Analysis: Horseracing hits back at TV claims

The horseracing sector received a PR mauling in the wake of the Panorama broadcast about alleged corruption in the sport. Within racing, opinions differ on what can be done to rebuild its battered reputation, says Andy Allen

First there was the ominous rumble of hooves, then the stampede.

After weeks of expectation, the BBC's flagship Panorama finally rode roughshod over horseracing, leaving its reputation crushed into the turf.

Just under four million viewers watched Corruption in Racing. Though many in the business believed the programme recycled old tales from years ago, and relied heavily on testimony from embittered individuals, the impact of Panorama is hard to dispute. While a hard core of racing insiders may be familiar with claims of jockeys associating with alleged criminals, doping, and so on, the details were suddenly passed on to a much larger audience.

As the body responsible for regulating racing, the Jockey Club bore the brunt of Panorama's ire. The programme has already forced the resignation of director of security Jeremy Phipps, who was covertly filmed saying the Jockey Club lacked 'backbone' - a comment he later retracted.

Despite widespread criticisms that the Jockey Club did not handle the arrival of the TV crew with sufficient skill, the club's PR director John Maxse insists he wouldn't have reacted differently with hindsight. Maxse says that no amount of good PR could have changed the tone of the programme.

The Jockey Club is now focused on getting across its key messages: that the evidence is old, that the programme failed to take into account recent security improvements, and that it was the club itself which originally raised the issue of corruption in racing rather than covering it up.

Others in the racing world are anxious to improve the sport's image.

Ladbrokes' influential PR director Mike Dillon says the best thing they can do in that enterprise is to continue its 'high level of co-operation with the Jockey Club' and its investigations.

British Horseracing Board comms manager Alan Delmonte insists that despite Panorama, the overall reputation trends in racing were 'upward' and positive.

He says the sport is positioned to take advantage of its growing popularity (rising attendances, record sponsorship and prize money, and soaring betting turnover, for example) and increased TV coverage (Channel 4 is planning to launch a daily 30 minute racing programme).

Yet for others in the sport, the need to revisit basic PR principles is seen as increasingly acute. Simon Clare, director of communications at bookmaker Coral and a former Jockey Club employee, says the very nature of the club - with its high-class lineage and distinguished 250 year history - sets it apart from the bulk of modern punters and bookmakers. He believes the club's reputation would be best served by hiring more down-to-earth 'former bookmakers or pundits'.

Clare says the organisation faces a dilemma - it was criticised for not revealing more on its investigations into corruption, but owing to their covert nature these need to remain secret. On balance he believes the club should introduce more transparency, at least in the short-term, in a bid to rebuild trust.

Brough Scott, editorial director and co-founder of the Racing Post, has an even more radical solution. He believes the problems facing the racing industry are 'mainly PR problems' and need to be addressed through a more robust PR strategy. According to the former jockey, the Jockey Club is 'essentially busted' as a brand: 'The idea the security side is being run by a load of old buffers is ridiculous. But the Jockey Club lends itself to that kind of portrayal.'

Any PR initiatives, he believes, would need to encompass both a full rebranding and a separation of the security function from the Club itself, as a way to reinforce credibility.

And ultimately racing fans such as Scott and Clare say British racing's very success attracts an element of colour that can easily be mistaken for skulduggery. 'When someone's about to lose a lot of money there's always going to be a temptation to scream "cheating jockey!" In fact racing's cleaner than it's ever been,' says Clare.

To some outside racing, but with an expert's eye on other sports' PR challenges, the arrival of the Panorama crew was handled in such a way that gave the impression there was something to hide.

'You have to get TV right because TV can expose you quickly,' says one onlooker, who adds: 'The wider PR strategy needs to focus more on positives than on waiting for negatives to happen. Take jockeys - they are some of the most super-fit athletes, yet nobody outside the sport knows anything about them. That story should be told.'

It's not going to be easy, but greater transparency and openness, together with an increased emphasis on pushing the sport's good news stories, could mean that racing can touch wider consumer media much more frequently and effectively, rather than simply making headlines through Panorama, for all the wrong reasons.

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