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What the Tour de France can tell you about assembling a winning PR team

24th July 2017

Cycling fan, San Francisco's Elliott Suthers considers the parallels of PR and pelotons. 

Working in Silicon Valley means that the Grayling team gets to support companies that are literally changing the world. Some are revolutionizing healthcare, others banking. Some are even setting out to change the future of air travel. But disruption takes a certain set of skills, and often media relations and communications aren’t high up on that list at first. This means that when it comes time to get their story out, many founders don’t know the first steps that they should take. This, in turn, leads to the very first question that most startups ask when we meet with them: “Why do I need an agency? Can’t I just hire a marketing director?”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been getting up at ungodly hours to watch the Tour de France. (Congrats, Mr Froome!). One of the first things you notice when you watch a race as grueling as as The Tour is the level of teamwork that goes into making successful campaigns. It reminds me a lot of how a good PR agency should work. So, my response to the question “Why do I need an agency?” is: Because you need a strong team that knows its strengths and can compensate for its weaknesses. It needs to draft on each other and turn to one another when the going gets tough – which in PR, is often.

Let’s take a closer look at how this analogy plays out in an agency environment:

Team leads 

  • Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Richie Porte. These are the names that most of us recall when we think about the Tour de France. Team leads set the strategy, dictate race pace and are the focal points of their team’s efforts. Without the leads, Teams Sky or Movistar would be composed of tremendous riders going in different directions. In an agency environment, the team lead is your SVP or VP, and they keep your account moving toward the finish line.


  • Sprinters are the riders that teams turn to when they need to move fast. Peter Sagan is probably the one you’ve heard of, perhaps Andre Greipel. Sprinters are generally brought along by their team, drafted up the hills and supported on the decent, all so they can burst from the pack at exactly the right time, and with precisely the right amount of energy in the bank. The sprinter is your media strategist, your pitching power. The media strategist is the person who’s going to help you craft your story in a way that the media will care about, then they’re going to hit the phones for some feverishly paced pitching sessions, often under a tight time crunch. And they’ll pull it off, too. 


  • Climbers have the unenviable job leading their teams up the steepest parts of the Tour. Often, climbers will tuck into the peloton, keeping pace for hundreds of miles, and then use the mountain stages to collect points for their team. The life of the climber can be lonely (they usually train alone and get left behind on stages where pure speed is more important than endurance) and it’s always challenging (ascents routinely top 6,000 feet and six per cent gradients). But for their effort, they get a special classification – King of The Mountain. The climbers on your PR team are content specialists and designers. These unsung heroes work long hours, often alone or loosely integrated with the broader team. They’re expected to deliver outstanding results that support the team’s overall objectives - basically on demand – and when the campaign’s done, they move on to the next challenge.


  • Which brings us to the domestiques - an unglamorous name for a vitally important role. Chances are that you’ve never even heard of most of these riders, but winning a race like the Tour de France without them would be impossible. Domestiques are world-class cyclists in their own right. Many have won Olympic medals, world championships and other tours, yet for THE TOUR, they take on a role that could best be described as supporting. They create the draft for the sprinters, set the pace for climbers and shield their team leaders from jostling and crosswinds. When one of the named riders damage their bikes, it’s the domestiques that give up theirs until the support cars arrive. In short, they’re the glue that holds their team together. If you haven’t guessed by now, domestiques are your junior staff – SAEs, AEs and interns. Each one is willing to sacrifice their day or week to ensure the team’s success. They’re an invaluable member of your team and though they might not always get the credit, they move the account forward on a daily basis.

So, there you have it – an unconventional way to look at your PR team. Now let’s get out there and get you the yellow jersey.

Elliott Suthers is a senior vice president in Grayling's San Francisco team. 

Elliott Suthers

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