CAMPAIGNS: Players help boost image of rugby in UK - Media Relations

Client: Rugby Football Union PR Team: Lexis PR Campaign: The England Rugby Team Timescale: October 2002-October 2003 Budget: undisclosed

England's recent victory in the Rugby World Cup made sure that almost everyone in the UK knew who was who in the country's first 15. But work on powering the sport's rise to prominence began more than a year ago, when the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Lexis PR's sports division set out to capitalise on the team's growing success, and narrow the gap between football and the recently professionalised rugby code.

Objectives

To raise the profile of the sport and its top players and bring about greater awareness of the game in the UK, both to the next generation of sports enthusiasts and to 'lapsed' rugby fans, through media coverage.

Strategy and Plan

With the aim of getting rugby noticed by the entire target audience, not just readers of the sports pages, Lexis set about generating coverage of the sport and its players in the consumer and lifestyle press.

The target audience was extremely broad, and each publication or TV programme targeted was approached with an angle that would be most likely to appeal to their core readers or viewers.

The trouble was that rugby had previously received little coverage outside the sports pages, tended to fade away between the big matches, and any media interest in the players usually focused on the game's 'big three' - Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio.

Lexis first had to develop personal relationships with the Zurich Premiership clubs, players'agents and the players themselves.

A media audit was conducted to identify opportunities to place player profiles. Lexis then went to individual writers and producers with ideas timed to coincide with forthcoming rugby events, such as the Six Nations and the World Cup.

Dan Luger, for example, is keen on alternative health, so the PR team contacted the Evening Standard health pages, resulting in a story about Luger's use of yoga as part of his fitness routine.

The Sun's health section was approached with a story about how glandular fever sufferer James Simpson-Daniel dealt with the condition.

'Players were also briefed to communicate key facets of the game - from playing to watching - that we believed would help change some of the "old school" perceptions and help rugby appeal to a new audience,' said Lexis sports division director Maria Heavey.

The mission was two-fold: to promote the sport as offering something for everyone, especially families, with plenty of camaraderie, and to stress the importance of the tactical and creative - and less physical - side of the game.

Measurement and Evaluation

More than 100 national interviews and features were secured, in which the key messages of the campaign were voiced. These ranged from consumer lifestyle media, where GQ, Arena and Channel 4's T4 helped position rugby within the realm of top entertainment and celebrity, while SM:TV, Newsround and Blue Peter appealed to a much younger audience.

Players who enjoy spending their time off the field in the kitchen appeared as guests on Ready Steady Cook, and others were interviewed in football magazine FourFourTwo.

SM:TV changed its regular Eat My Goal game - in which celebrities play football for viewers on the phone - to Eat My Scrum, with a rugby ball. Players were then interviewed about how kids could get involved in rugby. There was also a competition, with tickets and autographed equipment as prizes.

'On Saturdays it's always very difficult to get sports people on, but we do like to have aspirational guests on the show, so it was great to get the rugby players in,' says SM:TV associate producer James Bovington.

'It was one of the highest call figures we've ever had for Eat My Goal.'

GQ ran an interview with Martin Johnson, six England players featured in the Saturday Times Magazine piece 'Smells like team spirit', the Sunday Express featured Ben Cohen, the Funday Times interviewed Phil Christophers, and Jonny Wilkinson was a guest on Blue Peter.

Results

The year-long campaign successfully moved rugby from the back pages to the lifestyle press, although what effect it will ultimately have on match attendance and the number of people taking up rugby is difficult to assess at the moment.

Paul Croughton, associate editor of Arena - which ran a profile of Simpson-Daniel in its February issue, and has one of Steve Thompson in its December issue - said: 'James fitted in very well with the Arena philosophy because he was young, very talented, new on the scene and making a lot of noise.

He was great for us to feature.'

He added that the idea that rugby had an image problem was long gone, claiming it was no longer a rough game for public school boys but a hugely popular national sport.

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