back to getting to the worst possible point first and rebuilding.

That “place” for the GAA was the complete inability to open Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but it was borne out through media and different experts that it was possible. Once this began to seep through social media everyone felt, like Newbridge, common sense would prevail, but it didn’t. So why did the GAA delay? They left the issue hanging in the air like a PR piñata to be bashed by all and sundry.

Their statements bordered on arrogant and apathetic sending the Twittersphere into overload. This is a GAA that clearly wasn’t reading the room, or the country. Taking legal advice to ensure it couldn’t open the Páirc to raise money for the charity of a family who lost their father to cancer will go down in future PR books of what never to do.

Crisis communications can’t be taught. It’s a dash of experience, a sprinkle of knowledge and a huge dollop of common sense. Understanding social media, the traditional media is all apart of it, cutting through the noise and listening to the key opinions, but the GAA just stuck the headphones in.

Missed chances

In Newbridge, the GAA missed the chance to be the heroes. Take the lead on rearranging the fixture and be seen to be taking that Croke Park revenue hit for the betterment of the game. It didn’t and got torn apart. It should have learned its lesson, but fast forward a couple of weeks and there was another issue it could turn into PR gold.

We had been told it was possible and it was. However what was stopping the GAA, when the question was posed, to quickly find a workaround and be seen to be the heroes in opening the Páirc? At least to be seen to be engaging the organisers – it could have helped appease the frothing social media hounds.

Surely a quick canvass of its sponsors opinions would have focused the mind. This was a PR open goal for John Horan but instead he faced into his second Joe Duffy issue in a month. And everyone knows, if you’re on Joe, you’ve already lost.

However as the crisis increased, the silence from the GAA was deafening. And when you create a vacuum in PR, there’s always others who will happily fill it for you. It’s fair to say every “personality” who was stood within five miles of a GAA ground had their say on the matter and it was unanimous; make it work. But the GAA should have known this already, even the staunchest of Gaels knew it.

Public outcry 

It’s important to remember that PR advice and common sense can be overshadowed by the interests of higher ranking officials when it comes to a crisis, whether to save their own skin or their ideals. Even Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary did little to help the image of his company with his outbursts, but he has softened in time to the benefits of a good PR image. So, while common sense may have prevailed in the GAA, it may well have been overruled by high level rulebook yielders.

These are the details that the general public and the media will probably never be privy to. While honesty is always the best policy in a crisis there is always other factors at work that will never come to the fore and unfortunately that creates distrust and suspicion from onlookers.

Despite the outcome the GAA has lost this summer and it will be frustrating as there was opportunity for two PR wins, to highlight it had changed at all levels, changed at the core of the organisation, that it was now modern like our new Ireland. However instead of taking quick decisive action it was seen to be bullied by public opinion. Would the GAA have opened the Páirc without the public outcry? Unlikely.

However, let’s hope the Liam Miller Charity match is maximised to its full potential in whatever form, because that, and not a “rulebook” is the most important thing here. It doesn’t take a PR consultant to tell anyone that.

Declan Lee is a PR Consultant who has worked for a range of sports National Governing Bodies, handled sports sponsorships for brands including Aviva, Electric Ireland, William Hill and Powerade and has handled crisis communications for several organisations including work on the 2016 Rio Olympic Ticketing Crisis. 

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