Revolutionary Measures

Making an impression in the snow – 4 PR lessons from the Winter Olympics

It is easy to be cynical about the Olympics, particularly given their cost, widespread doping scandals and the attitude of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself, which remains dogged by allegations of corruption and vote-buying when it comes to selecting host cities.PyeongChang_2018_Winter_Olympics.svg

For those of us in the UK, the Winter Olympics also adds in the unfamiliarity of sports we’ve either never come across before, or dimly remember from four years ago – and are generally unlikely to medal in. It should all add up to a switch-off from viewers, meaning that the marketing benefits, in the UK at least, of being associated with the Winter Olympics are negligible.

And yet, Pyeongchang 2018 did provide some striking stories, in terms of competitors overcoming adversity, true underdogs (such as Ghanaian Akwasi Frimpong in the skeleton bob) and the rise of a new generation of young, cool athletes, exemplified by 17 year old men’s snowboard slopestyle champion Red Gerard. It is a long way from Ski Sunday.

So, what are the PR lessons that brands can learn?

1. It’s all about the host
Given that the background to most events is white and indistinguishable, it is difficult to link it to your particular country. You don’t have the opportunities to use the landmarks of your city, as the likes of London and Barcelona did to brand it as ‘your’ games. That makes what you do behind the scenes, and the bookending opening and closing ceremonies, vital if you want to get your message across. The South Koreans focused on innovation and technology – from the drones that formed the Olympic rings in the opening ceremony to cardless technology that let people pay for things through devices such as gloves, stickers and pins. And this message came across loud and clear, helping differentiate brand Korea from competitors such as Japan and China.

2. Quirky is good
There’s a whole range of Winter Olympic sports, from the conventional (throwing yourself down an icy track on a souped-up tea tray or downhill skiing) to the frankly, mad – anything with the word ‘cross’ in the title, which seemed to involve a lot of falling over at high speed. And they all appealed to different demographics – the younger events looked cool and genuinely exciting to the casual viewer, with their stars building cult followings on social media and YouTube. So, unlike the Summer Olympics brands have more of a choice in terms of who they support and link themselves with. This is something to take forward into every marketing campaign – if you want to reach a demographic understand who influences them and ally yourself with them.

3. Success isn’t the only measure
People relate to athletes with strong stories – even if they aren’t going to win. They want to support those that are clearly trying, even if things end up going wrong, as shown by the ‘success’ of Eddie the Eagle Edwards. The lesson is clear – while winning medals is the aim, audiences respond to those that go above and beyond, and are human in failure. Take skater Elise Christie, seen as a medal favourite, but who left empty-handed and injured, for the second games in a row. The lesson for brands is that winning is great, but it isn’t everything – support people that your customers respond to at a human level and it will make your brand more approachable and easier to relate to.

4. You can gatecrash Olympic marketing
During every big sporting event, brands try and piggyback on the marketing opportunities that appear, normally without paying to become an official marketing/advertising partner. In the case of Pyeongchang, the most successful case of this was not a company, but a country – North Korea. In a master propaganda stroke it appeared to step back from conflict and push forward an agenda of peace at the games, headlined by Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and a combined Korean team entering the opening ceremony together. While none of this changed its position at all, from a PR point of view, many will see it as less of a threat – a complete fallacy – but exactly what its PR machine was aiming for.

So, overall the lessons from the Winter Olympics are to be more human, target the right demographics and tell a story – all key lessons for any marketer, whatever industry or size of company they work for.

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February 28, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Sport – the dirtiest business of all?

In an age of social media and always-on news, every brand can feel that it is constantly under attack, even if it is for what seems like trivial reasons. Surly barista serve you coffee? Unclean hotel room? Consumers can share their thoughts and views with the world in seconds, and quite often the resulting viral storm will be intense, but fade as quickly as it came into being.

English: panoramic shot of the olympic stadium...

In contrast, the world of sport, or more specifically its administration, is facing an unprecedented attack from both media and the public. FIFA has now been joined in the dock by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with senior figures alleged to have taken bribes to ensure that failed drugs tests never saw the light of day. A report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) points the finger at doping on a massive scale by Russian athletes, implicating senior figures in its government, while French prosecutors have arrested Lamine Diack, the ex-head of the IAAF, who is accused of receiving bribes of over €1 million to cover up failed tests. And it isn’t that long ago that the International Olympic Committee (IoC) had to confess that cities had ‘bought’ the right to host the games, while the close links between the then senior leadership at cycling’s governing body the UCI and drug cheat Lance Armstrong have also been highlighted.

On the outside it seems like all these organisations have a culture where too much power and a sense of entitlement mix with control over major decisions that have big political or financial impacts. As the head of UK Athletics pointed out, the leader of the IAAF is referred to as Mr President, inflating the holder’s ego as a matter of course.

Essentially sports administrators are in the spotlight, and need to rebuild their credibility. I’d see five areas to focus on:

1.Look wider for staff
Administrators seem to be either ex-athletes, those that have served their time in country federations or people attracted by the glamour of working for sporting organisations. Often promotion relies on who you know, rather than how good you are at your job. It is time to change this by recruiting capable figures from outside sport to lead administrations. They obviously need to know about the sport they are leading, and have an enthusiasm for it, but they don’t necessarily have to have spent their life in it. By bringing in outside managers, with the right skills (and no links of patronage), it will send a clear message that administrations want to change.

2.End culture of entitlement
The IoC is widely seen to have cleaned up its act, yet its bureaucrats still expect the world to revolve around them. The sell-out London Olympics saw gaps in the venues as “members of the Olympic family” decided not to bother going to certain events, while one of the reasons that Norway pulled out of bidding for the next Winter Olympics were demands for free booze for bureaucrats at the stadium and a cocktail party with the King. No one is against hard-working administrators having access to events as part of their roles, but it should be a privilege, not a right.

3.Transparency
I’ve said it before about voting for the World Cup, but every major decision being taken needs to be transparent and auditable. So no secret ballots – the results of who voted for who should be public at the time and open to the widest possible constituency to avoid any allegations of impropriety. All activities, particularly those involving potentially controversial subjects such as drug testing and financial matters, should be audited independently by consultancies that actually understand them, rather than treating the whole thing as a tick box exercise. The same applies to new hires, who should have to declare any business interests to links to particular countries/teams/companies.

4.Move offices
The IAAF probably has strong tax reasons for being based in Monaco, while FIFA and the UCI (amongst others) have headquarters in neutral, but secretive, Switzerland. At a time when credibility is tenuous, location matters, so associations need to look at moving to more ‘normal’ jurisdictions where they can be subject to proper scrutiny. It should also help with recruiting from a wider talent pool.

5.Be more independent from political control
As the Russian doping scandal (and winning Russian bid for the World Cup) both show, it is easy for administrations to become subject to outside political influences. This is true not just in Russia, but other countries where sport is seen as a tool of soft power, irrespective of the rules. Therefore all local administrations need to be independent of government, without members of ruling families or parties running them to avoid any allegations of bias.

Sport has the ability to bring people around the world together – a fact that administrators and their marketers are always reminding us of. This cuts both ways – not only do fans join together to salute outstanding athletic achievements, but they can equally unite to condemn the administrators that are destroying the sports that they love.

November 11, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments