The rise of PR in cycling

Fairfax cycling reporter Rupert Guinness has been covering the sport in Europe since 1987. Back then, getting access to riders for interviews was a simple process.

“It was a free-for-all pretty much. You lobbed up at races and it was up to you to approach people and talk. Now all the teams have at the least their media operations person but they also have a media operation.”

Brian Nygaard, Orica-GreenEDGE communications director and former general manager of the Leopard-Trek team has also noticed (and been part of) the growth of cycling PR.

“When I first started I think there were maybe three press officers, four maybe at best during the Tour, when I first saw it in 2001. Now … you have at least one person following a team, regardless of the team.”

One of the greatest effects of this growth is the amount and variety of content that cycling teams now produce in-house. Race previews, reviews, startlists, post-race quotes, news releases, interviews and video content are now produced by the majority of teams on the WorldTour and shared with the world via teams websites, via email and via social media. As Brian Nygaard told CyclingTips:

“[Social media has] changed a lot about how we can communicate — sometimes we can communicate more directly with the people that are interested in the sport. We’re not always confined to talking to people via the media. We have a media outlet ourselves.”

For fans of the sport it’s a great service — all the latest news and information about our favourite teams and riders are available instantly through our favourite online channels. And for journalists too, the extra information — whether that be quotes from riders, team lists or something else — is of great value, as Jane Aubrey, then editor of Cycling News Australia, and now chief communications officer at Drapac Cycling told us:

“I don’t think you’ll find any journalists complaining about extra information because as a journalist you’re taking in as much information as you possibly can to build your story.”

But as Rupert Guinness explained to us, there’s another way of looking at it — by publishing direct to the public, cycling media teams are doing away with an important link in the information chain.

“[As a journalist] you can pull information off some of those press releases but it’s already old information because it’s already been put out there [via social media]. It’s kind of pointless. They are actually not serving the media at all in that regard. It’s like cutting out the middle man, and we [journalists] are the middle man.”

But is cutting out the journalists a good thing?

Controlling the message

In the flow of information from sources — such as cycling teams — to the public, journalists and the media play a crucial intermediary role — one of reporting the facts with objectivity and balance. And with cycling’s dark past, just as importantly, to scrutinise the performances we see. As we saw with Lance Armstrong, the tireless efforts of journalists like Paul Kimmage and David Walsh were part of what brought him down – not the drug tests.

While there are similarities in the jobs done by media officers and journalists (sourcing information and making it available to a wider audience, for example) the goals in the two professions differ greatly. As Jane Aubrey told CyclingTips, before her switch to Drapac Cycling:

“If you are in PR you are certainly looking to put your best case forward for your team and if you’re not doing that you’re not doing your job.”

One concern is that by putting their team’s best case forward, media officers can be seen as ‘controling the message’ that’s making its way out into the world. When a cycling team is producing its own media, there’s no benefit to the team to publish a negative story — a story that a journalist might be interested in publishing if it was of public interest.

It’s an issue Brian Nygaard is acutely aware of.

“I think it’s important with the race reporting and the service we provide that it needs to be trustworthy — we can’t just cheerlead our way through the media stream.”

Managing bad messages

In a sport that’s suffered its fair share of negative press in recent years, it’s not rare for a cycling team to have to deal with a bad news story. If anything, the cycling media has become even more active in pursuing stories about doping (for better or worse), largely due to being duped by Lance Armstrong for so many years.

“I think the media generally has learnt and is putting into better practice the lessons it’s learned from the kerfuffle from years past”, Rupert Guinness told us. “I think the media … are cognisant of the need to do things differently and better.”

As Orica-GreenEDGE’s communications director, Brian Nygaard feels he has a responsibility to teach the riders how to deal with difficult questions, including ones about doping.

“There are several things that have happened over the years, a lot of troublesome times in cycling and it’s been important to teach the riders how best to deal with this and how they can’t just answer questions they’re comfortable with.”

We asked Brian about the advice he gave Orica-GreenEDGE riders around the time of Stuart O’Grady’s admission to using EPO before the 1998 Tour de France. Brian declined to comment, saying “I prefer keeping my comments about my work to general things and not delve into specifics”. We’ve been told by riders and staff on Orica-GreenEDGE, however, that Brian “is particularly good in a crisis”.

Prompting the media

If one of the main jobs of the cycling PR officer is to put the team’s best case forward, then a part of that job is facilitating the job of journalists — allowing journalists access to riders and team staff in order to tell stories about the team, and therefore attract media attention for the team (and, in turn, sponsors).

In some cases that can be as simple as teeing up interviews between journalists and riders (although, as Rupert Guinness would testify, this was simpler when PR teams didn’t exist in cycling). In other cases it can be producing content that prompts media outlets to write their own stories.

One example of this is the Orica-GreenEDGE Backstage Pass video produced by Dan Jones after the stage 11 individual time trial at this year’s Tour de France. Rather than focusing solely on the performance of the Orica-GreenEDGE riders, the piece was more of a profile piece on the team’s Canadian TT specialist, Svein Tuft and his unusual road into cycling. Here’s what Dan Jones had to say about the video.

“I’d known [Svein’s] story since we started and we just hadn’t run it because of the timing, and the timing was perfect then [during Le Tour]. And after that NBC and all the networks did proper features on him.

“I think it’s important from the team’s perspective to try and help the media with as many different angles as possible, especially if it’s a motivational story, or something that’ll make people read it and go ‘far out, that’s cool’.”

Quantity over quality and the need for speed

Unfortunately, there is plenty of professional cycling coverage that isn’t as inspiring, insightful or original as it might be, particularly when it comes to online publishing.

It’s no secret that the largest revenue stream for online media outlets is advertising — a business model that requires outlets to provide certain amounts of page views. Generally, the more content, the more page views. And the more page views, the more space to sell to advertisers.

The business model of online media can lead to a focus on quantity and speed over quality or, as Orica-GreenEDGE’s Brian Nygaard put it:

“It’s unfortunate that quality doesn’t really sell as much as it used to. Today, often, it’s more — with certain types of media — the essence of being fast more than the essence of being analytical or reflective.”

Rupert Guinness gave the following example of how this plays out in his job, which includes writing for Fairfax’s online pages.

“You may go to a press conference for example and it doesn’t sound like a lot but you’ve got to quickly file five paragraphs straight away. In that window of time you might miss the opportunity to interview someone that you actually want to speak to privately — it could be a very question of a story you’ve got to yourself.

“That might be the only opportunity but you miss it because you’re filing for online. So your more in-depth, considered scoop could be lost because you’re doing an online thing. It’s like juggling balls – and I can’t juggle.”

Rise of the press release

Coupled with the trend towards quantity over quality and the need for speed is the rise of the published press release. When faced with limited resources, limited time and the need for quick and easy content, there can be a real temptation to publish a press release ‘as is’, with little or no journalistic investigation to determine the accuracy or balance of the story being presented.

The result is that media outlets publish the exact stories PR teams want them to publish. In this way they often miss other sides to the story, important details or aspects of the story that the organisation creating the press release decided to leave out, for whatever reason.

It’s an issue we deal with here at CyclingTips every day. We want to cover the breaking stories and the big news items but simply don’t have the resources to do so. In that situation, a press release from a reputable organisation (Cycling Australia, for example, in the case of an NRS race) is a reasonable option, although not ideal.

We’ll often include press releases or wire copy in our Rocacorba Daily news digest but we always flag them as such (so there’s no confusion about where the news came from, and so we’re giving credit where it’s due) and try to link to another news source for a more rounded view, whenever possible. But it’s far from ideal.

Read “recyclingnews” at Inrng to learn more about how cycling news is collected.

Orica-GreenEDGE Backstage Pass

While there are those that aren’t thrilled by the rise of the PR industry in cycling and the way it has affected coverage of the sport, there are, as mentioned, no shortage of benefits to come from this development.

One of the most enjoyable additions to the scene is the insightful and entertaining video content being produced by cycling teams. While several teams have got in on the act over the past year or so — including Europcar and Omega Pharma-QuickStep — the pioneer in this space is Orica-GreenEDGE.

Dan Jones’s Backstage Pass videos began with the team in 2011 and were created to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at GreenEDGE and its entry into the sport. They’ve since gone on to attract international attention and serve a number of purposes for Orica-GreenEDGE, as Dan told us.

“[Backstage Pass] went from being something we started as ‘yeah, let’s do it for the fans’ and expanded to ‘now the sponsors are taking notice’. I think it’s even good internally with the staff because it’s good that all their hard work … people get to see it as well because other times it might just get swept up the rug.”

In addition to giving fans (and journalists) an insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of a professional cycling team, the Backstage Pass videos have been a great brand builder for Orica-GreenEDGE. They show the riders and team staff as a group of down-to-earth, fun-loving guys, who are ready to have a laugh at themselves and those around them.

This was no more apparent than in the team’s Call Me Maybe video (which has attracted more than 800,000 views on YouTube) and this year’s much anticipated follow-up, a video set to AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long. (The video was taken down from YouTube a couple months after it was posted, following a request from AC/DC’s management, but you can see a republished version here).

The “OGE Rocks” video was broadcast on TV stations around the world during the Tour de France and received praise from fans, journalists and riders alike. Dan Jones told us of one particularly gratifying moment the day after the video was released.

“The next day I saw Cavendish ride past and I said “hey Cav” and he goes “F***in’ hell mate that was unbelievable that video – I was pissing myself laughing!”

Just the beginning

Ask almost any journalist about the future of the profession and, if they’re honest, they’ll tell you they don’t know. The internet, and to a lesser extent social media, have changed the way news is sourced, created, published and read and this is no less true when it comes to cycling journalism.

PR teams are now a fixture of the professional cycling scene and those teams are taking more control over creating and publishing their own content. As a result, the way we — as fans and journalists — interact with the sport and with those within it is constantly evolving, for better or worse. We look forward to seeing where things go from here.

As a fan of the sport, what’s your take on the rise of PR in professional cycling? Has it changed the way you interact with the sport? Is social media making journalism better? And what about the use of press releases — have you noticed that trend in recent years? Does it affect your appreciation for the media outlet?