Profile: Richard Prescott, Rugby Football Union

Prescott rises to RFU challenge to change - Richard Prescott gets set to battle for a structural revamp of the World Cup

When a man has two pairs of flight socks lying on the floor of his office, you know he has some hefty travel plans. Rugby Football Union communications director Richard Prescott is off to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand next week as part of the campaign to win the right to host the 2007 World Cup in England.

Having announced its plans last week, the battle to beat rival France has begun in earnest. But this is more than just a bidding war - the RFU is also proposing a revamp in the way the Cup is structured. Instead of one tournament of 20 teams, it wants to split the competition, with a tournament for the elite 16 nations and another for the 32 lesser teams.

The two-tier structure would, he argues, save some of the poorer unions a lot of money as well as providing a global focus for the game. 'What we're trying to do is expand awareness, expand participation,' he says.

The result is that the RFU will have to win two separate communications battles, the first for its format and the second for the right to host the tournament. Lobbying is likely to be intense until April when the final decision will be made.

Prescott may have the bull neck and pinned-back ears of a rugby player, but these days he admits to being more of an armchair fan: 'I enjoy watching it rather than getting kicked about.'

The bid to host the World Cup is one match where he'll be at the centre of the scrum. He suggests the vision of a restructured World Cup, which has taken a year to plan, is symptomatic of the changes at the RFU. The union appears to be making a statement about its own repositioning. 'This is the RFU in 2002 not the RFU in 1992,' he says. 'We are commercially and strategically in the best shape we've ever been. Some other governing bodies would like to be in the same shape we're in at the moment.'

Prescott joined the organisation in 1997, after a string of jobs in consumer and corporate PR. These included spells at Soho consumer shop Attenborough Associates in 1988, before moving through stints at Mercury Communications and, most recently, a group PR role at Whitbread.

But it is in his current role at the RFU that Prescott seems truly enthused.

Since joining the organisation, his role has changed dramatically. He confesses to a difficult first year but says the last four have been much more positive as the organisation has become increasingly proactive in its PR.

Initially his role was mainly a mixture of crisis management and project handling - the RFU has to deal with up to 700 members of the media on an international match day. There have been a fair few crises in his time, notably tabloid allegations against the then England captain Lawrence Dallaglio in 1999 and a players' strike in 2000.

His job comes with its own natural escape valve. The RFU's offices are across the road from Twickenham itself and a walk around the pitch is undoubtedly an uplifting break. While the amount of time he spends in this area has decreased as his role has grown, Prescott has no doubt about the professional benefits of crisis management. 'I don't think you can round off your career until you've been involved in a few crises,' he says.

Even before he arrived at the RFU, he had seen more than his fair share of media bunfights. In an early PR role at Sealink British Ferries he dealt with the impact of The Herald of Free Enterprise sinking. More recently he helped restaurants owner Whitbread deal with the impact of BSE.

Prescott has had a more rounded career than many, and has moved sectors with every job move, from transport to telecoms to sport. Whitbread corporate affairs director David Reed says Prescott is one of the few PR people who can 'run the gamut of the PR industry,' citing his rapid grasp of the disciplines of corporate PR while at the FTSE 100 company. Reed says the current role was made for him. 'He was always mad keen on sport,' he says, 'square peg, square hole.'

That interest also led him to combining his day job at Mercury and Whitbread with sports commentary for BBC stations, something he had to give up when he joined the RFU. Attenborough Associates MD Nick Attenborough says Prescott was a 'good lad' to have around the office, even turning up to one Xmas party in full drag and lipstick, something one senses wouldn't go down so well at the RFU.

For the World Cup hosting campaign the tryline is some way off, but Prescott is clearly up and running. 'Come April - win, lose or honourable draw - it's a hell of a thing to have worked on,' he says.

HIGHLIGHTS

1988: Consultant, Attenborough Associates

1990: Consumer PR manager, Mercury Communications

1993: Group PR manager, Whitbread

1997: Comms director, RFU

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