'The doyen of sport communications' - my Olympic PR battles with Mike Lee OBE

London v Paris in 2005; Sochi v Salzburg in 2007; Rio v Tokyo in 2009; PyeongChang v Munich in 2011.

Jon Tibbs (above) remembers Mike Lee as a tenacious winner, an excellent strategist and the doyen of campaign comms in sport
Jon Tibbs (above) remembers Mike Lee as a tenacious winner, an excellent strategist and the doyen of campaign comms in sport

How the UK and Olympic media loved these mega Olympic bid battles, as much for the PR spin and counter-spin that went on behind the scenes as for the bid city result itself!

Lee v Tibbs.

Chalk up another victory for Mike Lee, the "titan PR strategist", sang the Daily Mail’s Charlie Sale after yet another Olympic bid success for Mike’s agency, Vero Communications.

More: Sports communications supremo Mike Lee dies aged 61

It was to become a familiar refrain over the years.

For the record, the score on the above Olympic bid PR battles was in Mike’s favour but, thankfully, I already had two previous Olympic bid wins under my belt before our epic duals.

Most recently, Lee v Tibbs (part 5) played out last year in Paris v LA for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

It was clear from early on in the campaign that another PR battle was on the cards.

This was in no small part due to the usual outstanding positioning and narrative that Mike and his Vero team had worked on for Paris.

He convinced cities, nations, mayors, presidents and prime ministers, sports politicians and organisations alike that the only way to win a political campaign in sport was to be the smartest and most professional in all areas of communications.

Jon Tibbs, chairman of JTA

The excellent Paris 2024 campaign strategy also had Mike’s PR fingerprints all over it: meticulous attention to detail; clever, creative use of bid milestones; rapid rebuttals; and relentless background briefings to key journalists who Mike knew would be read by voting IOC Members.

So, boy was I relieved when the Greek gods of Ancient Olympia allowed the International Olympic Committee to award the 2024 Games to Paris and the 2028 Games to Los Angeles at the same time in Lima last year.

It’s "win-win-win" went the mantra from the IOC.

But Mike was having none of that. He was gracious enough as we shook hands after the result, but he still managed to whisper a classic line, delivered with a mischievous smile and a wink: "Well done Jon, but we both know that really I won this one!"

And that was Mike. He was a tenacious winner; he loved the campaigns where there was a win-lose outcome. And losing was never an option for him.

The stunning success of London 2012, for which Mike rightly received many plaudits, gave him a taste for campaign communications in sport.

Much has been written over the years about Mike’s combative style, but most journalists I know wore their occasional bust-ups with Mike as a badge of honour.

Jon Tibbs, chairman of JTA

I remember so well Mike telling me in 2005 that his new start-up, Vero, would be almost totally focused on campaigns in sport.

Whilst impressed, I thought that he was mistaken, as there would never be enough consistent work to feed a West End PR agency.

How wrong I was.

Mike found profitable campaign work in previously unknown recesses of the sports world.

He convinced cities, nations, mayors, presidents and prime ministers, sports politicians and organisations alike that the only way to win a political campaign in sport was to be the smartest and most professional in all areas of communications.

He was, of course, right and quite simply, Mike went on to become the doyen of campaign communications in sport.

Much has been written over the years about Mike’s combative style, but most journalists I know wore their occasional bust-ups with Mike as a badge of honour. They had survived an encounter with a PR force of nature; a uniquely passionate and talented communications professional.

The like of Mike will rarely be seen again in the PR industry - and he is already hugely missed.

Jon Tibbs OBE is chairman of JTA

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