Northern Ireland

Ulster Rugby: Has season been PR car crash?

Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.
Image caption Ulster have struggled on and off the pitch

The National Union of Journalists has sent an open letter to Ulster Rugby in protest at the exclusion of news reporters from press conferences.

It comes in the wake of two Ireland and Ulster players being acquitted of rape after a high-profile nine-week trial.

The NUJ said the "attempt to stifle" media coverage of the aftermath of the trial is an "unjustifiable interference with the freedom of the press".

So, have Ulster Rugby got themselves into a scrum they can't get out of?

Poor performances on the pitch have led to the departure of director of rugby Les Kiss, closely followed by the announcement that head coach Jono Gibbes will leave at the end of the season.

In an average year, that would keep the public relations department busy.

However, the handling of the rape trial and its aftermath have raised questions about the club's ability to cope with a crisis.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Both Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson were acquitted of all charges against them

But the club has struggled to contain the fallout from the trial and the subsequent termination of Jackson and Olding's contracts, even though Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were both acquitted of all charges..

Confining its pre-match press conferences to rugby writers since last week prompted strong criticism, not least from the NUJ.

Writing in the opinion section of Friday's Irish News, journalist William Scholes said Ulster Rugby's handling of the story was "bewildering".

Ban on news reporters

He said its strategy could "appear next to 'cack-handed', 'car crash' and 'crisis management' in the index of The Big Book of how not to do media relations".

He said the barring of news journalists from the press conferences was "a truly bizarre approach".

And he pointed to "another unusual feature" around the "lack of visibility" from senior figures to answer "clearly legitimate questions" around the culture of the club.

Meanwhile, the Ulster Branch of the IRFU accused journalists of "unprofessional" behaviour at the first rugby press conference after the trial ended.

Jono Gibbes spoke to the media on 2 April, after which Ulster imposed a ban on news reporters from attending their events.

However, three journalists present at the press conference told the Irish Times this week that their conduct was respectful and professional.

Irish rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll described the club as a "basket case" - a claim that was countered by current Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale who called the comments "ridiculous".

Image copyright Inpho
Image caption O'Driscoll (right) has been a regular media pundit at Kingspan Stadium since his retirement

Many PR firms advertise themselves as experts in crisis management so what would they have done differently?

Nick Garbutt, a former newspaper editor who now works in public relations, said: "This was one of the biggest news stories of the year, there was never going to be a soft landing.

"The best you could wish for was damage limitation, but there did not appear to be a communications strategy prepared for the end of the trial."

Terry Prone, chair of The Communications Clinic in Dublin, believes there was a lack of preparation that put the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and Ulster Rugby on the back foot.

"A communications consultancy would have been doing scenario planning long before the end of the trial and would have been ready to move once the trial ended," she said.

"They are paid to ask the questions journalists are likely to ask and to prepare a plan for the worst case scenario.

"The IRFU didn't move quickly enough and once the concerned letters from sponsors became public, they lost the ability to make a moral decision rather than one seen as reacting to sponsors."

'Don't hide'

The PR consultants also believe banning news journalists from press conferences was a mistake, not helped by the low profile of Ulster Rugby chief executive Shane Logan, dubbed "the invisible man" by supporters.

But both PR consultants have some sympathy for those trying to contain the crisis at Ulster Rugby.

Image copyright Inpho
Image caption Willie Anderson says a return to core values will lead to future success

"The first rule of crisis communications is don't hide from it," said Nick Garbutt.

"Get your most senior people out there quickly and let them answer every question.

"Don't ban journalists, as that is always counterproductive."

Terry Prone said that once organisations are on the wrong foot they often make bad decisions.

"This usually involves looking for leaks and regarding the media as the enemy. The media is only the enemy if you don't feed it.

"The media adore themselves so a ban just insults them and will be presented as an insult to the public, guaranteeing negative coverage."

She added: "They should not try and spin their way out of this, but get back to rugby, reinforce their values and try to move on."

Former Ireland international Willie Anderson is currently working with the Ulster Academy and he believes that future success will be built on a return to core values.

"I'm sure that the season can't end soon enough for Ulster," says Nick Garbutt.

"They've handled this badly but if they concentrate on rugby and get back to winning ways on the pitch the fans will remain loyal and this crisis will pass."

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