Could open PR clean up the Tour de France?

Wins in the Euro 2008, Wimbledon and now for Carlos Sastre in this year’s Tour de France have given journalists a hook in terms of a Spanish golden era of sport.  But much of the coverage this year’s arduous cycle race has been about drug doping – which, despite high profile success in positive testing, withdrawal of teams and outraged sponsors, doesn’t seem to be declining. 

Scottish rider, David Millar, who was banned for 2 years, believes more a more media friendly approach might be the answer.  So could open PR be the key to a clean Tour de France?

There has been little academic research in respect of PR and sports.  Despite the high level of public and media interest, PR in this sector seems to be mainly used for promotional purposes, dominated by ex-sports journalists – well, that’s a view based on supervising several dissertations on sports topics for final year PR degree students.  

It is perhaps not surprising that sports PR focuses has a marketing orientation since like many iconic sporting events, the Tour was conceived in 1903 by two journalists promoting a newspaper (l’Auto) with the support of the bicycle industry.

Sports may have played a role in advancing media coverage, as French academic Fabien Wille claimed for the Tour de France; whilst Olympic president Jacques Rogge states the media spotlight has had a positive effect on China.   

Arguably what the media is seeking from covering sport is greater openness.  For the specialists, that means getting close to the main players to secure exclusives, unique insights and enough material for 24:7 coverage where citizen journalism is also offering up views and news online.  This is the approach that Millar believes is vital to improve the Tour’s image.  His team, Garmin Chipotle, has ’embedded’ journalists in the team.  This approach also impresses and benefits sponsors, who need to assess the return on investment of their millions. 

Such openness requires more than a press agentry approach to PR as it relies on trust and strong relationships rather than seeking control and spouting the company message.  It carries a risk as things can go wrong, but there is much greater kudos in being able to show how profesionals handle emerging issues.  The public, and the media, are impressed by an honest and realistic approach.

I hope Millar is right and more teams will develop relationships with journalists rather than seeing them as the enemy.  I’ve seen a lot of undergraduates keen to develop their careers in sports PR and none has been looking to practice the traditional spin and control approach. 

There’s a need for more professional PR practitioners in sports (rather than former hacks) with an ever greater need to build valuable relationships with the media, and a higher profile making crisis management skills essential.  I’d also like to see the academic spotlight turned more on PR practice in sports, to assess whether the old ways should be replaced by greater opennesss – and if so, to highlight case studies and models for doing so.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Could open PR clean up the Tour de France?”

  1. What a thought-provoking post, particularly with regard to the comment that most sports PR people are ex-sports journalists (most who haven’t got a clue about the wider/finer points of PR). But if the PR people on these teams are just ex sports journos, who don’t realise what good PR is and how it contributes to the botom line, then there’s no hope for Le Tour. So yes, PR can assist. But getting true professionals means the team managemnet has to recognise what PR can do. And really, they’re just run (mostly) by sports types. I must start writing to a few teams. And wasn’t Cadel Evans’ performance to finish second (again) great. Go you great Aussie.

  2. I’m going to bang the drum for all journalists who made a new career in PR. Some of us have made it our business to examine the intricacies of PR before we switched over. I for one have studied the Advanced Certificate through Cambridge Marketing College. It has given me confidence to go forward in my new career knowing I’ve done my best to be as professional and educated as I possibly can.

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