Grand National deaths: PR professional Matt Taylor on how racing’s PR professionals have reacted

I invited a few regular tweeters to offer their thoughts on the Grand National debate. First up is PR professional Matt Taylor.

I think there are a couple of very separate issues at play in the great Grand National debate. Firstly, the cause of the fatalities themselves and what can be done to address this and, secondly, the way the fatalities have been presented.

On the first issue there are people far more qualified than I to suggest causes and changes. I am a fan of the sport and love the Grand National but, without having worked in the industry, I will defer to people more knowledgeable than I on that count. Where I do feel more qualified to judge is on the presentational issue. I work in PR for a major charity and feel that the BHA’s response to the tragic events have been poor, and has failed to address some of the criticisms levelled at the race..

When a news story is likely to break, preparation is key and the BHA did not seem prepared to me. As the coverage unfolded in the newspapers and on the radio throughout Sunday and Monday, the BHA’s voice was sadly missing. This is inexcusable for a media story that is foreseeable, as the fatalities sadly were. The BHA should have had a response prepared fully explaining the nature of changes made to the course, a discussion of the benefits to racehorses of being able to race, a promise to look at what went wrong, listen to concerns etc. I saw no evidence of this preparation in the coverage of the event, throughout Sunday and Monday, with responses left to the MD of Aintree racecourse, Andy Stewart, Ginger McCain, Brough Scott and John Francome in the Mirror, Sky and BBC Radio 5 Live to name just three pieces. Where was a representative of the BHA in any of these 3 key articles? The League Against Cruel Sports and, particularly, Animal Aid, were well prepared and represented in the media, arguing their case expertly whether you agree with it or not. Why were the BHA not similarly well prepared?

On Monday afternoon, just two hours after the Radio 5 piece, the BHA’s website top story was, laughably, about the revised stalls numbering and starting initiatives. For a body whose responsibility is to “ensure the continued health and successful development of the sport” it shows a staggering ignorance of the way the general public perceive horse racing to not address the issue on its website and will certainly not help to develop new audiences for it.

The story will, of course, blow over and be forgotten about come Wednesday. It does not need to be stoked up again now by the BHA suddenly springing into action – they had their chance and missed it. The News of the World (and sister paper the Sun) and the Daily Mail, both of whom have been critical of the race, will undoubtedly cover the race next year, probably giving away free bets through a lucrative sponsorship deal with a high street bookie. The cycle will repeat itself because the GN and any post-race scandal makes for good copy, sells papers and promotes comments on website stories. Next year, the BHA needs to ensure it is a part of this cycle so it can promote the sport and defend it as needs be.

On a further presentational note, the BBC’s coverage of the fatalities – notably the overhead shot of Dooney’s Gate – was, at times, insensitive. The reason screens go up is to avoid people seeing stricken horses and it shouldn’t be the case that the screens can be rendered redundant. This is a discussion that needs to be had with the BBC. A discussion that should be run by the BHA – if they can first sort out the critical issue of stalls numbering.

4 thoughts on “Grand National deaths: PR professional Matt Taylor on how racing’s PR professionals have reacted

  1. Since this was posted, Simon Rowlands on Twitter asked if I might give my thoughts on the Racing Post’s coverage of the GN fatalities. Unfortunately I haven’t seen the RP over the past couple of days so can’t comment, other than on the pieces they have had on their website.

    I think what has been noticeable there though is the number of comments from racing fans that echo the concerns of some of the mass media. While website comments should never be taken to be representative of wider readership, they do suggest that this is a debate that needs to be aired in racing media and not just the popular press. Whether and to what extent they have done that in the past 48 hrs I unfortunately do not know, but would be interested to hear thoughts from those who have seen.

    1. Paul Struthers, head of communications at the BHA has kindly agreed to write a guest article about the BHA’s handling of this situation. Paul, understandably, needs a day or two to clear his current workload.


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