Images of Ireland’s Prime Minister competing in a triathlon in September 2017 caused a nationwide news event and led to a massive increase in traffic to Triathlon Ireland’s social media platforms.
But the story behind Leo Varadkar’s participation shows how innovation and investment in content can give smaller sporting organisations the ability to compete with the reach of sports that boast much larger fanbases.
Images commissioned by Triathlon Ireland of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar competing alongside regular men and women were featured in almost every news outlet in Ireland while the organisation’s Facebook video interview with the politician went on to attract the largest audience of any single post in Triathlon Ireland’s history, bringing with it, a whole new audience.
The media story behind Leo Varadkar’s participation in Dublin City Triathlon (DCT) – one of Ireland’s largest and most prestigious mass participation triathlons – began a month before with discreet arrangements to secure Mr Varadkar a spot on the start line.
Before becoming the country’s leader, Mr Varadkar had regularly competed in triathlons but his ascent to the top job in Ireland led to the assumption that any future triathlon activities would more likely be from the sideline and not from inside the race itself.
No media arrangements were posted by Mr Varadkar’s office for the event, his participation wasn’t listed in his media diary which is sent to the country’s news outlets and photo agencies each week so when he arrived to compete on race day it was as a regular competitor and not as a politician seeking publicity.
“It was clear Leo Varadkar was there to do the race and not necessarily to be seen to do the race, he wasn’t pressing the flesh with anyone or seeking photo opportunities and really just mixed in with the crowd,” said Kevin Keane, Triathlon Ireland’s head of communications.
Unlike larger sporting events, many triathlons in Ireland don’t receive media coverage so in order to compensate for this, Triathlon Ireland has invested heavily in creating its own content and in pushing this to mainstream sports news outlets.
Kevin Keane explains: “We have two avenues for content, we carry a lot of our events on Facebook live and sometimes on Periscope and Instagram live, but Facebook remains out largest platform by far. This coverage is really targeted at our existing audience, the people who do triathlon and are interested in what happens at our races. We’ve been very successful with this and are always looking at investment in new equipment and skills to make sure our coverage remains the best out there.”
“But we are very conscious that there’s a massive audience in Ireland that don’t know anything about our sport and that we can’t expect to reach through our own social media platforms. To engage this audience we hire professional video and photography agencies to work with us at our races with a view to creating content for sports news sites.”
Keane continues: “This is a major investment for an organisation like ourselves but the results mean triathlon events have featured in all the country’s major news outlets, including television, giving us a profile we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Having these content creators on hand at Dublin City Triathlon allowed Triathlon Ireland to capitalise on Leo Varadkar’s presence, an appearance that could have gone largely unnoticed outside of triathlon circles.
“As soon as we spotted Mr Varadkar before the race, we were able to pull our videographers and photographers from their planned coverage of the main event and tell them to just follow the Taoiseach, for every moment of the race.”
Keane said this did carry some risk for Triathlon Ireland that it would leave the organisation with very little coverage of the race itself but he said it was a gamble that paid off:
“We took a bet that footage and high quality pics of Leo Varadkar would gain more publicity for our sport, and crucially – if successful, expose our sport to an audience we don’t always reach.”
By that evening all of Ireland’s major online news publications had picked up in the images, coverage that was followed the next day with pictures in six out of Ireland’s seven national news dailies.
But Keane said Triathlon Ireland was able to leverage Mr Varadkar’s appearance for more than just a single news cycle.
“One of the really positive and genuine outcomes of the whole event was the interview Leo Varadkar gave to us on the finish line where he spoke of how he manages to balance what is clearly a really stressful and serious job with exercise and how he carves out some time to get a run in or get out on the bike. This was something beyond politician-speak and really connected with a general audience who have the exact same experience of trying to balance fitness with all the other messy and demanding parts of their day to day lives.”
Keane said some follow up by his CEO Chris Kitchen in the weeks following the event netted Triathlon Ireland a chance to further capitalise on the Taoiseach’s enthusiasm for triathlon.
“Leo Varadkar was subsequently invited to our annual awards, where we were able to involve him centrally in presenting awards to some of our most deserving volunteers and athletes. To have the leader of the country present you with an award is an experience few people will ever have and was really special. I can’t image he would have some along were it not for the genuine way the triathlon public interacted with our social media coverage of his participation in DCT.”
“Having Leo Varadkar present at the top table of our awards was also something we were to leverage on behalf of our sponsors. It reflected really well on us that we had him there, they gained access – even if it was just for a selfie – with the country’s leader, something they were able to take back to their CEOs and colleagues internationally,” said Mr Keane
Geoff runs his own Sports Consultancy, working with clients such as FIFA, UEFA and FIBA across the world. He is also on the board of Tourism Northern Ireland. You can follow Geoff on twitter @geoffwnjwilson or connect on Linkedin atlinkedin.com/in/geoffwnjwilson
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