The PR lessons from Rio 2016
It’s probably fair to say that there was a lot of trepidation about how the Rio Olympics would turn out. Russian doping, the Zika virus, political turmoil in Brazil and worries about the venues being ready on time, and up to standard, all dominated the news in the run up to the games. At a country level, Team GB’s medal count was expected to fall compared to London 2012, while time differences meant that less of the action would be taking place when it could be easily viewed by the British public.
Instead, rather than being a disaster, the games came through. There were obvious issues in terms of infrastructure, but nothing major, and while attendance was poor at a lot of sports it seems there was a real buzz by the end of the event. Team GB not only hit its stated medal target, but exceeded its London 2012 total, with medals in a huge range of sports. In football, the host nation got revenge for its World Cup drubbing by Germany, winning gold in a penalty shootout. The decision of the IAAF to ban Russian athletes helped more countries than ever before to win medals, and while there were police raids linked to ticket touting, in general the IOC bureaucrats either behaved (or weren’t caught red-handed). So who were the PR winners and losers of Rio 2016?
1. Ryan Lochte
The prize for worst public relations (and behaviour), undoubtedly goes to US swimming superstar Ryan Lochte. After a drunken night out he, along with some of his team mates, claimed they’d been robbed at gunpoint by Brazilian policemen, feeding the world’s fears about crime and corruption in Rio. Luckily for the games, the real story was captured on CCTV. Rather than being robbed, the swimmers had smashed up a local petrol station toilet, causing security guards to pull guns on them until they paid for the damage. Once the truth came out the press were able to delight in headlines such as Liar, Liar, Speedo’s on Fire – and sponsors (including Speedo) quickly dropped Lochte from their campaigns.
2. Usain Bolt
Such is the pulling power of Usain Bolt that his presence and success helped define the games. From dancing a samba at a pre-race press conference to entering the arena with dry ice swirling, he is a consummate showman, as well as the fastest man in the world. And he does it with a smile on his face, helping fans and the general public to empathise with his performances. Given the recent history of drug taking in sprint events, his performances have essentially rehabilitated the sport.
3. Team GB
As I said, everyone was expecting a drop in the medal total for Britain after London, something that Team GB administrators kept repeating at every opportunity. This meant that the country’s success was even more unexpected, particularly when some early medal shots (such as Lizzie Armitstead in the cycling) didn’t come through.
However, it did create a bit of a dilemma for many people. We’re meant to be plucky British underdogs, but thanks to the skills of the athletes and coaches, and lottery funding, we now dominate in many sports. No wonder that many broadcasters seemed unsure how to play the triumphalism – the BBC’s end of games roundup was a mixture of awe and confusion.
What impressed me was both the range of sports where Team GB won medals and the attitudes of the athletes. Sports participation actually went down after London 2012, and clearly there was a concerted effort to try and address this. Pretty much after every medal athletes encouraged people to get involved, try things out and visit their local sailing/swimming/gymnastics etc. club. Let’s hope the message resonates and that grassroots sport gets a boost.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t believe that golf merited a place in the Olympics – or, if it did, it should be something more exciting, such as Crazy Golf. With many of the sport’s stars pulling out, citing the Zika virus as an excuse, the tournament looked like it was going to be a high profile disaster. Yet the sport shone through and the stars that had championed the event gave us a thrilling event, with Justin Rose winning at the death. Thanks to that, golf may well have saved its place at future Olympics.
5. British Airways
Painting post boxes gold in the home towns of Olympic champions was the PR masterstroke of London 2012. Given the time difference this sort of marketing was more difficult in Rio, but British Airways managed to pull it off, with a gold nosed plane (renamed victoRIOus) carrying many of the athletes back to the UK. Cue lots of shots of gold medal winners on the flight deck, and selfies shared on social media, probably helped by the 77 additional bottles of champagne the plane was carrying. Even the fact that a large number of medal winners, such as Bradley Wiggins, Andy Murray, Laura Trott and Justin Rose had already left Rio, didn’t detract from the triumph.
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