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Nearly a year before the Sochi Games, U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Communications Officer Patrick Sandusky received a call from a reporter wanting to know what the USOC thought of a law winding its way through Russia’s parliament that would ban gay propaganda.
Sandusky, who was hearing of the law for the first time, declined to comment and released a statement in the following days saying the USOC opposed the law but was focused on supporting athletes. For the veteran public relations executive, media questions and activist pressure about the law has underscored a new reality about the Olympics.
Anti-gay legislation in Russia has drawn protests leading up to Sochi.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
“We assume there are going to be [communications] issues going into a Games,” Sandusky said. “There’s generally something we have to respond to. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated this would be it.”
That reality is changing the way sponsors prepare for an Olympics. Companies increasingly see their community and international relations groups work hand in hand with communications and sports marketing staff to respond to issues that arise, and more time, energy and money is devoted to anticipating and responding to everything from environmental to political activists.
“Over the course of seven years, which is the time an Olympic city has to prepare, they’re going to deal with almost every issue, from political to environmental,” said Ann Wool, partner and managing director at Ketchum Sports, which works with Olympic sponsors such as Procter & Gamble and Liberty Mutual. “Everything is going to bubble to the surface, and you’re going to encounter all of them. Preparations haven’t changed, but the bigger the Games have become the more likely an issue is to catch fire.”
Activism is no stranger to the Olympics. U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested from the medal stand in 1968.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
In the 1990s, that activism began to transition from the field of play and news pages to the world of sponsorship and marketing. Wool said environmental activists called for a boycott of the 1994 Lillehammer Games because of Norway’s whaling industry. But those early protests were muted.
That all changed when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing. The IOC was criticized from the outset for awarding the Games to a country that was known for human rights abuses. That criticism only escalated in the years before the Olympics as activist groups criticized the IOC and sponsors for China’s role in violence in Darfur, a crackdown in Tibet and lax environmental regulations.
Groups like Mia Farrow’s Dream for Darfur garnered major attention and forced sponsors to respond to letters criticizing their support of the Beijing Games. Protesters also disrupted the international Olympic torch relay, wreaking so much havoc that the IOC decided it wouldn’t host another international relay.
Activists are able to sell the media on the parallels between what they’re advocating, like peace in Darfur, and the IOC’s own values, peace through sport, in ways they can’t with other global sporting events, such as FIFA’s World Cup or Formula One, which aren’t built on those same ideals. They also are able to pressure multinational corporations that espouse certain values.
“Certainly, politics, human rights and the Olympics have always been tied together,” said Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s director of global initiatives. “What is new, starting in 1985, the TOP sponsor program was developed. That was when there started to be a big corporate presence. … We’ve called for the sponsors to engage and use the power they manifestly have. … We say, ‘You’re paying for the Games. You have leverage with the IOC.’”
In 2008, activist groups criticized all Olympic sponsors for their support of the Beijing Games, but at times the issues can be direct and personal. No sponsor knows that better than IOC sponsor Dow Chemical.
Dow bought a company in 2001 that 17 years earlier had been responsible for a gas leak at an Indian pesticide plant that killed thousands of people and injured more than 500,000. Protesters called on London Olympic organizers to drop Dow as a sponsor. The episode undermined Dow’s Olympic activation plans.
“When I talked to other partners [before we signed our sponsorship], I was told this is a bit of a free platform, this Olympic world, for activists and others to tell their story,” George Hamilton, Dow vice president of Olympic operations, said last year during the London Games. “We expected that. I’ll be honest and tell you the level … in London was higher than we expected.”
Preparing for Sochi
The Sochi Games are only the latest in a string of Olympics to be preceded by controversy. The public relations crisis this time has centered on Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, which bars public discussion of gay rights.
Companies have been more proactive in responding to criticism from activist groups than they were when criticism mounted before the Beijing Games. When Human Rights Watch mailed a letter this year outlining Russian rights violations to all 10 of the IOC’s sponsors, only two (Atos Origin and Visa) didn’t respond, and Coke, Dow and GE also met with the organization.
Coke then followed through on one of Human Rights Watch’s demands — that sponsors condemn Russia’s anti-gay legislation — by issuing a statement saying it does not “condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind.” Most of the sponsors said they raised the issue with the IOC and touted their own corporate policies of equality and diversity. Their letters also emphasized that they support the Olympics because they stand for those principles.
Dave Mingey, founder of the sports marketing agency GlideSlope and a former marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson, said that’s critical to preventing criticism from activist groups from undermining the value of a sponsorship.
Before the 2008 Beijing Games, protesters in San Francisco and elsewhere criticized China’s record on human rights.
Doing that isn’t easy. More than 80 percent of Russians support the law, but many people in Western countries oppose it. They have to find a way to speak to the opposition, which most agree with, while not alienating people in the host country.
“You have to be careful because Russia is a critically important market, as was China, so sponsors are trying to do the right thing but don’t want to be the ones leading the charge,” said one Olympic sponsorship executive.
The way sponsors are responding to criticism ahead of the Sochi Games is different from what they did in Beijing. In 2008, companies’ public relations teams managed most of the communication. Today, other departments are increasingly getting involved. For example, GE’s chief diversity officer and Procter & Gamble’s corporate responsibility officer wrote letters to Human Rights Watch.
Public relations experts said that pulling in corporate responsibility officers and diversity officers was always a part of company playbooks, but those individuals taking the lead on the Sochi-related focus on gay rights has meant they have needed to take more of a lead in communicating companies’ positions.
The changes also can be seen at public relations firms working in the Olympics. Edelman’s Matter Inc., which works with Olympic sponsors like Dow, GE, Kellogg’s, Citi and others, has built out its staff to have a group that’s focused on sports crisis communications. Those experts are embedded with client groups advising sponsors prior to the Games.
“It’s changed fundamentally how we look at it and counsel clients,” said Mary Scott, managing director of Matter. “Crisis has to be at the forefront of communications planning. It’s no longer something that gets dusted off if something happens.”
Ketchum’s Wool added, “There’s a bit of a blueprint now. The challenge now is on making the good news stand out.”
The faces of most good news for sponsors are the athletes at the Games, and the USOC meets with every Olympian headed to the Games to discuss PR issues. The meetings are part of the Olympic ambassador program that the USOC developed before the 2006 Torino Games. It devotes about 15 minutes in every two-hour meeting with groups of athletes to PR.
When it comes to the anti-gay legislation in Russia, the USOC has encouraged athletes to be open and say what they want.
“They should not feel pressured by us to say or not say something,” Sandusky said. “We’re a sports organization, and we’re focused on preparing the team. We’re not an advocacy organization.”