FAI could do with a new PR strategy

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill has endured a tetchy relationship with the Irish media

IN the lead-up to the Republic of Ireland’s ill-fated World Cup play-off with Denmark last November the FAI provided journalists with a media guide.

They do this before most international games.

These booklets are full of useful stats, player profiles, previous meetings and the rest.

Journalists love these booklets because we can take this information, put it into our previews and pass it off as our own work.

In November’s slickly produced 48-page booklet there was a section under the heading ‘Media Info: FAI National Training Centre.’

I read it and was immediately transported back to second year in St Patrick’s, Bearnageeha.

There were six sections: location, press conferences, conference centre, parking, working room and training.

Attached was a list of do’s and don'ts.

In the parking section members of the media were threatened with getting their cars towed away should they park anywhere other than a designated area.

In the press conferences section, reporters should raise their hand to ask a question, put their phones on silent and no recording devices were to be placed on the top table.

Reporters were told to keep the working room tidy “at all times”.

And if any member of the media was seen trying to watch the team training beyond the allotted 15-minute slot they would be stripped of their accreditation.

We received an email after Ireland’s remarkable 1-0 win over Wales in Cardiff warning the media that they could be stripped of their accreditation if they posted any video material inside the stadium as this contravened broadcasting rights.

At the end of November, I received my 2018 FAI media press card through the post. It was gratefully received.

Attached was a covering letter that stipulated members of the media were “expected to be professional at all times, which includes respecting staff and volunteers, treating equipment and facilities with care and wearing smart casual clothing, and not disrupting fellow members of the media whilst they are working…”

It goes on to explain that the FAI reserves the right to revoke a reporter's accreditation “should their behaviour be anything less than professional”.

At school I encountered less finger-wagging instructions than the FAI.

The Football Association painted a very dim image of the media; that there was an inherent unruliness about us who loved nothing more than swaggering into the press box with ripped jeans and holes in our shoes, chewing gum and giving short shrift to every faceless steward that had the temerity to be in our eye line.

We were the graffiti-loving sub-culture that needed constant surveillance and a dress code reminder to help make us better citizens.

Relations between the FAI and Irish media can be characterised as fractious at best.

The Irish media has criticised the association for the perceived poor state of the domestic game while there have been industrial disputes over staff pay and restoration of temporary salary reductions.

FAI chief executive John Delaney has also been on the receiving end of some sharp criticism in recent years.

You suspect these criticisms of the FAI has something to do with the presentation and tone of how the media are supposed to act under the association’s roof.

Under Martin O’Neill, the Republic qualified for the Euro 2016 finals and reached the World Cup play-offs with a modest group of players is a very good return.

And yet, the atmosphere during international weeks can be toxic, utterly joyless affairs.

Player and manager access – and even trying to get injury updates - are on-going bugbears of the Irish media.

You only have to look at how other football associations manage their media relations.

One Dublin journalist attended the Denmark press briefing in Copenhagan a few days before the first leg.

He turned up and was asked by the Danish press officer who he wanted to interview. He was granted a one-to-one interview with Christian Eriksen.

In Cardiff, Chris Coleman spoke brilliantly before their World Cup group clash with the Irish.

Earlier, Chris Gunter came into the press room and spoke until reporters ran out of questions. The atmosphere was relaxed.

Later, Martin O’Neill and goalkeeper Darren Randolph met the press and the atmosphere between the media conferences couldn’t have been any more stark.

Since assuming the Republic of Ireland reins, O’Neill appears to have been completely stunned by the criticism he has received.

There is undoubtedly a more intense focus on international football.

Every last detail is analysed for days whereas on the club circuit the media and manager move on very quickly to the next game and relationships can be generally closer because of the regularity of press briefings and the much smaller number of reporters.

Most managers become prickly to criticism but O’Neill particularly so.

As a consequence, his relationship with the Irish media isn’t great, to the extent where he spent a few months mulling over whether to stay on as Republic of Ireland manager.

A lot of pundits were miffed at O’Neill’s flirtation with the Everton and Stoke City jobs, but when there’s only a verbal contract in place that’s what happens.

O’Neill has never ruled out a return to club management and nobody should have got hung up too much on the fact that he expressed an interest in two managerial positions.

The problem for O’Neill and the FAI was that he should have articulated this to the media in person after he decided to stay on with Ireland.

Instead, it was agreed between the association and the manager to do a puff piece to camera with FAI TV which did neither party any favours.

It was cringeworthy and epitomised the control freakery of the FAI.

At least, John Delaney fronted up on Wednesday by taking questions from the press to try and add some clarity to events of the last week and to defend O’Neill.

But the truth of the matter is few Republic of Ireland supporters would have lamented an O’Neill departure, even though he fully merits his contract extension.

In terms of PR, the FAI has had better weeks.

What all this has taught us is that someone within the FAI needs to rip up their media relations strategy and start again.

Threatening the media with the naughty step is not the way forward.

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