OPINION: Thankless task at the mercy of the sporting fates

I've always thought that sports PR is the most difficult in the business. The problem is that you are completely dependent on the results of your team. Never was this so starkly illustrated than during the Rugby World Cup.

Before England played France it was generally agreed that the team was not playing well, and so the scribes, not content with attacking the players, aimed their guns at an even easier target - the England team spin doctor Richard Prescott.

Apart from having an unfortunate name, Mr Prescott is, as far as I'm aware, a very professional communications director for the RFU and therefore does what he is told to do. The rugby hacks, however, did not see it that way when he informed them that Josh Lewsey was fit for the Wales game a few hours before he was ruled out.

Why do our journalists get so sniffy about such incidents when other countries' scribes go along with such subterfuge in order to help their team confuse the opposition? It is baffling. The football lot got just as angry when Glenn Hoddle did the same during France 98, even though the Argentinian media were conspiring with their team to confuse the English about who was fit to play. Prescott's reaction to all this was spot on.

'I don't profess to being a spin doctor,' he said. 'I pass on information to the media when I'm told to.'

The attacks on Richard Prescott did not stop there though. He was criticised for 'petty' media restrictions, meaning he did not allow enough access to players who had better things to do - like preparing for the most important games of their lives. Things got so bad for the beleaguered Prescott that he even faced a smear campaign. One newspaper accused him of throwing away the address of a young Australian boy with a broken arm who wanted an autographed ball sent to him. Unsurprisingly, not one more word was uttered against him after the France game and, by the time England had won the trophy, he was being praised for his willingness to allow so much player access.

It's good to know that the snooty rugby hacks are every bit as crass as the lot at the rougher end of the trade who cover football.

The England team has appointed a new chief spin doctor, Chris Gibson, from the Daily Mail. The FA will no doubt be hoping that this will help reduce the amount of stick they get from this direction. Gibson has an impossible job, however. England may have been the only home nation team to qualify for Euro 2004, but that did not stop the pack from writing more about Sven-Goran Eriksson's career prospects than the actual draw itself. The England PR team's biggest headache in Portugal will not be Sven or the team, but the fans.

As I wandered though the beautiful back streets in the old town of Lisbon on the evening before the draw, there were thousands of locals enjoying a pleasant drink. Immediately my thoughts turned to how this will all change when the England fans arrive. Even though the fans now have spin doctors and official spokespeople, nothing they do or say will matter if anything happens like it did in Belgium during Euro 2000. The FA have said they are 'cautiously optimistic' about the fans' behaviour, a phrase stolen form Gordon Brown about his prospects for the economy. That seems to be doing okay, so maybe the football fans will follow the lead of the rugby lot and go to Lisbon for a big party. Maybe not.

If it does all go wrong, you won't be able to blame the Portuguese, whose PR effort is now in top gear. It doesn't really matter what gear the England PR team is in. If the players emulate the rugby mob, the job will be done for them.

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