Rugby concussion concerns grow and pose comms headache after BBC documentary

The worlds of rugby and healthcare face renewed comms challenges over growing concerns about the issue of concussion and head injuries in the sport, following a BBC documentary last night.

Rugby needs to take a close look at its post-concussion procedures, PR pros say (Credit: David Foltz)
Rugby needs to take a close look at its post-concussion procedures, PR pros say (Credit: David Foltz)

The came to the fore during the Six Nations tournament earlier this year, with the second of three such injuries suffered by Wales' George North in particular putting a focus on whether measures for managing players who had suffered head injuries were sufficient - especially in the amateur game, which does not enjoy the same on-hand medical support.

Yesterday, a BBC Panorama documentary showed that the number of reported concussion cases was on the rise, and featured World Rugby's chief medical officer saying that rules around tackling in the game might have to change in order to protect players.

With the sport enjoying its moment in the limelight after the Rugby World Cup began on Friday, PRWeek asked three practitioners how the issue could unfold.

Bill Morgan, founding partner at Incisive Health, said this was "an area crying out for attention".

"Head injuries in sport are taken much more seriously and systematically in the US than here in the UK, where at the moment we see no big public awareness campaigns and no concerted NHS action on them," he said.

The issue of head trauma in American Football has been high on the agenda of the NFL for a number of years. However, as PRWeek US reported last month, PR professionals have warned that a new film entitled Concussion starring Will Smith as medic working with players represents a substantial PR risk to the sport.

Morgan went on to say: "The US is years ahead of the UK. It is possible to bring awareness of the issue up to levels seen in the US, but it will take a big campaign and a big political commitment involving both the education and the health departments, fired up by sports and health groups."

David Alexander, former sports writer and managing director of sports agency Calacus PR, said: "While the plight of George North has been a great shame for the player, it has served to raise the issue of head injuries in a way that few other incidents have done.

"There is a big opportunity for World Rugby and the rugby authorities in general to address concussion or other head injuries with the seriousness that they deserve – and with so many players retiring because of it, including England internationals, it is only right that they do so sooner rather than later."

He said that Calacus had worked with the International Boxing Association ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games, as it addressed concerns around concussions ahead of women's boxing's debut at the Olympics. He added that the association's review and education work resulted in "a huge decrease in concussions and related injuries across its competitions".

Kate Pogson, director of health at MHP, said: "Patient groups, charities and medical professionals have a role to play in indirectly educating players and potential players by ensuring accuracy of media reporting and the medical information contained within it, and also by educating and equipping the professional sporting bodies to communicate effectively with their members.

Pogson also said there was a risk that coverage of the issue risked being seen as scaremongering, saying: "Comms need to come from an already trusted source, so groups should consider where people already source information and influence this content. Any separate direct-to-public comms runs the risk of being seen to scaremonger, reducing the likelihood of engagement and impact, or any desired change in the game."

A spokeswoman for the Rugby Football Union, which controls rugby in England, said: "Player welfare is at the heart of everything we do. Concussion has been on the agenda for number of years and the RFU is working hard to improve the knowledge around concussion – not only as an organisation to manage the risks but also to educating and to shift perceptions of people involved with the game."

She also said that all new coaches must complete a course that includes concussion awareness and education training. She added that the RFU wanted to emphasise that there were "many health benefits to playing sport or rugby", and said that the association's work with several universities on concussion research meant rugby was "leading the way compared to other sports on dealing with concussion".

On Saturday, the Rugby World Cup enjoyed what was hailed as a major PR boost as Japan scored a surprise victory over South Africa.

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