Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Rugby's response will pay careful consideration to the brand's reputation

By Nick Garbutt

There are no easy answers for Ulster Rugby as it contemplates what to do to safeguard its reputation after the acquittals of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

Whatever its decisions, it will be condemned by one quarter or another and the stakes are high.

It has already announced that both players will be relieved of their duties pending an internal review it will be conducting jointly with the IRFU. Doubtless this will be carried out impartially and diligently.

Notwithstanding this, there will be other issues which will be troubling them.

Ulster Rugby is a powerful and iconic brand.

It depends for its existence on its support base and its sponsorship and all this is underpinned by the public face of the club, its players.

Players are hero-worshipped and it is the dream of thousands of youngsters in mini rugby clubs to follow in their footsteps and wear the shirt of both province and country.

The club has fostered a family-friendly atmosphere at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast and there are hordes of enthusiastic children at every home game.

The two players have been found not guilty.

Yet this was one of the longest-running and the most high profile trials in Northern Ireland’s history. And during the case there were unsavoury aspects to the evidence which were not contested. Heavy drinking, group sexual activity and appalling phone messaging is not behaviour expected from role models.

We have already witnessed demonstrations in support of the complainant in both Dublin and Belfast. The club will undoubtedly also have been lobbied by protesters demanding that the players should never represent their province again. There is an obvious risk, if not probability, that there will be demonstrations at matches if they do.

Sponsors will also be contemplating their position. They pay money to be associated with the club, and do so because it promotes their brand and their values. There is plenty of evidence from elsewhere to suggest that sports sponsors are very quick to pull their cash out when they no longer see these values being aligned.

It would be very surprising if sponsors are not already receiving complaints. How they react will be crucial given how important their support is to the club’s finances.

Finally, there are the fans. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that when they turn on players, it is because of performances on the field rather than conduct off it. There will be sympathy for them too.

Plenty believe that it is unfair to name those accused of sexual crimes unless and until they are convicted. But this is untested waters — especially given that we can assume that protesters include rugby fans.

These factors need to be weighed against the not guilty verdicts. In most circumstances, people believe that if someone is acquitted they should be allowed to get on with their lives and careers.

Any other course of action looks to many like not respecting the decision of the court.

There is also their prowess as players. Both are full internationals, and Jackson is arguably Ulster’s best player.

Helping them to leave would not improve performance after what has been a thoroughly disappointing season.

Finally, there is a reputational downside to their departure as well.

If fans feel as if the club is not supporting the players, there could be a backlash.

In many respects, it might be better for all concerned if the players themselves decided to pursue their careers elsewhere, perhaps in France.

But Jackson appears to be ruling it out. He’s expressed a determination to play for his province and country again.

The review is now underway. The club would be wise not to be in a mad rush to conclude it.

Better to let it run on for a few weeks to assess reactions of sponsors, protesters and supporters.

This would be especially prudent if it were to be announced that they were to return to the team — you would not want that if protests were still taking place.

Timing is critical in reputational management.

Belfast Telegraph

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