SBJ/September 3 - 9, 2001/Opinion

Behind the Olympics bid, PR's a gold medal event

The race has begun! The selection of Beijing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics begins the stretch run for the eight U.S. cities vying to become our country's candidate to host the 2012 Games. To this point, the cities have focused on demonstrating to the U.S. Olympic Committee that the necessary infrastructure will be in place in time for the Games.

As Beijing's successful Olympic bid showed, excellent public relations is just as important as glitzy stadiums and efficient mass transit in landing the world's most prestigious sporting event. After Beijing lost to Sydney by two votes to host the 2000 Olympics, the Chinese concluded that they needed better PR to position themselves for success. They were right. This time around, even vocal human rights critics were not able to take the shine off Beijing's new image.

With the USOC technical evaluations nearly complete, U.S. bid hopefuls now have to answer two difficult questions: "Why should your city be the United States' candidate to host the Olympics? And what advantages do you offer the Olympics over the other bid cities?"

Here are the public relations lessons that U.S. cities can learn from Beijing's bid:

Stay on message

As hard as many journalists, human rights activists and politicians tried, Chinese bid officials simply would not allow themselves to get dragged into a debate on human rights abuses, Communist Party rule, environmental concerns or the seizure of a U.S. spy plane and its crew. Such debates would have put the Chinese at a distinct disadvantage. Chinese officials stuck to their message: Holding the Olympics in Beijing would be a catalyst for social change, which is why the Olympics should be held here. This message was best reflected in the country's upbeat Olympic slogan: "New Beijing, Great Olympics."

Bid officials smartly touted China's environmental reform package and downplayed the Communist Party agenda. When pressed by reporters on dicey topics, officials said they didn't want politics to spoil the "purity" of the Olympic Games and used the question as a "bridge" to get back on message.

Lesson for bid cities: Focus on clearly and consistently explaining what advantages you offer over the other bid cities. Use negatives as a bridge to reinforce your unique selling points.

Know your target audience

Let's face it. If the United States had its way, the Olympics wouldn't be in Beijing. The political issues are well documented.

China recognized early on that for its bid to be successful, it needed to reach out to countries other than the United States to state its case. To accomplish this, Chinese bid officials retained UK-based PR experts to massage its image in Europe, where many International Olympic Committee members reside. It also hired U.S. PR experts to protect it from negative stories here.

By getting its message to key international journalists and Olympic officials and steadfastly refusing to respond to every criticism from the United States, Beijing not only raised its bid's standing; it drew sympathy, insiders say, from some IOC members who perceived the United States as trying to "bully" China.

Lesson for bid cities: Research likely allies of your bid and develop a proactive public relations plan that targets them with your key message and selling points.

Control the flow of information

As soon as Beijing lost the 2000 Games, Chinese bid officials began laying the groundwork to better communicate its message to boost its bid for the 2008 Games. Beijing, which was a pre-vote favorite to win the 2000 Games, didn't want to be caught off-guard again.

Chinese officials, working with outside PR and marketing consultants, planned public rallies, staged events, marketing campaigns and media outreach that would help ensure a steady stream of positive stories, making it difficult for Beijing's opponents to get their message out. Key bid officials were coached in working with the media, and journalists were offered timely updates and access to bid officials like never before.

China's strategy also included concerts and boxing matches to demonstrate China's preparations; a string of celebrity endorsements; massive pre-vote press conferences; last-minute pre-vote interviews with media carefully selected to avoid negative interviews; a slick promotional video and tens of thousands of posters in Beijing to rally support. The few citizens groups based in Beijing were even invited (in a mostly symbolic gesture) to participate in Games planning.

The result was a winner. By focusing the media on these positive stories, Beijing was able to fend off a pre-vote effort by prominent human rights groups to call attention to China's humanitarian record.

Lesson for bid cities: If you control the flow of information and keep the media occupied covering your events and stories, your opponents won't have the opportunity to get their message out. This means fewer negative stories about your bid.

The Olympic bidding process has become so competitive that many people consider it another Olympic event. Like any gold medal win, successful bids require years of preparation. The distinct difference between Olympic competition and the competition to host the Games is that most Olympic events have a clear winner.

The competition to host the Olympics has a "perceived" winner — the city that makes the best case for why it should host the Games and what advantages it offers the IOC and the Olympic Games.

Mark Brousseau is vice president of Warschawski Public Relations in Baltimore.

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