Tackling the RFU's PR disaster

6 February 2023 | 4 min read | Crisis Comms
Portrait photo of James Gwinnett
James Gwinnett

The Six Nations is one of the world’s most iconic ­sporting competitions.

As a serious former rugby player, now qualified coach and a life-long fan, I’m biased, but… a seven-week long championship that pits six of the top tier nations against each other, an annual mini-World Cup if you will… there really isn’t anything else like it in any other sport.

Such a shame then, that the launch of this year’s Championship was tainted by rugby being in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Two professional sides, Worcester and Wasps, went into administration in the autumn;

‘misogyny, sexism, racism and homophobia’ are rife at the Welsh Rugby Union, prompting the departure of chief executive Steve Phillips; corruption amidst the Fédération Française de Rugby has led to president Bernard Laporte’s resignation; fresh allegations surrounding the tragic death of Siobhan Cattigan, who died of issues related to brain injuries, have been swept under the rug by Scottish Rugby (and one of its players faces allegations of domestic abuse)… the list goes on.

But, having plied my trade in communications for a decade and a half – and as an England fan – the fiasco at England Rugby surrounding its latest announcement has been the one to really get my goat.

You see, in announcing the biggest change to rugby’s laws in the game’s history – namely that the legal height of the tackle would be lowered from the shoulders to the waist for all amateur players – the Rugby Football Union (RFU) failed to consult with amateur players.

In 1995, when the game turned professional, the then England captain, Will Carling, called the RFU a ‘bunch of old farts’. Unfortunately, not much has changed, as the recent decision was voted on by the RFU Council – none of whom are active players – without engaging with the people who the decision would affect.

It built on the perception of the RFU as being completely out of touch with the game they are tasked with overseeing and resulted in uproar across the entire professional and amateur rugby community. In fact, the backlash has been so fierce that the CEO and board may even face a vote of no confidence.

A follow-up statement said that the decision is “the start of the process” and that “a period of engagement” will follow. But the engagement should have been the start of the process. The RFU has subsequently tried to dig itself out of a hole by issuing an apology and saying that it will “listen, understand and respond to” concerns. But, with the apology coming a week later, it was too little too late and the community has called it “worthless”.

What can we learn from this?

One of the RFU’s core values is respect, yet it doesn’t seem to treat the rugby community with respect, rather decisions are made from on high and hundreds of thousands of players, coaches and refs are expected to toe the line.

It seems crazy to have to spell it out, but such a major decision that affects so many people should be based around engaging with the people it will affect before the decision is made, not after.

The RFU could have run a campaign whereby it trialled it with clubs over a period of time, ran workshops up and down the country, asked for feedback, spoke to the professional clubs for their endorsement and much more. And the final announcement should have communicated all this work, whilst clearly detailing the research and evidence considered.

Comms for something like this should be based around clarity, with questions pre-empted and fears allayed. Unfortunately, the RFU announcement was about as clear as mud.

Watch this video, in which I discuss the PR crisis that has resulted from the RFU’s botched announcement with Clearly’s MD, Paul MacKenzie-Cummins: