Client View: Hurdling the Olympic media obstacles

There is tremendous pressure on heptathlete Jessica Ennis in the run-up to the Games. Suzy Bashford talks to Jane Cowmeadow, the publicist who keeps her feet on the ground.

Jane Cowmeadow and Jessica Ennis
Jane Cowmeadow and Jessica Ennis

No matter how well London prepares for the Olympic Games next year, the British public will ultimately judge the success of the event not on the venues or the infrastructure, but on the performance of Team GB. This is a huge pressure for our athletes to shoulder, none more so than media favourite and track and field star Jessica Ennis.

A key person in Ennis' support team is Jane Cowmeadow, founder of Jane Cowmeadow Communications and Management (JCCM). Ennis is typically depicted in the press as a smiley, chirpy, charming young woman, but Cowmeadow is the one who has to be tough with the media and sponsors.

Tricky brief

Her tricky brief is to satisfy them without adversely affecting Ennis' track performance. She has a reputation for being a hard negotiator, working to the mantra 'firm but fair'. She says that if someone was being 'extremely pushy' in a press conference she would have 'no qualms' about putting a stop to the event.

She is strict with Ennis' diary. Training comes first and media appearances and sponsor endorsements have to fit around this. She is constantly in con-tact with Ennis' coach and, at the beginning of the year, Cowmeadow gives sponsors a tight schedule outlining possible opportunities to have some time with the athlete. Everybody knows exactly where they stand.

But beneath this steely exterior there is a genuine sense of affection for 25-year-old Ennis, towards whom she feels 'protective' and describes her management style as 'very hands-on'.

It is lunchtime when we meet and already she has spoken to Ennis four times today, approving photos for Adidas, arranging an ad shoot and organising the delivery of the athlete's new car.

One way she is helping Ennis build 'coping strategies' is by putting her in touch with other clients such as athletes Daley Thompson and Cathy Freeman, who have first-hand experience of this unique situation.

'Cathy lived through it (shouldering a nation's Olympic hopes) in Australia. The pressures were huge for her and she's got a lot of interesting things she can share and she will definitely be speaking to Jess about her experiences,' says Cowmeadow.

JCCM has already introduced Thompson and Ennis. Cowmeadow spotted some 'real similarities' between the two, most obviously the strong self-belief that both athletes have. This helps Ennis enormously when dealing with the media, and Cowmeadow says she has not given the young sports star any formal media training at all, and has no intention of doing so: 'I've had a lot of people say we should do media training with her but she's so natural, and not everybody is. I'm not even sure she writes down what she's going to say, I think it just comes from the heart.'

When it comes to media interviews, Cowmeadow grills the journalists in advance for a clear idea of their intended line of questioning. If there is a PR day or a sponsor's announcement, Cowmeadow demands full details, particularly anything that might be tricky for Ennis to answer: 'We want Jess to be aware of whether there could be any questions she might find uncomfortable. We don't need a ten-page question sheet but we want Jess to be aware of what will come up.'

The fact that Ennis is based in Sheffield shields her from some media pressure because she cannot just pop down to London to do an interview or an appearance for a sponsor. According to Cowmeadow, it also keeps her grounded, particularly because she has built relationships with the local media.

'A lot of the time, if she's making announcements she'll do it through contacts at the local BBC. The Sheffield Star has also been very supportive and we'd like to make sure it is looked after now,' says Cowmeadow.

JCCM also helps Ennis identify what her brand stands for, where she wants it to go in future and how she can shape this with her media appearances: 'She epitomises health, wellbeing, beauty, hard work and wholesomeness. As much as she is a sportsperson, we don't want to pigeonhole her as only this. We're looking at sponsorships that take her into beauty and fashion too, because she can cut through to those sectors.'

This has led her into new territory when dealing with general newspaper reporters, who are more interested in her personal life than sports reporters. For instance the Daily Mirror recently ran the embarrassing headline 'Jessica Ennis: I'll ban my boyfriend from the bedroom to win Olympic 2012 gold' after Ennis said she did not see her boyfriend before a major event.

Notorious media

Because of Ennis' wide media appeal, Cowmeadow is prepared for journalists to build her up and, potentially, knock her down if she does not meet expectations. 'You are always going to wonder, when someone is doing well, whether one day they're going to be knocked off their pedestal,' says Cowmeadow. 'At the moment that's not happening because Jess is on her rise. But I'm well aware that the British media are notorious for it. Nevertheless, they'll be hard pushed to find anything awful to write about her.'

Weeks after our interview though, a hint of this appeared. The Daily Telegraph described her performance with the javelin at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea as 'calamitous', resulting in her losing her anticipated gold medal.

Hours later, however, Cowmeadow had her charge in front of a London Evening Standard reporter, and Ennis calmly stated that she will use the experience as a motivator for London 2012.

HOW I SEE IT

James Turner, Director, ICM Research

About two-thirds of Brits are aware of stars such as Chris Hoy, Rebecca Adlington and newcomer Tom Daley. Younger Brits, younger women in particular, are less aware of the athletes.

Equal numbers are excited and unexcited about the Games, with 25- to 44-year-olds, particularly those in the South, the most enthusiastic. The Scots are least excited.

Most Brits think interviews don't affect an athlete's performance but only about a quarter think athletes should talk to journalists.

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