Local Profile: Tackling Communications for Ulster Rugby

Be the 16th Man Ulster Rugby Campaign

Continuing this year’s Local Profile interview series with successful in-house PR/Communicators, I was delighted to be offered some time with Neil Brittain, Communications Manager at Ulster Rugby.

Historically, the argument over our biggest sport was predominantly a two-horse race between football and GAA. Not anymore.

In recent times Ulster Rugby has expanded it’s fan base across all historical divides, developed it’s stadium (and rebranded it with significant investment for the sport to become one of the most modern and state of the art rugby stadiums in Europe) and it’s players are now some of our biggest national stars.

Communications, too, have changed dramatically for the local sport in the last few years, as they have for almost every successful organisation/business in every sector. Neil and his team (TINY team of just 3 when you think of the work they produce!) have changed all that, so much so that they were recognised by the CIPR PRide Awards last year, winning Best Use of Digital – the first sports team ever to do so (the professional moment he said he is most proud of) – and are now shortlisted for no less than four awards in 2014.

Sarah Louise Busby for Ulster Rugby at 2013 CIPR PRide Awards
Sara-Louise Busby accepting Gold for Ulster Rugby at 2013 CIPR PRide Awards

I met Neil at the Kingspan Stadium and he kindly showed me around their new Media Suite; a multi-functional room to host hospitality, press conferences and media reporting, with a fantastic view of the action below.

I was keen to know more about Neil’s background and how he ended up in what is arguably one of the most coveted Communications roles in the country. He was honestly one of the nicest men I’ve met in the industry…

Neil began his career in journalism when he fortunately (or not, only fate knows), was too late to follow his English degree with a teaching qualification application and chose Journalism instead. At the end of his training, UTV picked one candidate to take on and they wisely chose Neil. He remained there from 2003 until 2010, finishing his media career as Sports Correspondent.

Neil then moved to Smarts Communicate, one of NI’s most prolific PR agencies, a place he can’t speak highly enough of. It was a steep learning curve, he admits, but the agency supported him in a transition that many media professionals are now making, utilising his copywriting skills and helping him to nurture his natural creative streak into the longer PR planning processes as opposed to the daily media deadlines he was accustomed to.

One of the highlights of his career there was working on the 2011 MTV EMA awards (he met Lady Gaga, not many people in Norn Iron can say that!) but he also learned a lot about working for clients, managing budgets, producing highly creative ideas and, most importantly he says, proving return on investment in PR activities.

One example of fans engaging in the social media campaign #ShowURsupport

With two years account management experience under his belt working for some of the biggest contracts in the country, a Communications role became available at Ulster Rugby and Neil took the opportunity with both hands. The role didn’t exist then in it’s current form and, as Neil explains, he had the opportunity to shape and mould it to best meet the needs of the organisation.

At the time, sports marketing as an industry genre was changing at speed. In a sector where results on a pitch were long-considered to speak for themselves, Communications as an in-house discipline was being viewed as more valuable, with huge teams like Arsenal Football Club, among others, moving to a more US-influenced corporate communication policy.

Sport was seeking an authentic voice to communicate meaningful and relevant content on a daily basis to a wide range of stakeholders from fans and potential fans, to investors and sponsors. Ulster Rugby recognised this too.

Ulster Rugby Season Tickets Sold 2014
Ulster Rugby Season Tickets Sold This Year

Despite the international exposure of playing in two high-profile competitions and their on-pitch success, the club lagged behind others when it came to fan engagement through digital and social media. With Neil on board they set mammoth goals for themselves to become Ireland’s leading rugby club when it came to digital media. And they achieved it.

With Facebook fans now sitting at almost 129k, compared to their original 9k, Twitter followers up from 19k to 62.5k and a record number of season tickets sold this year (statistics correct as of 2014).

Neil Brittain
Neil and his team on route to report from one of many away games

Neil’s role as it stands now is varied, there is no typical week. He can be anywhere (literally, his team often travel to away games with the squad) and his tasks can range from the minutiae of a spelling mistake on the website through to facilitating media interviews or press conferences, social media, match reporting, working on marketing ticket sales right through to what would be considered by us in the industry to be a ‘Communications Crisis’, like preparing the immediate statements required when someone unexpectedly leaves.

What has changed most in the industry, as for us all, is of course social media. How on earth (I ask) does such a small team manage channels with hundreds of thousands of highly engaged fans?! Neil’s deep knowledge shines through here as he explains why a “light touch” works.

The accounts are self-regulating for the most part as fans will often answer queries to each other, although Neil’s team does operate a kind of rota system and will bring in volunteers to keep an eye on things to accompany their social media guidelines which are now in place. He knows his audience and he knows his role for them as he explains that the “game is full of opinion, that’s the nature of sport.” He is not there to defend or argue, he is there to inform, engage and grow the game.

He knows most of his audience are online (strangely) on a Sunday night after 9pm! So he breaks every rule in the PR book and doesn’t wait until a Monday morning to issue a press release.

Ulster Rugby Centra Summer Schemes 2014

Neil is aware of his team’s strengths and he explains that the key is to play to them and divide the work accordingly. In the main, he progresses the digital elements and social media, Sara-Louise looks after the publications and Richard has domestic rugby and reporting.

Neil believes he is only as good as his team and firmly stands by the old adage – hire people who are better than you are. Neil recognises their work by sharing away game trips among the team and putting forward work that represents the breadth of their skill set in this year’s PRide Award applications, so they can share their success.

So I asked him what could make a candidate stand out from the crowd if he was expanding his team? His answer, uniquely, was “ideas.” No-one ever says this! They talk about differentiation, digital skills, blogging, etc. But as Neil explained, if he comes to his team asking for creative ideas to promote tickets to a game, then it’s creative ideas he needs. The ability to generate ideas and promote them when promoting yourself, would set a candidate apart.

As I’m leaving, I applaud Neil for the idea behind the “16th man” campaign, something that strikes to the very (Brave)heart of anyone who enjoys the sport. “Really?” he asks “I was nervous about being gender-specific.” I tell him it didn’t even enter my head as a woman to be offended, but the fact that he thought it through makes me smile knowingly. He isn’t just an ideas man, he’s a big picture, strategic, cover-all-bases man. The type you want in your PR starting IV.

Neil laughs when I ask him what he does in his spare time. A father of four children under 4 (most recently twins this Summer), he obviously replies “family time.” He may be a man in a man’s world, but he is juggling many of the same balls the rest of us are and achieving great things while doing it!

You can follow Neil Brittain on Twitter @NeilBrittain and you can (read – should) follow Ulster Rugby on Facebook and Twitter (@UlsterRugby) for some great ideas on how to content market to a wide range of audiences in the sports industry.

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