Watching Team Sky under sceptical pressure has become as much a part of the Tour de France as an Alpine ascent or a sprint on the Champs Elysees.
Given that cycling’s past is full of drug-enhanced dominance it’s not surprising that many are unable to accept what they see today at face value. As a result Team Sky has got itself into a war of facts and figures.
Data gathered from Chris Froome’s winning climb on stage 10 of the race was published this week and calls for the team to publish the numbers showing how hard Froome worked on the climb followed. The argument goes that there’s a certain level of performance that can only be reached with the extra help of illegal doping.
So Team Sky put Froome’s numbers out there and those who already believe in better took them to suggest Chris was clean. Those who are sceptical still weren’t convinced; it’s fair to say the release of the much demanded data changed nothing at all.
Team Sky: Damned when they do, damned when they don’t
My first thought was that Sky should just give up trying to win over the sceptics. They’re mostly hardcore cycling ‘fans’ who congregate on social media and internet forums. One look at how warmly Team Sky was received during their home race, the Tour of Britain, shows that the general public aren’t having their views informed by an anonymous Tweeters.
A look at the bigger picture shows why the team is so keen to clear the mess up. More and more journalists are picking up on the story. The foreign press in particular are now asking quite specific questions about the latest internet allegations at post-race press conferences, and there’s a danger that the scepticism and supposition will go mainstream.
So what should Team Sky do? How do they change the narrative and prevent their image having a big black question mark hanging over it?
Here’s what I would do:
1. Haters gonna hate
Realise you’re never going to completely win the social media war so don’t try. Focus all your efforts on the people who influence the public that you want to talk to.
2. Get on the front foot
All the way through the Tour de France, Team Sky seemed to be on the PR defensive. Don’t just plan for the attacks in the press conferences, set out your agenda before you even set off.
It’s possible to go into a Tour de France with a hundred different ideas of how you can get closer to the press and the TV companies covering the race. These are the guys who can influence opinion so give them some good meaty stuff rather than having to feast off scraps from social media.
Sky also have a problem with trust which I think is also caused by not planning ahead. It has said in the past it would publish some information that hasn’t been forthcoming. I don’t know whether that’s because it was promised in the hope of shutting people up or maybe it was something it said on the spur of the moment and couldn't deliver. If you’re trying to win the trust of people you need to ensure you follow up your pledges EVERY time.
3. Bang on about being clean
When Team Sky was launched one of their stated aims was to win the Tour de France clean. For me they don’t go on about this often enough now. They tend to only say they are clean in reply to an accusation of being dirty.
Make it about the riders all being clean rather than the team – it’s much easier to admire individuals rather than nebulous concepts.
I’d then mention clean at every opportunity. First you’ll be doing something no other team at the Tour de France does and second people will think ‘if they bang out about it so much it would be really embarrassing for them if they weren’t… why would they bang on if they weren’t?’
4. Get a good spokesperson
A lot of the rebuttal of speculation is done by the team’s general manager Sir Dave Brailsford.
Brailsford has led cycling in Britain to never-before-seen levels of success on the Olympic tracks and the French roads. His is a truly impressive achievement and something he deserves to be long remembered for. However he is in danger of being known as the guy who was constantly defending Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
He’s not everyone’s cup of tea either and his sometimes aggressive and spiky stance (which probably served him well in overhauling British cycling) isn’t going to win over everyone. I’d get in someone who is less of a lightning rod to do more of the talking. Someone who has less to do with the day-to-day cycling on the road.
5. Change the narrative
Team Sky have won two of the last three Tour de France events (probably three of the last four by this Sunday) but that’s the only area in which they have dominated.
Other teams regularly win the big races but only undergo a small fraction of the questioning that Team Sky face. Why? Well some people say it’s because the team are newcomers and have not always been respectful of the sport’s continental traditions. Others say it’s because the team is British and they suffer a sort of Eurovision Song Contest-style popularity fail on the French roads.
Whatever the reason Team Sky has to get out from under all the questions coming their way and change the questioning to be more general.
Don’t try too hard to lead transparency and openness – this only fulfils the sensation that Team Sky are a special case.
6. Call in a PR agency
From the predominantly black team colours to the management-speak press interviews everything about Team Sky’s image screams corporate. This lacks vibrancy, excitement and passion, all the things sports fans warm to.
Get some expert help in to soften that image. Make the team feel warmer and make bigger personalities out of the riders. Within the team are some real British success stories that the public could really warm to if they got to know them a little better.
As a side project they could also look at Chris Froome. A Kenyan by birth who lives in Monaco it hasn’t been easy for the British public to connect with him. Greg Rusedski cracked it, and so can Chris.
Euan McMorrow is a communications consultant