Getting racing back on the road: a tricky PR journey
Mike Deasy on the PR minefield of getting racing back on the road
For over a month now, Doug Campbell’s 50 3yo Flat Horses to Follow has been available here on The Racing Hub, and it’s been promoted via our Twitter account with the intro of “When the time is right for racing to return… “
When that might be nobody can say for certain. Indeed, one Twitter follower responded by saying “It won’t”. A disappointing response.
But it will return and there is no harm in making plans accordingly. It is, however, a potential PR nightmare. It is not something which can be approached with what is perceived as unseemly haste. And, there are those who don’t ever want racing to return and will use the current situation to score points against the sport.
Already, there has been sniping at the staging of the Cheltenham Festival only days before the country went into lock-down. It was a decision made in the full knowledge of the government and had it been considered to be a risk of accelerating the spread of the coronavirus, it would have been prevented from taking place.
Since then the BHA has quite rightly looked at how and when it can reintroduce the sport. The when element is the unknown factor but a target date of 1 May was promulgated. Whilst you need a target date, it nevertheless gets interpreted as an intended date.
Even if you say it’s the start of a rolling date for the sport to recommence, it is measured against the current status of the pandemic and not what the situation might be a few weeks hence.
Better, perhaps, to talk about the stringent circumstances under which racing would return and hold back on mentioning when that might be.
Whilst the BHA is concerned with the sport as a whole, Ascot is understandably concerned with the Royal meeting. With the Guineas and the Derby already postposed, it was clear that Royal Ascot, if it was to take place, was going to have to be behind closed doors.
Being the Royal meeting, such a scenario is a major sports story, especially when most other sports news is about top events, such as Wimbledon and the Open Golf Championship, being cancelled.
So it was that sport presenter Gary Richardson got the bit between his teeth earlier in the week when he interviewed Ascot’s head of communications, Nick Smith (pictured), on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
It was a taste of how generalist sports presenters can approach racing and the impression they can leave, especially when they have thought of a question which they think is the key issue but with limited appreciation of the bigger picture and the complexities of the sport.
The interview was introduced by Richardson:
“Racing’s first four classics of the season have been cancelled including the Derby at the beginning of June. Organisers of Royal Ascot, though, say that it may be possible to run their meeting behind closed doors. Nick Smith is the head of communications at Ascot and he joins me just now… “
Richardson: “How many people would be involved working behind closed doors and how would it be possible for you to run the meeting?”
Smith: “Well, first of all, yes the announcement was very much the intention to run the meeting subject to governmental advice and obviously our racing authority, the BHA’s advice. So, it’s not an announcement that racing definitely goes ahead. We’re very conscience that there’s a road ahead, so what we’re now doing is planning to be ready in the eventuality that it is ok to race, and we will be putting a plan together to run the race meeting with the minimum number of staff that are required for that to happen.”
Richardson: “Yea, but what actually is the point of even planning when so many other sports and events, the Derby, the Open Golf. I just mentioned the Canadian Grand Prix. Their dates correspond with yours. What’s the point?”
Smith: “Well, the Guineas and the Derby aren’t actually being cancelled, they’re being rescheduled later in the summer.”
Richardson “No, but the Grand Prix’s are, the Open Golf is off, so I come back to the point, what is the actual point in running it behind closed doors? What is the point?”
Smith: “Well, it is for the industry. It’s a very complex industry, the breeding industry, the racing industry – the opportunities for the horses if they can be given will be given and they’ll only be given to those horses in the eventuality that we have the government backing to do so.”
Richardson: “How much money will you make from running the meeting?”
Smith: “We’re going to make very little – we’re going to make no money. We’re going to lose money considerably this year, even with [interrupted].”
Richardson: “Well then, that seems a complete nonsense to run something where you will be putting people’s lives possibly at risk. I mean, how can you guarantee social distancing for anyone working at Ascot?”
Smith: “I suppose if you look at the model that is currently being applied in Australia and Hong Kong and Japan in fact, they’re running behind closed doors models that we will be looking at to make sure that people are safe and if we are not confident or the government are not confident that it’s safe, it won’t go ahead.”
Richardson: “You would concede that there would be a huge element of risk.”
Smith: “No. There certainly won’t be a huge element of risk. If there was risk involved, obviously there’s going to be an element of risk but the risk at the point in time that we start racing will be determined by the government and we will follow government practise.”
Richardson: “Ok, so you will be putting on an event that will lose a considerable amount of money so let me ask you this finally – if one person contracted coronavirus from going to Ascot and then passed it on what would you think of your decision then?”
Smith: “Well, I think we have to look at everything in the round. I mean, we’re looking at the government [interrupted].”
Richardson: “Can I just ask you what you would think, just to answer my question, can I just ask you to specifically answer the question I’ve asked you, what would you think of your decision is somebody contracted coronavirus, what would you think?”
Smith: “I think we have to take the whole resumption of sport in the round and racing will play its part in that.”
Richardson: “Nick Smith, thank you very much.”
The BBC has dispensed with the services of Cornelius Lysaght as racing correspondent. That’s not to say he should have conducted the interview, but it demonstrates what can go on air if you don’t check the facts or have a bee in your bonnet which, in itself, misses the point!
The suggestion could have been made that Ascot’s plan benefits rich owners and caters to the bookmakers. It wasn’t, but it probably will be.