The picture that went viral and destroyed a reputation

Few people without an interest in horse racing would have heard of Gordon Elliott until recently.

But one viral image has ensured he is now known across the world.

And not for the reasons he, or the sport, would have wanted.

The jump trainer has been at the centre of a social media storm and huge media coverage over the past few days.

His time in the crisis media management spotlight started on Saturday evening when a picture began to circulate, showing him sat astride a dead horse on his gallops while making a phone call.

As the story began to grow and made the familiar route from social media channels to mainstream media, the trainer broke his silence with a brief post on his Twitter account.

He told his followers he was “aware of a photo in circulation” and said he had been in contact with the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board.

This was followed by silence for the best part of 24 hours – a void that was filled with lots of hopeful speculation that the image may have been doctored.

But that was not the case.

A more detailed statement from the trainer late on Sunday evening confirmed the picture was genuine.

Mr Elliott, who trains horses for the likes of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, apologised “profoundly”, but for a statement that had seemingly taken a day to prepare, it left a lot to be desired.

Firstly, he fell into an all too familiar trap of issuing a non-committal apology.

“I apologise profusely for any offence that this photo has caused”, implies that not everyone finds it offensive and that Mr Elliott himself does not necessarily think he has done much wrong.

It would have sounded much more sincere if he had simply said: “I’m sorry.”

From that poor start, the statement attempted to put the photograph into “context.”

Mr Elliott, arguably best known for his back-to-back Grand National triumphs with Tiger Roll, said: “The photo in question was taken some time ago and occurred after a horse had died of an apparent heart attack on the gallops.

"At what was a sad time, which it is when any horse under my care passes away, my initial reaction was to get the body removed from where it was positioned.

"I was standing over the horse waiting to help with the removal of the body, in the course of which, to my memory I received a call and, without thinking, I sat down to take it. Hearing a shout from one of my team, I gestured to wait until I was finished.”

The problem with this context is that it only serves to make the story worse. Explanations or context in crisis media management responses can often sound like excuses.

It can be a particularly thin line between the two. But when these explanations also lack plausibility, the hole you are in only gets deeper.

Interestingly, Mr Elliott struck a much better tone in an interview with the Racing Post the following day.

"It is indefensible. Whether alive or dead, the horse was entitled to dignity. A moment of madness that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life paying for and that my staff are suffering for,” he told the paper.

"When your world starts crumbling in front of you, it's a scary place to be. I just hope people can understand how truly sorry I am and find some way to forgive me for what I have done."

That sounds more genuine, but in a crisis, you cannot afford to need several attempts to get it right.

But while he seemed to be getting it right in print, questions remained about how he was responding on social media. Posting pictures of four victories his horses had on Monday was not a great look considering the controversy surrounding him.

Of course, the incident hasn’t just damaged Mr Elliott’s reputation. The horrific picture has put the sport and its treatment of horses under greater scrutiny, ahead of the Cheltenham Festival – one of its showpiece events.

The authorities have responded quickly to try and protect the sport’s image. The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board has launched an investigation and the British Horseracing Authority has banned him until that is completed.

Additionally, one of the largest owner groups - Cheveley Park Stud – has confirmed its horses will be moved to a different trainer. Mr Elliott’s yard sponsor, eCOMM Merchant Solutions, has terminated his contract and he has lost a lucrative ‘ambassador’ role with Betfair. 

But, despite these swift actions, everyone connected with the sport could face a challenging few weeks and months ahead.

Already, more footage has been found and circulated that shows jockey Rob Jones appearing to jump on another dead horse.

FRESH SHAME FOR RACING: New video 'shows jockey Rob James jumping on top of a dead horse' Daily Mail

The sport is under the spotlight.

All those connected with the ‘sport of kings’ will need to ensure they have crisis plans in place and that responses are not as lame as Mr Elliott’s.

Find out more about planning for a crisis by downloading your copy of our free eBook.


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