Inside in-house: The Jockey Club on 'owning your own stories', smart social and racing's reputational challenges

The Jockey Club's comms and content team tell PRWeek about the demands of representing a sport that runs almost every day of the year, and how PR works through a national and regional structure.

Inside in-house: The Jockey Club on 'owning your own stories', smart social and racing's reputational challenges

The Jockey Club is the UK's biggest commercial horse-racing organisation, which owns 15 racecourses including Cheltenham, Aintree and Epsom. It has doubled turnover in less than a decade and hosted record crowds to its events, which include the Cheltenham Festival, Grand National and the Derby.

What is the comms structure at The Jockey Club?

Scott Bowers, group director of corporate affairs and communications: We have a national comms function, which includes myself, group head of media Barry Rabbetts, group consumer PR manager Lucy Hancock and three others, including a group head of digital content. The racecourse arm is split into four regions and each has a communications manager. Marketing and PR roles are combined at our joint ventures: Jockey Club Estates (training grounds and property); The National Stud (breeding and education); Racing Welfare (charity); Jockey Club Catering; and Jockey Club Live (music and live entertainment).

We use LiveWire Sports for our ‘festival content team’ and have recently appointed The Academy on a consumer brief, following a five-way pitch.

What were you looking for in a consumer agency partner/what was the brief?

SB: We’ve done a really good job over the last few years to increase awareness of our sport. Our biggest events – the Grand National, Derby and Cheltenham Festival – have never been bigger. But what we want to do for a healthier future is make sure people come back more often, but also tune in [to racing on TV]. The consumer PR brief was to see what an agency could come up with – how to make racing more relevant, in a sustainable way. Lots of people go racing because their grandpa went, their dad went, etc – so that’s one avenue [but] another is attracting a wider audience.

BR: Getting racing fans to become advocates, to bring friends who are just sports fans, perhaps not racing fans at all. A campaign like this, which will bring different people racing, is really exciting.

SB: That’s the B2C part. B2B is also important – sport industry relationships and also our internal audience and culture, although we don’t describe it as ‘internal’, we describe it as ‘industry’. It’s an industry with a complex stakeholder structure. The communications to our industry is really important.

 Is there a difference between in-house and agency communications?

SB: When I left the agency world [Bowers was director of sport at Weber Shandwick] people said to me: "You'll really know if you're an agency person or in-house", meaning it'll be so focussed on one thing you're working on; but for the Jockey Club, the opposite is true – as one of the country's biggest leisure operators, we're involved in so many things that I feel like we are an agency within ourselves sometimes.

What’s the balance of proactive and reactive PR, and which takes up more of your time?

BR: It’s on an event-by-event basis.

SB: In one 24-hour period we had a human injury on the training grounds, a Telegraph investigation on drones in sport and a police matter relating to a private event at one of our venues. All reactive, but we’re really proactive about being reactive. Let’s say two-thirds proactive, because the biggest comms work we do is amplifying our events.

LH: In the consumer space it’s very proactive: planning content, campaigns, features etc in the lead-up to an event [but] then it’s 100 per cent reactive during the festivals – someone interesting has turned up, for example.

BR: We race most days and there’s always a story to be told somewhere.

How do you handle day-to-day press enquiries?

SB: Because we have that regional model, it varies. For example, a question about the Grand National could come to the governing body – the BHA – which would probably get referred to us, unless it had a more political angle. They take the lead on political comms and we're on a steering group with them.

But most of the time, if it's a business-related thing, board level stuff, I would probably take that; big industry politics, I literally sit next to the group CEO, who I report to, so we'd have a conversation until we agree that we're happy to say X, Y or Z.

It depends what it is. But, we do have a policy that we try to respond to a journalist – if we've missed it – within 20 minutes. Not necessarily with a full answer, but then we like to be able to service a request within an hour. If it needs to be quicker it can be quicker; and if it's more complex stuff like a report, like the drone thing, then it might take a couple of days.

How important are social and digital PR to what you do?

LH: Really important. We're putting more behind it, working it into our integrated campaigns. It's a massive shop window for us, it's a great way to get content and announcements out quickly. Also, if we're hosting content we can drive people to our new websites, for example, quickly through our social channels. We've also found really good pickup from tagging celebrities or designers through our social media. An example was at Cheltenham, where a guest turned up wearing something straight off the runway from Joshua Kane, so we uploaded a picture of that and tagged him – he then immediately engaged with us. That's something that we wouldn't have done in the past.

BR: We've got two people who run our social channels at central/group level, but what we've done at the festivals since last year is hired two agencies – one creating video content and the other providing close to real-time imagery. It's about amplifying our content, so we're pushing out a lot more than we used to – at Cheltenham we had a team of 24 dedicated to digital content. I’ve been here for two years and it’s almost unrecognisable from where we were.

SB: We integrate with the regional teams around our big events. The festival content team, led by Barry, increased digital engagement by more than 400 per cent year-on-year. [But] we're constantly looking at what we can learn from. All of us take a different interest in different things, so we're constantly looking at the types of content, thinking "well why aren't we doing that" – gamification ideas, e-sports, what do venues do to promote themselves, what are people doing way beyond sport, what are major brands doing? Is there a Jockey Club version that's right for our strategy? We've had to change digitally because platforms have changed. When I started my career it was almost all media relations. Barry's title is head of media, yet we're talking about him leading the digital team.

Is traditional PR still an important part of what you do?

SB: It’s easy to dismiss some of the traditional stuff, isn’t it?

BR: We have something that goes out daily – called the 'coverage of interest' – to all 500-plus members of staff, which is effectively a digest.

LH: It's like, you know at an agency when you send out your daily coverage to your client. Imagine we're the agency, sending it to our employees.

BR: Lucy's the first person to hold the role she's got here, so the consumer stuff has gone to another level. She's working not only with consumer journalists, but also publications and magazines that we weren't doing that much with two years ago. We're doing a lot more with the like of Hello and OK, glossy magazines, seeding features and ideas into those, but also working with ambassadors and influencers who are posting natively on their channels.

What are your priorities in 2019 and beyond?

BR: Grow the sport, grow attendances, grow our audience, grow the love of the sport and grow an understanding of what we are as The Jockey Club – how the things we do help millions of pounds go back into the sport. We do that by getting positive coverage in the media, but also by using our own channels and via the agencies that we talked about earlier, to push that message out.

SB: ...and as a team, have as much fun as possible doing it! At the festivals it gives us the chance to have that adrenaline rush of working on a major event, whereas if you're at HQ all year round, you are one step removed from 'the greenery'. We like to get out and about because we want to feel part of it ourselves.

Image in boxout: Epsom Derby 2019 ©GettyImages

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