When you’ve got 15,000kms of coastline, can regularly deliver four seasons in one day, and your biggest city is the ‘City of Sails’, you’d hope to produce a decent sailor or two. Fortunately, that is the case in New Zealand – and the pinnacle event for those sailors is the America’s Cup. Every four years, it’s a real big deal for the country.
Well, when Emirates Team New Zealand were winning this year’s America’s Cup in Bermuda – beating Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team USA – sailing regularly led the national news. This was in election year and at the height of the All Blacks series against the Lions.
As ETNZ’s communications and media manager, Hamish Hooper prefers to operate behind the scenes. But he was good enough to shed some light on the occasionally mysterious world of America’s Cup sailing and the unique elements of managing the media within it.
Thanks for talking with us, Hamish. One of the most obvious innovations ETNZ took into this year's campaign – which was revealed just before racing started in Bermuda – was the replacement of traditional ‘grinders’ with pedal-powered ‘cyclors’. From a media perspective, how’d you all keep that under your hat?
You want to be open and honest with people, and you’re not being devious at all, but there are secrets that need to be kept so you give yourself as much chance as you can on the water.
We kept the cyclors secret for almost three years. We had people on the base doing interviews and we had to make sure the guys didn’t let slip or things didn’t get seen. But it’s a real balance. You want to keep any innovations quiet for as long as possible, so it gives other teams as little chance as possible to copy, but then you need to get out there and test things.
I’m sure a few people, like me, didn’t completely have their head around what contribution ‘cyclors’ were making on a boat. Could you help us out a bit on that technical front?
Not really. To be honest, it’s well above me. There’s plenty about the boat, from a technical side, that just blows your mind. You get told a bit about it and can be like: ‘What language are you even talking?’ I have a very basic understanding of things. The dagger boards, rudders and wings are all moved by hydraulic pressure. That pressure has to be created by the cyclors on the boat, effectively.
And, just to further set the scene, can you give us a little insight into the calibre of the athletes you work with?
They’re machines really, these guys. Andy Maloney, for example, put on 12kgs for this campaign. And Joe Sullivan is an Olympic gold medal-winning rower – and to be one of those you need to know how to put yourself in hideously painful physical places. Joe is comfortable with that. Simon van Velthooven [an Olympic cycling medallist] is the same. The other guys are equally as good and did a great job pushing each other into those dark spaces of physical pain to produce the effort needed to win.
What’s your role with the team?
I look after ETNZ’s communications. For the most part of the campaign I was running the communications, managing media, photographer, producing videos, and managing websites and social media – so it was pretty full-on. Luckily, once we got to Bermuda, I had some really great people helping with photo and video content.
The media are often happy to receive content you can provide – not in every situation, but if it’s just a general update – so we do a bit of that. And a lot of news is fed off social media nowadays, so we try to balance both sides.
What were some of the unique elements of managing this America’s Cup campaign?
A big one was dealing with unknowns. We were holding back a number of innovations and, because of that, we stayed away from the opposition. Our designs were a bit out of left field, so we didn’t really know how the team was going. We just had to keep chipping away. Keep believing.
Another challenge was getting our team story in Bermuda out there. The host broadcast – which obviously the team had no say in – was played into New Zealand on SKY TV. So, the audience was a lot smaller than it was on TVNZ in previous cups and what it potentially could have been. It was also American-centric, aimed at the holders [Oracle Team USA], and we weren’t overly featured – other than the racing, obviously.
To get around that, and get our own stories out there, we did a lot through Facebook live. We worked with two renowned and respected commentators in Martin Tasker and Peter Lester. They were embedded in the team, but independent. And their two shows a day were hugely viewed and successful. Martin and Peter were also doing their own thing on the end of the phone for the media as independent observers. That worked well and eased the load on us a bit.
On that, balancing team performance and media access can be tough for any media manager. How’d you handle that space?
Once we were into racing, our base was on media lockdown. Every day was a race day. It’d be like the All Blacks having a test every day, so we had to minimise distractions. That was the hard part – as we had a small, dedicated and very hard-working Kiwi contingent there and they wanted a bit more, which we were very conscious of. Providing material without disrupting the team, or giving away secrets, is a fine line to manage, though.
I’m sure there were times I was unpopular with the media, but that’s part of the job. And there was one key objective, which was winning the America’s Cup. We had to be quite firm about that.
We used Blinder for all our media phone interviews, which meant our team could be easily accessible at agreed times without having their privacy compromised. The system sorted time zone differences, recorded calls, and saved us hours in a day at times.
How’d you get into this line of work, Hamish?
In a very roundabout but enjoyable way. Effectively, I started as a runner at a commercial film company, where I taught myself to edit and essentially tell a story. I didn’t realise the importance of this or how important video as a medium would become in communications. This was all well before any social media, YouTube or Facebook...
That led to a stint in advertising and we were creating ‘online’ video for clients which essentially had to be compressed enough to email. So, going ‘viral’ was how many people would email the video to each other.
Living in Europe, I began working in TV production in yachting across many events and therefore getting a good understanding of the broader yachting media landscape
That led to work with the host broadcaster on the America’s Cup in Valencia in 2007. I kept working in yachting media, but identified that the ultimate challenge would be to land a job as the onboard media crew member in the Volvo Ocean Race. That worked out and I joined the New Zealand entry, Camper, for the 2011 event.
You mean the ‘round the world’ race? Joining that must have been a big decision?
Massive. When I got the call to say ‘You’ll do’, I was like, ‘Oh, sh*t. What have I done now?’ I wouldn’t call myself a sailor.
It was an 18-month commitment. Nine months training and then nine months of the race. Our longest stint non-stop was 22 days, but between Auckland and Brazil we broke down about as far away from land as you possible can on the planet. We had ten days nursing the boat to Chile and 72 hours there, so that was about a month all-up.
I had to produce video, photos, audio and written content every single day and send that off the boat via Inmarsat satellite. Looking back, it was great media training. I got an amazing understanding of identifying the strengths of the different mediums for different situations.
Finally, how were things immediately after the win in Bermuda?
Straight afterwards my phone just didn’t stop. I couldn’t answer it quick enough – which was a good problem to have. Somewhere within that day, I let my mind celebrate for about five mins.
Everything was driven into winning the Americas Cup – and getting the win was like finishing a marathon. But then, in terms of media commitments, we had to muster the energy to add another half-marathon on the end. Again, it was a good problem to have.
The hardest part is when you don’t win. Media is easy when you win. When you lose, it’s tough. San Francisco was tough.
The America’s Cup is massive in New Zealand and we came home to parades and everything, which was absolutely fantastic. Everyone was into it. It was stuff you only dream of.