The GAAs response to Covid-19 was nothing short of decisive and responsible, and led by example compared to other sporting organisations and political institutions.
The 12th March 2020 is a date that will forever be embedded in our minds as the GAA called a halt to all GAA activity. Club gates were locked, social clubs shut and stadiums up and down the country seemed eerily quiet. It was nervous times, not just for the GAA, but for the whole of society. These unprecedented times had resulted in uneasiness and a fear amongst many. We didn’t know the strange times that lay ahead, not just for our games, but the financial instability in people’s lives, the future and safety of our loved ones and in particular the vulnerable in our community.
The overall GAA response was favourable and certainly done their PR no harm apart from the odd hitch or debateable decision. But given the unpredictability of these times, we can forgive them for that. They called a halt to all activity before our governmental institutions, before Downing Street and before Mr Trump, as well as multi-million pound institutions such as the Premier League and the Cheltenham Racing festival. In contrast, the Cheltenham festival welcomed 250,000 spectators from all over the UK, Ireland and beyond travel through its gates that week. This action was highly detrimental to the PR and integrity of the sport and a decision that was described by many as highly irresponsible and dangerous.
As we then entered the first weeks of lockdown and adopted to our new ways of life, the community value of our GAA family kicked in, and overall possessed themselves in the brightest of lights, and was very beneficial to the PR of the organisation. Communities came together as one as they had done so many times before. From delivering groceries and meals to the elderly and vulnerable, providing virtual entertainment for the youth, raising much needed funds from events such as sponsored runs, and even providing PPE for the key workers and the heroes in our society. There were even promotional videos made of the importance of staying at home, most notably the Ardboe O Donnovan Rossa club in Co Tyrone. A survey carried out by the GAAs community and health department sent to 1,600 clubs across Ireland and abroad returned responses from 1,090 GAA clubs and shows that more than 19,000 club members have been involved in the provision of support to more than 34,500 people. These actions portray the very best aspect and identity of our wonderful games. It was all great PR for the GAA, and showed an organisation that people would be proud to be a part of, as well as encouraging their children and future generations to play an active role in.
Three long months had gone by; no training, no matches, no craic with the lads, but on the 5th June 2020, we got that message of hope that we had craved. The GAA announced the ‘gaelic games safe return roadmap’. It was another responsible decision made by the GAA, it was seen as a safe return that would prove highly beneficial to the morale of the country and more importantly, to the physical and mental welfare of our players, members and supporters. Water breaks, separate water bottles, limited spectators and no changing areas. Okay, there were differences. Perhaps, this was the ‘new normal’, but we were just so thrilled to be back. The GAA were seen to be providing hope and joy at a time when it was so badly needed.
As we began to enjoy ‘some’ familiar scenes; the points, the goals and big Championship wins and the overwhelming joy and emotion that comes with those wins. However, these emotions sometimes reached a boundary, a boundary that would prove detrimental to the PR of the GAA. One obvious example was Dungannon Clarke’s invasion of the pitch in Healy Park, Omagh. Yes, it was their first championship win in 52 years, yes the overwhelming joy and raw emotion of such an achievement can bring uncontrollable actions, but these outpouring of emotions were seen as dangerous and detrimental. These pictures provided bad PR for the GAA, especially at a time when numbers were beginning to rise again in our country. Arlene Foster described the scenes as “detrimental to the health of others”.
Just one week later, the GAA was yet again receiving more negative PR with an appeared lack of social distancing at the Derry County Final between Magherafelt and Slaughtneill, which was held in Bellaghy. The GAAs decision of not choosing a larger venue and the supporters in attendance lack of cohesion provided much unneeded bad PR following the events of the week before. Health minister Robin Swann stated that he was “disappointed and angry” at the scenes that he saw at the game.
In response to the negative PR, Ulster GAA chief executive Brian McEvoy admitted that there was a direct link between Covid-19 clusters and County Finals due to the crowds that had developed and also some of the celebrations that had occurred in club houses and bars after the games.
Despite these negatives, the GAA have reddemed in some way their previous faults by calling another halt to all GAA activity. Again they acted promptly as our country in particular was struggling to control the spread of this virus.
Of course, we are unsure what lies ahead, but the PR of the GAA has been favourable and despite the odd hitch, which all organizations and government institutions can be guilty of given these extraordinary times that we are going through.
Ciaran Robinson is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found at LinkedIn.