Irrepressible British athlete Bradley Wiggins is embroiled in not one, but two potentially career-ending controversies, in doping and tax avoidance - two of the most frowned upon activities a sportsman and public figure can be accused of. What’s more, from a PR point of view, they are being handled badly.
In 2012 Bradley Wiggins won a hotly contested sports personality of the year title, beating Jessica Ennis and Andy Murray. One year later he was knelt in front of the Queen and became Sir Bradley. Then he was the first Brit to win the Tour de France and, at the time, the most decorated British Olympian.
The sportsman transcended his sport, collecting his SPOTY, with a mullet, and being knighted in a velvet-lined, brown, three-piece suit. He was relatable, honest and, crucially, untarnished by industry doping rumours there were about to fell the infamous Lance Armstrong.
Wiggins was the breath of fresh air bringing dignity and credibility back to a sport that had lost its biggest icon in Armstrong, stripped of all achievements from 1998 onwards. But now Wiggins' reputation is at risk too.
Earlier this week, the front page of The Times read: “Wiggins put money into ‘shocking’ tax avoidance plan”.
Wiggins was accused of investing in a scheme that used a charity as a front to deprive the tax man of £100m. The article included a quote from a Wiggins spokesperson claiming he “settled all tax liabilities a number of years ago and has paid all taxes due”.
This statement entirely missed the point and that it was not made by Wiggins himself. This was a large error. Laws do not have to be broken for moral codes to have been destroyed and wheeling out a spokesperson to make such a naïve statement is counterproductive.
The Jimmy Carr 'How to save your career in the face of tax avoidance claims' book is a must-read for Wiggins and his spokespeople. Jimmy got to the heart of the issue before the papers could. He put himself in the spotlight, made precise and astute apologies and paid every penny back. As a result, he still has a full diary of gigs. If Wiggins doesn’t take these steps, his future becomes a lot less bright.
Hiding behind vague statements about tax liabilities being paid will not cut it. Those in the public sphere and positions of power now operate, due to social media, at a level of scrutiny and accountability that they cannot ignore. This side of crisis is only just beginning for Wiggins and how it unfolds over the coming days will define the public’s perception of him for the rest of his life.
Wiggins should also take note of Carr’s apology when considering his approach to the doping scandal. An independent select committee has accused him of using banned substances to help win the Tour de France in 2012. Wiggins’ response to these accusations has fallen far short of sufficient or appropriate and, like the tax statement by his spokesperson, is vague and elusive: “I didn’t cheat… it is a smear campaign”.
He would be remiss to think that this will cut it with the general public. He has ignored the three R’s to an effective apology entirely: to express regret, to take responsibility and to reassure. He is, understandably, trying to avoid apologising for something that he believes he hasn’t done but the fact is that the horse has bolted. In the eyes of the general public he is guilty and simply denying it only enforces this.
He must change his approach or risk permanently tainting his USP: his relatability. He has taken no responsibility; all blame and fault lies with these completely un-specified people running the “smear campaign” against him. In terms of reassuring, he has made no statements to let the public know that he is helping the process or planning to act in some way to prevent this happening again – be it to him or to other cyclists.
In sum, the unfortunate picture of the once-lovable Wiggo now painted in the press is of a potential drug cheat who is only concerned about his image. He is staring down the barrel of two crises that he must address separately to regain the trust of the relevant audiences while appreciating the situation as a whole and the fact that it could, worst case scenario, leave him with a stripped knighthood. His personal approach and attitude needs to change.
Team Sky would also be wise to unbury their heads from the sand, avoid interviews such as this and apply the three R’s to themselves and actually co-operate with the inquiry, rather than remaining closed-off and terse.
If things continue as they have done, Sky will surely pull its sponsorship. Team Sky may be one of the most successful teams of all time but it is only as attractive to Sky as the credibility upon which its image relies. Without credibility Sky will back another team; it is that simple. A la Gillette and Tiger Woods, the sportsman may be brilliant, but the brand has no obligation to risk its own image for the sake of their man. Let’s hope Brailsford realises the impotence of hubris and that there is more at stake than just his reputation – although, this is undoubtedly on the line too.
Overall, there are several worlds colliding in these crises and they are all as important as the next. Be it from a personal reputation point of view for Wiggins and Brailsford or the corporate concerns of Sky and their sponsorship arrangements, change is inevitable and something has got to give.
These issues are not just going to disappear. Watch this space.
James Porter is AAE at W Communications. He tweets at @JEHPorter.