Team Sky: what happens when ethical standards appear to slip?

Since their creation in 2009, Team Sky have always proclaimed their zero tolerance approach to doping, a refreshing change from the negativity that surrounded elite cycling for so many years.

But perception is reality when crisis strikes and Team Sky’s determined clean and transparent mantra has come back to hurt them. The higher you proclaim your values to be, the harder the fall if you are implicated in any sort of controversy.

Cycling, remember, has had its fair share of doping controversy in the past, with Lance Armstrong possibly winning the title of the biggest cheat in the history of professional sport.

UCI, elite cycling’s governing body, has done much under the regime of Brian Cookson to restore cycling’s reputation, something we discussed with their Head of Communications, Sebastien Gillot, earlier this year.

The story initially revolved around Sir Bradley Wiggins, the first British man to win the Tour de France and Britain’s most decorated Olympian at Rio 2016, adding to a medal haul that dates back to his first Games in Athens in 2004. 

It was revealed that Wiggins had been granted permission to have injections to treat asthma and allergies before the Tour de France in 2011 and 2012 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013.

Wiggins broke no rules, but given that he says in his 2012 autobiography, ‘My Time’, that he had a no-needle policy and that he only had injections for vaccinations and rehydration, it raises questions about why he had the corticosteroid before major races.

He undertook one interview once the story broke but not with a specialist sports journalist and he did not clearly explain why he had failed to mention the injections in his book. 

Since then, more investigations into Team Sky have focused on a package delivered to the team in 2011, which has now resulted in a UK Anti-Doping investigation.

Principal Sir David Brailsford has previously come across a good communicator but there have been a few missteps in this affair, particularly the contradictions to his story about the mysterious package by rider Emma Pooley. 

It has certainly undermined his competence and his stock as a standard-bearer of successful, clean sport by not checking his facts before giving an explanation.

In a world where perception is reality, sadly Team Sky’s responses have been another lesson in how not to manage a crisis. No wonder Brailsford conceded that the way the controversy has been handled had made it a “damn sight worse.”

Calacus advises our clients of the importance of being proactive when a crisis strikes, knowing your facts before you speak and remaining on the front foot. 

That means co-operating with media where confidentiality permits, and addressing all issues fully as soon as the initial controversy came to light.

There is a lesson here for anyone caught up in a crisis whether it has reached the public eye or not. Be open, honest, check your facts and don’t leave anything out that may prove embarrassing later on.

The truth usually comes out in the end.