British Cycling president Brian Cookson officially threw his hat in the ring for the UCI presidency on Tuesday, but if he is to oust current president Pat McQuaid, who is running for a third term in office, it will not be a result of a lone effort.
The manoeuvrings of modern day sports politics bear more than a passing resemblance to those of government. Spin doctors – strategists, communications experts, media advisors and professional lobbyists are crucial. Cookson is believed to have made his mind up to challenge McQuaid only last week. However he has already secured the services of Vero, a London-based specialist sports communications agency, to help him manage and direct his campaign.
Founded in 2006 by Mike Lee, director of communications and public affairs at UEFA before shaping the public facing strategy for London’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, Vero has built a niche for itself in the ultra-political realm of major events bidding.
Before getting into the sports world, with a job in the first iteration of the Premier League’s communications department, Lee spent his formative years in the cut and thrust of real political campaigning, developing strategies for the Labour Party in its efforts to regain power in the UK in the early 1990s. The hard knocks of those years have translated into a steely discipline in Vero’s work today.
Vero is not a swollen, international PR giant. It is small, nimble and sticks to its highly specialised area of expertise. There are hardly any gaps in its catalogue of successes: Lee was responsible for communications for Rio’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, a winning effort in one of the hardest fought Olympic bid campaigns and one in which he redefined the nature of the role he was given. He followed that with an even more remarkable victory: guiding Qatar’s unlikely effort to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup from rank outsider to ultimate winner. Lee was senior consultant to the bid.
Significantly, Vero has been involved in successful presidential campaigns before too. Indeed, they know both sides of the fence, having masterminded the campaign to ensure that Brazilian Volleyball Federation chief Ary Graca took the top job at the International Volleyball Federation. Vero also oversaw the campaign to keep Lamine Diack, an octogenarian veteran of Olympic politics, in his post as the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations in 2011.
Ominously for Pat McQuaid, Vero and Lee have not tasted defeat too many times. Vero will combine its work for Cookson with that of their current clients and ongoing campaigns. These include squash’s bid for inclusion on the Olympic programme, Buenos Aires’ bid for the 2018 Youth Olympics, as well as advisory roles for the World Olympians Association, the International Centre for Sport Security in Qatar, and the upcoming IRB Sevens World Cup in Moscow.
Although Lee and his team are far too good to take a one-size-fits-all approach to any kind of campaign, they do tend to favour a full-blooded effort, hammering home their messages with near-daily releases to the media and taking advantage of any circumstance to offer opportune interviews with selected press. On the other hand, they do not leave their clients floundering either, chaperoning and marshaling them in public situations where any kind of scrutiny is likely.
When Cookson launched his campaign, the hallmarks of a professional campaign were evident: from the carefully leaked ‘trail’ of the news to build anticipation the day before, to the multilingual release and just-so statement that announced it. There was also the simultaneous activation of the @cooksonforuci Twitter feed (which has already amassed over 5,000 followers), and the briancookson.org website – neither of which are likely to be manned by the candidate himself.
The concept of narrative in a bid campaign is a key guiding principle for Lee, who has made a professional success of his natural ability as a storyteller. As Cookson’s campaign heads towards judgement day in late September, we can expect that ‘narrative’ to develop quickly, beginning with the unveiling of his full manifesto next week.