British Cycling-Shell partnership: a misstep followed by a masterclass

British Cycling’s baffling sponsorship deal announced this week with oil giant Shell presented a slam dunk for environmental campaigners – and Greenpeace obliged LeBron James-style.

(Getty Images/MIGUEL MEDINA / Contributor)

Cycling’s national governing body has signed an eight-year partnership with Shell UK that it says will bring “wide-ranging support and investment” to the sport  – but the backlash was as immediate as it was predictable.
 
The tie-up was slammed as a “disaster” and “ethically abominable” on social media, with British Cycling’s claim that Shell would “accelerate our path to net zero” coming in for particular ridicule.
 
Greenpeace – criticised by some for its stunt during Liz Truss’s speech at the Tory party conference last week – was back on form with this response from UK policy director Dr Doug Parr: “The idea of Shell helping British Cycling reach net zero is as absurd as beef farmers advising lettuce farmers on how to go vegan.
 
“After being booted out of museums and other cultural institutions, Big Oil are looking at sports as the next frontier for their brazen greenwash. But their aim hasn’t changed – to distract from the inconvenient fact that the fossil fuel industry is making our planet uninhabitable.”
 
Since moving from journalism to comms 11 years ago, I’ve spent countless hours talking to brands about the power of quotable language. Well, that’s how it’s done, folks. A ready-made, soundbite-packed statement to make a journalist’s heart (and story) sing.
 
And so it proved. The comment ran prominently in the extensive media coverage on the issue – from the BBC and The Guardian to The Telegraph and CNN. Within 24 hours, more than 700 organisations and individuals had signed an open letter to British Cycling calling on the governing body to “renounce” its partnership with Shell.
 
NGOs know exactly what they’re doing here – and have been using headline-grabbing language as an effective tactic to get their message out for many years. The more pertinent question in this instance is why they were given the opportunity in the first place.
 
A vital part of any sponsorship due diligence process is a basic risk assessment to consider the reputational harm of any potential partnership. I’ve conducted many over the years – and have advised against proceeding several times on optics alone.
 
I struggle to believe that British Cycling wouldn’t have taken this step, which suggests the risk was deemed to be sufficiently low and that the sponsorship was given the green light.
 
That was a mistake in my view (and many other people’s), but to then link the partnership to the organisation’s path to net zero in its own proactive messaging was naivety in the extreme.
 
Friends of the Earth said Shell should have been told to “get on its bike” (I said these NGOs are good!) and all of my experience tells me that was the only decision British Cycling could have come to.
 
It’s not only in the media that brands are being scrutinised for “greenwashing” and “sportswashing” – government interventions and civil lawsuits are on the rise in both the US and Europe. In July, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into sustainability claims made by a number of brands, including Boohoo and George at Asda.
 
Meanwhile, UN secretary general António Guterres recently compared fossil-fuel giants to the tobacco companies that continued to push their addictive products while using PR agencies to attack health advice that showed clear links between smoking and cancer.
 
Tobacco firms are now banned from sports sponsorship and there are those who believe that rule should be extended to oil and gas companies. We’re not there yet – but brands still willing to take the oil industry’s money will pay a reputational price. Just ask British Cycling.
 
Rob Lester is Managing Director of Threesixty


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