Revolutionary Measures

The PR lessons from Rio 2016

Usain Bolt in celebration about 1 or 2 seconds...

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.

4. Golf
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.

August 24, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharapova, drugs and public relations

Maria Sharapova hitting backhand, Fed Cup matc...

Thanks to her celebrity and high profile, Maria Sharapova’s positive drugs test resonates far beyond tennis. As the world’s highest paid sportswomen she has built a strong, lucrative brand that is now less about her success at tennis, but more about her image and what it stands for. In turn, this has attracted multi-million pound endorsements from blue chip sponsors. Like Tiger Woods with golf, she was arguably bigger than women’s tennis, despite not being world number one. She was even an ambassador for the United Nations.

So, when she tested positive for meldonium, the PR fallout didn’t just focus on her, but her sponsors, supporters and the attitude of the tennis authorities as well. As has been pointed out already her first PR response was textbook crisis management. She took control of the story, announced it herself to the world’s media, dressed soberly in a deliberately low key press conference. She admitted she’d made a mistake, which she positioned as an honest failure to read warnings that meldonium was to join the WADA banned list from 1 January 2016, and appealed for leniency.

However, since then the story has slipped out of her control, with two questions that remain unanswered:

1.Where’s her support team?
Why did no-one in her entourage, including her doctor, see that meldonium was being banned and advise her not to take it? It was on the WADA watch list for a year before the ban came into effect. Sharapova has to take responsibility for what is in her body, but as a high profile athlete she should have advisers and coaches helping her keep up with the WADA banned list.

2.Why was she using it?
Meldonium was created to help those with heart problems and diabetes, but is proven to help with athletic endurance. It is freely available online and in Eastern Europe – indeed it sold over the counter in Russia. Since 1st January there have been 100 positive tests by athletes for the drug, from across a wide variety of sports. Clearly, all of those that have used it didn’t have the health issues it was originally prescribed for – otherwise it is unlikely they’d be international athletes. However, while using meldonium for a purpose that it was not intended for may have been ethically a grey area, up until this year it was legal. Sharapova’s argument that she was prescribed it, by her family doctor, after tests showed abnormal ECG readings and some diabetes indicators is definitely open to question. However the fact remains that WADA’s code provides the line in the sand – you can take anything that may improve performance provided it is not on the banned list. Pretty much any substance is performance-enhancing – otherwise you will have to ban water or energy gels from athletic competition. As John McEnroe said, if meldonium had been around legally while he was playing he would have taken it – though he did go on to doubt Sharapova’s story that she was unaware of the rule change.

As a PR person what’s particularly interesting to me is the aftermath of the announcement and how sponsors and people from the world of tennis reacted:

  • Some, like Nike, have been quick to act, either ending or suspending their relationship with Sharapova. Given Nike’s previous bad experiences with the likes of Lance Armstrong, this is not a surprise.
  • Others, such as Women’s Tennis Association president Steve Simon and ex-champion Martina Navratilova see it as an honest mistake, and therefore something that should be treated accordingly.
  • At the other end of the spectrum Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer Head has been much more bullish, not only re-affirming its relationship with her, but questioning whether meldonium should be on WADA’s banned list at all. It has been joined by the Russian sports minister in this stance, hardly a good association for Sharapova or tennis generally, given the proven doping problems in Russian sport.

What has particularly impressed me are the people who have been prepared to speak out and ask more questions. For example, Andy Murray has said that it is ethically wrong to take a drug purely to boost performance, and that Sharapova deserves a ban for failing the drugs test. He also criticised the stance of Head (also one of his own sponsors), calling its stance and decision to extend Sharapova’s contract ‘strange’.

The PR impact of the Sharapova drugs test, along with recent revelations about match-fixing in tennis, threaten the entire image of the sport. What is needed from the authorities is strong action that sends out a message that cheating, whether wilful or not, will not be tolerated. It is time to be more like Andy Murray, and less like Head, if they want to win back the trust of the public and sponsors.

March 16, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments