Jonathan Vaughters’ PR Battle

Jonathan Vaughters is a former professional cyclist. He is the CEO of Slipstream Sports. He is the current team manager of Garmin-Cervelo. He is the president of the International Association of Professional Cycling teams (AIGCP). And he is also one of the most accessible figures in the entire sport.

If you happen to be on twitter yourself and you send Jonathan Vaughters a message, if it’s an intelligent and relevant query, there’s a good chance that Vaughters may respond. Now I don’t know about anyone else but whenever I get an email or a tweet from someone famous, I get a thrill out of it. The fact that this person whom I see on telly and read about in the news has taken the time to communicate with me, however sad and pitiable this makes me seem, incites a sense of awe from within. Lance Armstrong tweeted me once last year, twice actually, and for all my misgivings about his actions and character, there was a while thereafter where I was thinking to myself , ‘Armstrong just tweeted me, ah he’s a good egg really’…I snapped out of it eventually.

But for all Vaughters’ attempts to reach out to fans and sceptics, he revealed recently that he may be better off saying nothing at all:

I try to argue my point, but of course any argument is vulnerable to misinterpretation and can easily be shot down by the hardened critic. And to be honest, who isn’t a hardened critic with cycling these days? It’s not a winnable battle. If you withhold information, you’re hiding something, if you make information public; it’s picked through and placed out of context unfairly by people who aren’t experts on the topic. At times I think it’s not only an unwinnable battle, but an unwinnable war. Twitter becomes my Waterloo.

Now, is Vaughters referring to conversational battles with the uber-cynics? Or is he referring to the public relations battle constantly faced by cycling teams (some of) which incessantly fight the dirty tag that the sport has bestowed upon itself? What if Vaughters’ seemingly jovial and inclusive presence on Twitter is purely an exercise in public relations strategy?

Ever heard of Trent Lowe? For those who haven’t, here’s a good article about his involvement with Jonathan Vaughters’ team. To summarize, he rode for the team between 2008 and 2010. He was not paid the final month of his contract because during this month he attended a training camp of the ill-fated Pegasus team and did not use Garmin-Transitions equipment which he was still contracted to use.

This came to light after Garmin-Cervelo directeur sportif Matt White was fired in January 2011 for breaching team protocol. White had sent Trent Lowe to a Spanish doctor who was not on the team’s approved list of doctors. The doctor in question, Luis del Moral, has been alleged to have had links with doping in the past. Lowe is now seeking payment of his final month’s outstanding pay and an apology from Team Garmin-Cervelo because his reputation has been damaged by being sent to Dr. Del Moral. Suffice it to say that it’s an unfavourable storyline for Vaughters and Slipstream Sports.

From the 23rd January when the story involving Lowe, White and del Moral first broke, until the 7th March, Lowe himself did not speak publicly. Vaughters did. This would have suited Vaughters just fine, he was able to tell his side of the story and the team ended up seeming more anti-doping than ever for taking such radical action against White for what perhaps seemed a minor infringement.

On 3rd March, Lowe’s representative Martin Hardie released a series of correspondences between Lowe, Vaughters and Hardie himself. This was a 9,000 word article full of legalese which, I would imagine, not many people took the time to read. However, on 7th March, Lowe started piping up with his side of the story. He said his period of silence was because ‘I wanted to make sure that what I said in public on my behalf was accurate‘. I wonder did Lowe breaking his silence have an affect on the PR battleground that is twitter. Let’s see.

Lowe gave a series of online interviews which were published on the 7th, 9th and 11th March. If we take a radically cynical look at Vaughters’ twitter activity around that time, can we infer any relation to these dates?

First of all, the bar chart below shows the number of tweets by Jonathan Vaughters broken down month by month for the last 22 months:

(via 16th March 2011)

It is obvious that Vaughters activity has risen considerably since the Trent Lowe/Matt White scenario became public in January. But perhaps this increase in Vaughters’ activity could be attributed to the race radio debate which has come to a head in that time period, a debate in which he is a prominent figure. Or maybe he’s just had more time on his hands this year? Let’s dig a little deeper.

The following, is a graph of the volume of Vaughters’ tweets during the month of March so far*:

(via 16th March 2011)

Trent Lowe’s first comments on the issue which appeared on Velonation and the Sydney Morning Herald, were released on the 7th March. On the day following this, Vaughters only produced two tweets. With our cynic caps on, we could infer that he was taking time on this day to concoct a PR strategy to deal with the fact that Trent Lowe had finally broken his silence on the issue.

The second Trent Lowe interview appeared on NYvelocity on the 9th March. On the day following this, there was a notable increase in Vaughter’s tweets, a total of 40. That day Vaughters was discussing the ‘no needles’ approach to cycling, his predictions for Paris-Nice and even sumo wrestling. Similarly, on the day following the interview which appeared on CyclingTips on the 11th March, the volume of tweets increased even more dramatically to 76. The topic of most of Vaughters’ tweets on the 12th March were primarily regarding the race radio debate.

It could be inferred from both of these spikes in the graph that Vaughters was attempting to deflect attention away from the Trent Lowe issue and on to other issues. Perhaps many an internet troll received a direct tweet from Vaughters and went away thinking ‘Vaughters just tweeted me, ah he’s a good egg isn’t he?’ and forgot all about Trent Lowe. Was it a public relations decision for Vaughters to spend this time on twitter winning fans over with his generous interaction?

I contacted Slipstream Sports to find out. I asked should Jonathan Vaughters’ twitter activity simply be viewed as a coincidence, or has there been a concerted PR effort made by Vaughters to deflect attention away from the Trent Lowe issue? Their director of communications got back to me and said:

Jonathan is and has always been very vocal and very consistent on Twitter on many different topics ranging from racing to radios. I invite you to look closely [at Vaughters’ twitter feed] and you will see there is no such correlation, only consistency.

I pressed further and was told I would receive a statement on the matter which amounted to the following:

As you can tell, Jonathan uses twitter to talk about a wide range of stuff

I followed that up by asking can I assume then that Vaughters does not take PR advice when deciding what topics to discuss on twitter and when to discuss them?

I received no further replies.

Of course, I could be putting two and two together here and coming up with a recurring decimal. Indeed to repeat once more what Vaughters himself had to say about people like me:

If you make information public; it’s picked through and placed out of context unfairly by people who aren’t experts on the topic.

Never a truer word. But I suppose the message here is that Jonathan Vaughters is the CEO of a company and the manager of a cycling team. He is in business to make money and to win races. He is not in business to be convivial with faceless twitter accounts on the internet.

*There may be some discrepancies between the number of tweets on each day stated in the graph and the number of tweets which are visible on each day upon inspection of Jonathan Vaughters’ actual twitter feed. This is due to issues with timezones. Regardless, the volume of tweets in the periods following each of the Trent Lowe interviews remain relevant.

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  1. Lowell - February 27, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

    My team has been working diligently to acquire new customers using a variety of different techniques, but we have just started scratching the surface of social media. We’re definitely devoting more time and effort into it in 2015 as I would like to expand my client base, but it seems very difficult to remove all of the clutter. For instance, many of my potential clients are not active in the sense that all they do is share content, so it’s a bit harder to really get their attention.

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