The Olympics, the ultimate PR hurdle?

Article for Four Broadgate.

When Rio was awarded the right to host the 2012 Olympics, the Brazilian economy was booming and Brazil was on the crest of a wave . Now, following the tumult of corruption scandals, the national football team’s abysmal showing in the recent Copa America and concerns over the Zika virus, businesses are in more challenging times. However, the once in a lifetime privilege of being an Olympic host city has provided a plethora of opportunities for Brazilian Public Relation officers with diverse media challenges arising in the context of new mediums of communication.

Each Olympiad leaves a distinctive impression (for good or bad) in the sporting fraternity’s collective memory. Berlin 1936 was infamous for the blatant display of Nazi imagery, countered by Jesse Owen’s heroics on the track. Mexico 1968 featured the iconic salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos and the long held long jump record set by Bob Beamon. Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 are remembered for the political boycotts overshadowing them. Beijing 2008 will ever be inextricably linked with the name of Usain Bolt. London 2012 saw women’s boxing finally be placed on an equal Olympic footing with its male counterpart. Rather than mere sporting trivia, these events are mirrors to the meta narrative of the society and time in which each games took place. For a PR communication specialist, tapping into this sporting and cultural zeitgeist is a key element of relevant themed PR.

The Olympics can also serve as an object lesson for PR professionals who want to exercise “anticipatory” risk assessment and management over potential problems and avert them before they even occur. The Sochi winter Olympics of 2014 was overshadowed in its build up by controversies regarding Russian President Putin’s policies and the threat of a terrorist strike. Almost every media outlet story in the run up to the games Olympics made predictions of dark foreboding. Those fears however, proved groundless. The main headline maker from Sochi’s opening ceremony concerned a snowflake failing to open as it was launched to an Olympic ring during the ceremonial lighting of the torch. Doubtless the Russian authorities were prepared to communicate to the public in the event of disaster, but as the worst fears did not come to pass, then the “Plan A” for disaster remained shelved.

Recent media coverage of the Olympic games have been dominated by social media, however a genuine PR coup in London 2012 was achieved in the flesh in person to person contact, namely the 70,000 local volunteers who acted as “meet and greet” assistants providing directions and translations to spectators at the games. This human touch is easy to forget in the era of digital communication, and is an easy Olympic themed object lesson.

Finally, the Olympics can always provide a positive story which is any PR professional’s ideal situation. Stories like Jesse Owens upstaging Hitler or Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards or the Jamaican bobsleigh team of 1988 are every bit as compelling as a Hollywood script writer’s copy. In fact these three extraordinary Olympic themes have made it to the silver screen, notably the movie “Cool Runnings” A PR professional who can understand the empathy people instinctively show to the underdog overcoming adversity or those who persevere against all odds will be on a sure footing in all communications, ensuring that he or she can make that emotional connection in all his or her communiques.

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