GAA County PROs are amateur heroes
By John Harrington
Of all the many volunteer roles in the GAA, there are few as time-consuming and multi-faceted as that of County Board Public Relations Officer.
That is true now more so than ever because of the Covid-19 restrictions on supporters attending club matches.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and County Boards have responded to the situation by bringing the matches to supporters instead by streaming them live.
Not surprisingly, there have been a few technological bumps in the road along the way.
Which brings us to the below tweet from Kerry GAA PRO, Leona Twiss, which she published last Friday evening after reading with dismay the angry comments on different County Twitter Pages from irate supporters frustrated with some streaming issues.
It’s upsetting reading comments on the different County Twitter pages tonight! People blaming County Boards & PROs for technical issues with streaming! This is new to us all! Do people realise we want it to work more than anyone?!We are volunteers! No need for the nasty comments!— Leona Twiss (@LeonaTwiss) September 5, 2020
Her tweet clearly struck a chord, because it has been retweeted over 150 times and liked almost two thousand times.
The vast majority of those who responded were supportive of the opinion she expressed, which has meant a lot both to her and many of her fellow PROs who have endured a stressful few weeks getting to grips with a new technology and added layer of responsibility.
“It was a general comment because we've had our problems with streaming and so have many other counties,” Twiss told GAA.ie
“I wrote it and I didn't think much of it and then I happened to go on Twitter later that night and there were so many notifications.
“I was like, 'Oh my goodness, what's after happening here?' But it was so heartening, it was so lovely that people could see what we are trying to do.
“I've never been so encouraged to plough on and improve the service and get it to be the best we can because of those lovely comments and to see that other PROs were in the exact same boat and feeling the exact same way.
“There's great unity between county PROs anyway, we'd have our own WhatsApp group, but this even solidified even more our common connection.
“It was very heartening to see it. It was overwhelming actually. I was beyond humbled by the reaction.”
Antrim GAA PRO, Sean Kelly, was one of the first to weigh in behind Twiss on Twitter because he recently experienced himself the ire of the keyboard warriors when a livestream of the Antrim SHC quarter-final between O’Donovan Rossa and Cushendall failed.
“Through no fault of their own the outside streaming service we were using couldn't get an upload and it didn't work,” explains Kelly.
“You've no control over the 4G in Ireland. It's connectivity, it's out of your control, it can go down. We refunded everyone who had paid for the stream.
“The amount of abuse that was directed towards our Facebook and Twitter was unreal. It was horrible and actually sickening.”
Perhaps those who directed their anger towards the Antrim social media accounts didn’t give much thought to the fact that there’s a human element at play here.
You’re not lashing out at a faceless Twitter handle, there’s a real person with feelings reading every message and Kelly found the experience tough to deal with.
“During that period I was drained phsycially and mentally with all the abuse online because I was at the front of it,” he says.
“I see every single thing that comes through Antrim Twitter and Antrim Facebook and I'd probably be the only person who sees all the messages. It completely drained me.
“I couldn't go through another failed stream or something going wrong. It was horrible, I think people must have had lockdown-itis, I've never seen abuse like it. It sickened me.
“So we decided to broadcast our semi-finals for free on Facebook Live last weekend because I didn't want to take the risk of a paid stream not working again. If it went down on Facebook it's out of our control and it's free and people can't complain.
“After the abuse we got the previous week we're now basking in the glory of how well the semi-finals went for us, but you're only as good as your last stream, because people will turn on you again.
“They whisper your success and shout the failures, which you have no control over.”
Kelly couldn’t help but take the abuse personally because he has put so much effort into his role since first taking it on almost five years ago.
His video highlights of matches, score updates, and overall promotion of all things Antrim GAA related have made him a social media must-follow for all of the county’s supporters.
One-armed hurler scores THREE goals! See incredible courage by Domnhall Nugent for St John's despite suffering an arm injury when diving to block, from our Live Stream coverage by @MQ_Video pic.twitter.com/56HqNxxucx— Antrim GAA (@AontroimGAA) September 6, 2020
“I would attend every Antrim game home and away, football and hurling, and if there's a clash then I'll choose one,” says Kelly of his role.
“I would travel with the team, stay over with the team, produce videos of team announcements that are published online beforehand and they're particularly good because they're top-class videos.
“So, you have to prepare all of that, make sure all the information required for match programmes is in on time. Then you travel and you're away the whole weekend.
“I would go on the pitch to take the team photograph, tweet the scores with videos. So it's non-stop, you give up your whole weekend when Antrim is playing and it's a joy.
“You're on Twitter capturing the best moments of the county team in action and keeping all of your supporters up to date with everything that is happening.
“In terms of our club coverage, you're out every night of the week basically doing something. It's like a second full-time job, basically, but you’re doing it as a volunteer.
“You’re constantly taking calls. You're dealing with press, you're setting up promotion campaigns, and you're just covering as many games as you can and putting up highlights.
“I'd say I'm putting in at least 40 hours a week and our coverage is top class. It's funny, I never needed an eye-test until the last couple of years. But now my eyes are going because I'm always on the phone tweeting so I had to get a pair of glasses.”
You really appreciate the extent to which the addition of streaming services has added another time-consuming layer to an already busy job when Leona Twiss talks you through her diary for the week.
On Monday she’ll inform Croke Park of Kerry’s upcoming fixtures and which of those will be livestreamed.
The details of those matches and the relevant graphics will be sent to livestream partner 247.tv so they can get the website live for selling access to the stream.
That evening she’ll write a Kerry GAA page for the local papers, and then on Tuesday she’ll get in touch with all the club PROs involved in the weekend’s games to source all the details she needs for the 20 digital programmes she and her PR committee produce for the matches.
Those programmes will be put together on Wednesday and Thursday and the upcoming livestreams will be promoted.
On Friday she’ll be in Austin Stack Park two hours before throw-in for the Kerry SFC clash between East Kerry and St. Brendan’s. The match is live on TG4 so she’ll give the commentators any information and team changes they need as well as liaise with local media.
She has a slot on Radio Kerry on Saturdays after which she’ll be on site for a double-bill of live-streaming matches with another double-bill livestream the following day on Sunday.
She prays for sunny weekends because bad weather can affect the livestream signal, and the day itself is spent constantly exchanging WhatsApps with the director who is based in England and troubleshooting everything from camera angles to microphone levels to queries from the public.
“It's incredibly stressful and not just for me as the PRO because the PR and Marketing committee in Kerry as an entity would watch every second of the stream and the incredible relief when the final whistle goes and you know that you have brought the game to the fans is a fantastic feeling," says Twiss.
“I would be at pains to point out that I have a super PR and Marketing Committee and we're all in it together. They've just been amazing to work with for the past number of months in particular.
“Each and every one of us would be well well-known perfectionists and we go out with the intention of delivering the best product that we can for supporters.
“We obviously know that a lot of things are out of our control. Two weekends ago a lot of counties were hit because there was an outage at the European Data Centre which was completely out of our control.
“You still feel upset about it, of course you do, and the pain is probably magnified when you read all those comments coming in. We've been working on getting the thing right from when the fixtures come out on the Monday.
“We've been planning crews, putting out fixtures, updating the website, building our marketing campaign, and then right through to the end you're trouble-shooting to the very end of the game. So as I said in the tweet there is nobody who wants that stream to work more than the County PRO!
“Obviously, again, we're very conscious that people have paid their money and are entitled to a proper service and that's what we want to give.
“And if it doesn't work, of course counties will offer a refund. It's when people become very personal and they give out that it's something the county board have done wrong when we know it was something out of our control, that's the part that PROs would obviously struggle with.”
It’s a testament to just how well County Board and Club Officers have upskilled themselves in a short period of time that the vast majority of GAA livestreams nationwide have been broadcast without a hitch.
It’s been quite noticeable too that the production values have gotten better and better as counties learn by trial and error what works well and not so much.
“Our streaming has very much evolved from our first game in the club championship right through now to the county championship,” says Twiss. “There has been a huge evolution.
“We went from one competition to two, we went from one camera to three cameras. We're now doing the instant playbacks and we have highlight reels at the end of it.
“Each weekend has been a learning experience. We went from paying by Paypal to Stripe because it's far easier for the end user.
“If you asked me nine months ago what I knew about streaming it wouldn't have been anything more than Netflix, whereas at this point I feel like I could write a thesis on it!
“The narrative that it's making up for the loss of gate receipts, that's not the case at all. The PROs are absolutely engaging in digital programmes and online streaming simply to bring the games to supporters.
“If you're in it to make money then you're one of very few counties because any profit that we have taken in we have absolutely reinvested. As I said, we've gone from one to three cameras now and we brought a lot of really expensive equipment to steady the stream for viewers as well.
“It's certainly not for profit reasons and it's not for financial reasons. It's really to get our domestic games and competitions which we're very proud of to our supporters.
“There were 28 games on for three weekends in a row and we tried to get as many of those as we could out.
“That's why we're doing it. I certainly don't know of any PRO who go out of their way looking for thanks because generally we're well hidden behind the scenes.
“It's important to clarify too that every PRO is open to feedback. We can only improve with feedback. It's essential in every walk of life if you want to improve, without question. All I would be asking people is to be patient with us and keep the criticism constructive and fair without making it personal.”
Twiss is a primary school principal in her day job and has two young children so her commitment to her role as Kerry GAA PRO is all the more laudable when you consider the time-management challenges she must face.
She's very keen to emphasise that she does it all with a heart and a half. It might sound like hard work, but Twiss doesn’t view it as such.
“I absolutely love, love being the Kerry PRO,” she says.
“It's an honour to have such a role in Kerry. Why do I do it? Because I've spent my life immersed in GAA but I was the member of the family who couldn't kick the ball or puck it very far. I had no on-field skills at all at all!
“Maybe because I'm a primary school principal I enjoy administration and I enjoy social media as well.
“There's no point going into it with your eyes closed. You have to be able to commit between 30 and 40 hours a week extra.
“But if you love something you don't class it as work and that would certainly be the sense that I would have. I love it, I love being involved at all levels of the GAA, but particularly as a PRO.
“Obviously my children are the most important thing in the world to me, but my husband and my parents from Day One have made themselves available whenever I needed to be elsewhere. It requires a lot of family support and it requires a lot of commitment and you really have to enjoy it but I absolutely love it. It's a privilege to be the Kerry PRO.”
Sean Kelly echoes many of the same sentiments when you ask him why he is happy to devote such a large chunk of his life to a voluntary role that comes with all sorts of demands.
“I love promoting the GAA, I love our county team,” he says.
“I got involved in the GAA because when my mum passed away in 2011 my Dad's GAA club, St. Malachy's, looked after him so well and got him through some hard times.
“The GAA is just an unstoppable community and that's why I do it. I wanted to give back at a high level to the Gaels.
“And I have a competitive streak as well so I wanted to be the best PRO in Ireland and put Antrim on the map on that front.
“That's why you do it, because the GAA is a community and I wanted to give back to it. My family are steeped in the GAA and to be able to travel with the county players is amazing.
“You meet great people along the way. Whenever I got to a match I introduce myself to other PROs and have the chat and share knowledge.
“And they're all fantastic people. It's a hard job because there are such demands in terms of social media now because people just want everything there and then.
“I look at the bigger picture and the bigger picture is county Antrim for me and putting it on a platform which I really enjoy.
“I know there are people who appreciate my role. I feel like I've raised the bar, and that's because I love our sport. I've gotten so much out of it.
“A real highlight has been the work we've done with the ‘Run for Anto’ fundraiser. Raising 15,000 for Bowel Cancer research as well, stuff like that is hugely satisfying because it makes me feel that I'm making a difference in our community in Antrim.”
Kelly, like all County GAA PROs, is happy to do his work behind the scenes and not the type to court praise.
If he could ask one favour of the GAA public though it would be that they appreciate that he and his fellow PROs are volunteers trying their very best.
So, if you do feel the urge to get something off your chest and aim it in the direction of a County Board twitter handle, try to be aware of the human element at play here.
“I don't mind taking constructive criticism, that's fine,” says Kelly. "But when you're being criticised relentlessly for something that's out of your control and it's personal and it's demeaning, that's uncalled for.
“There's a human behind it doing their best for their county and providing a service. I'd just ask people to be a bit nicer, be a bit kinder.
“Think before you tweet.”