Lessons in Reputation Management… In praise of the GAA

By Cormac Bradley

Like many other parents across the country I spent the morning of September 1st last in the surrounds of my son’s new classroom. The excitement of moving to ‘big school’ and making new friends apparently superseded any nerves (for him anyway) and within a week he was eagerly informing me what the Irish for ‘dog’ is (for the uninitiated it’s ‘madra’) and that the highest mountain in Ireland is in Kerry.

By week two, attention had moved beyond the classroom to extra-curricular activities, with a note home in his school bag to say that while football “training” wouldn’t kick off at the school until after Christmas he could, in the meantime, join the other children at the local GAA club every Saturday morning.

With his new-found interest in all things social, off we trekked last weekend to be greeted by upwards of 60 four and five year olds and numerous volunteers ready to take on the task of introducing them to the skills of Gaelic football and hurling.

This scene was no doubt replicated on parks and pitches right around the country, and it struck me that there aren’t too many organisations, sporting or otherwise, that could command such interest and broad participation at such a young age.

The GAA is a unique Irish institution.  While the last 10 years have been characterised by the disintegration of other traditional pillars of Irish society, the Gaelic Athletic Association has survived with its reputation intact – many would argue, enhanced.

It’s an interesting case study that could provide lessons for anyone in business.

A closer look reveals that the strength of the GAA’s reputation is not just down to chance.  Proactive management of its reputation with stakeholders is integral to how the organisation has always operated and has helped it survive and thrive in recent years, where others have struggled.

When talking to companies about how to maximise their reputation, areas such as community and stakeholder engagement, clear narrative and messaging, corporate social responsibility, ‘industry’ leadership and future forecasting invariably come up – areas in which the GAA has a proven track record.   This, aligned with some critical ‘business’ decisions such as the scrapping of Rule 42, which prohibited the playing of non-Gaelic sports at Croke Park in 2007, have presented the GAA as a forward-thinking organisation  aligned with its stakeholders in Ireland and beyond. 

The strength of this reputation benefits more than the organisation itself of course. Sport and culture are two of the key dimensions that make up Ireland’s overall reputation in the eyes of international stakeholders.  While other institutions lost their way during the Celtic Tiger and subsequent economic crash, the proactivity of the GAA’s reputation management has provided consistency and comfort for those looking in from abroad.

When the founders of the GAA gathered back in 1884, they could not have envisaged how the core values of the organisation would grow and shape both internal and external reputations.

This weekend the GAA stages its ultimate stakeholder engagement event when the All-Ireland Final will be contested by teams from Donegal and Kerry in front of over 80,000 people in Croke Park and a television audience of potentially hundreds of millions worldwide. 

Myself and junior will be amongst them.  My challenge will be to convince him to remove his new hurling helmet for the duration!

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