How do you turn around the reputation of elite cycling?

Trying to restore the reputation of one of the most damaged sports in the world is no easy task.

But that’s exactly the challenge Sébastien Gillot accepted when he moved from AIBA, the International Boxing Association, to join UCI as Head of Communications under the stewardship of newly-installed President Brian Cookson.

Between them, they have transformed the profile of international elite cycling, slowly but steadily putting in place initiatives and Commissions to restore the credibility of a sport littered with doping scandals.

Calacus spoke to Gillot to find out how the PR strategy has been delivered.

Elite cycling has gone through a challenging period in the past few years. What have you done to turn around the reputation of the sport?
Restoring trust and the credibility of cycling will obviously take some time, but I believe that we have already made great progress in the past two years. We are being fully transparent in the way we address the key issues of our sport. We are collaborating in a much more open way with media and never hesitate to give a call, off the record, to explain our decisions.

We’ve also fully embraced social media and are now interacting with our fan base (cumulative audience of 1 million followers across all platforms) on a daily basis. We have now hired a social media coordinator whose role is to manage all of our platforms almost 24/7 and it was funny to see the reaction of our fans the very first week he started: some thought that we had been hacked since they had never been used to receiving a reply. In a few months we have already noticed a clear shift of tone in the way people get in touch with us on social media. A lot less haters thankfully.
 
Brian Cookson has become a standard bearer for transparency in sport – how much can other sports administrations learn from the diligent revolution he has overseen at UCI?
We very well know how hard it is to lead change in old institutions such as the International Federations. Every sports administration is different and has its own challenges. The last thing we want is to be seen as giving lectures to anyone. All we care about is the UCI and its image.
 
What has been your biggest PR challenge this year from a PR perspective and how did you address it?
As promised during Brian’s election campaign, the UCI has opened itself up to an unprecedented level of independent scrutiny from the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC). The Commission worked in full independence over the course of 2014 and its report was delivered to us in March 2015.

Obviously we did not know what would be its content but expectations from stakeholders – including the media obviously – were high. It is a long and complex report, which we had committed to publish in full, so it was hard to predict the kind of coverage we would get out of it.

But we wanted to address all questions raised by the report in the most possible transparent way. We published the report one Sunday night and had informed media beforehand that our door would be fully open the following morning. Brian did about 30 interviews in the following 48 hours. It was obviously a challenging time but I believe we came out of it in a much stronger position, including with regard to our relationships with key journalists.
 
What are the biggest misunderstandings that UCI has faced this year?
The most frustrating fact of 2015 was probably when some media decided to cover the CIRC report, a document of over 200 pages, with the sole angle of one quote from a single anonymous source saying that 90% of the peloton is still doping. The CIRC report is about much more than that so it was a bit disappointing to see some media covering that angle only.
 
What focus does UCI have on the promotion of women’s events given the majority of coverage is for male cycling events?
Under Brian’s leadership, the UCI has achieved a great deal for women’s cycling. We continue working with all stakeholders to ensure the sport has a more professional and stable future. As part of the progress being made, we spent a full year consulting with event organisers, teams, rider representatives, media and sponsors before setting up a new women’s series, the UCI Women’s WorldTour, starting in 2016.

It is an exciting time for women’s cycling as we offer the sport the platform that it deserves. The UCI Women’s WorldTour will run for 35 days from March to September, increasing the number of competition days by more than 60%.

The 2016 calendar will take the peloton to 17 events across Europe, the United States and China, including for the first time multi-day events such as the Aviva Women’s Tour of Britain. Increased media exposure is at the heart of our strategy for developing women’s cycling. Event organisers must provide either live streaming or highlight packages, plus a news clip to be distributed to international broadcasters shortly after the race finish. We will also ensure that each event is promoted across social media, including our dedicated women’s cycling channel.
 
What do you do to promote grassroots events and how do you communicate the new order in cycling to allay fears by parents who only remember the controversies from a previous era?
As the worldwide governing body for cycling, the UCI knows that its mission is wider than looking after the sport, the competition. It must also join in partnership with those who advocate better conditions and safer roads to encourage more people to cycle for whatever reason.

The UCI Advocacy Commission was created in 2014 to steer UCI’s work in this area. The Commission’s objectives are:
•         Giving children a chance to ride: every child should have the opportunity to ride a bike;
•         Making roads safe for cycling: promote measures to improve road safety for people who cycle;
•         Better cycling infrastructure: access to sporting, recreational and transport cycling infrastructure via safe connected routes for all.
 
Bradley Wiggins broke the world track record this year – how much of a positive symbol for the sport has he been over the years?
One of our main satisfactions over the past two years has been the modernisation of the UCI Hour Record and its Regulations. There was a general consensus that equipment used in competition had to be allowed to benefit from technological evolution where pertinent. This kind of evolution is positive for cycling generally and for the UCI Hour Record in particular.

Things had become rather stagnant before the new rule, and we saw huge potential for this record to be brought off the shelf and into the modern era. This record has regained its attraction for both the athletes and cycling fans.

We are thrilled by the overall mix of all of these attempts, the dedication and single-mindedness of the riders, their physical and mental strength, the atmosphere in the velodromes, and the purity of this race against the clock which a large public can understand.
 
What are your plans/ambitions for 2016?
2016 promises to be a breakout year for our sport as we look towards the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games. Like every year we will cover our over 500 events across all of our disciplines (road, track, mountain bike, BMX, cyclo-cross, trials, indoor and para-cycling), but obviously the Games will be the focus for our athletes and fans.

We want to the lead the way amongst our peers in the way we embrace innovation and digital media, and these events are the perfect platform for us to grow our fan base and contribute to the improvement of the image and reputation of cycling. I can assure that we will never stop thinking out of box and being innovative in the way we promote our sport.