Five PR lessons from the Olympic Games

This is an article by Richard Bailey.
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What a party: the venues were amazing, the sun mostly shone, there were no terrorist incidents, few drugs cheats were exposed, the BBC justified the TV licence for a while longer, the sport came first. There was heaps of flag waving jingoism, but it was mostly good humoured. What a relief.

It could all have gone so differently. Here are some lessons for PR students and practitioners from this once-in-a-lifetime event.

1. Personal relations are best

For all the talk and the tweeting, the top triumph of these games in public relations terms was the army of ‘games makers’: 70,000 volunteers who cheerfully greeted and directed spectators. When developing public relations strategies, it’s easy to put media (including social media) first – and forget about the public.

Start with the public, and work out the appropriate means (media) of communicating and engaging them. (See also point three below).

2. PR is not marketing

Security is one thing, but the totalitarian exclusion of products and brands other than those from the main sponsors has already brought a backlash. This level of control might suit the marketing managers – but it creates a PR nightmare and opens to the door to ambush and mockery.

At least the organisers had the sense not to put the sponsors centre stage at the opening or closing ceremonies (as happens at commercial sporting events).

3. Put people first

The sponsors may have been essential to help finance the games; the athletes rightly gained most of the attention; the BBC did a phenomal job of broadcasting the games. But empty stadiums would not have made for a great games, despite the medals and any number of world records. The Olympics needed people to pay and participate, so strategies were needed to achieve this. The ticketing arrangements were criticised beforehand, but most venues were full and the organisers were able to respond quickly when problems of non-attendance became apparent.

I had thought the nationwide progress of the Olympic torch an over-hyped non-event – but I was wrong: it was another way to help ensure mass participation by the nation in the London Olympics (most of whom were never going to attend any of the events).

4. Consider the narrative

People love stories. The opening ceremony won over the closing party because of its narrative account of British creativity (from Brunel to Berners-Lee). The sporting triumphs then gave so many rags-to-riches stories, that it’s hard to pick just one. But how to better Mo Farah? The refugee who ran his way into the history books and who personified the Olympic spirit with his humility. But the most potent stories are negative, as we now explore.

5. Always look on the dark side of life

Eric Idle told us to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. It made for a great comedy, but it’s not good PR advice. Remember the G4S scandal? Remember the dire warnings of chaos on the streets and Underground lines of London? Consider the threat of terrorism or the opportunities for self-publicity stunts interrupting the sport. Remember the weather we’ve been having all ‘summer’ (have you forgotten the Jubilee pageant?). So much could have gone wrong. PR has been criticised in academic circles for always looking on the sunny side, but it’s becoming clear that PR practitioners need to become adept at assessing and managing risk (see our review of Dark Art for more on this).

Every dream is a potential nightmare. In this light, PR success can be measured by an absence of disasters, allowing the event itself to become a celebration of sport, culture and community.


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