Rio Wall Painting

The Rio Olympic Games: A Monumental Public Relations Challenge

In two months’ time, Rio de Janeiro is set to become the first South American city to host the Summer Olympics. By now, the ‘Road to Rio’ publicity machine should be in full swing, generating buzz and excitement for the Games that begin on August 5th. But the positive PR has been overshadowed by a host of issues that could threaten the credibility of not only the Rio Games, but the wider global Olympic movement.

From doping and bribery allegations, to the Zika virus, four Olympic host cities past, present and future (Sochi, Pyeongchang, Tokyo and now Rio) have been embroiled in scandals that have dampened the Olympic spirit.

How is the bad press affecting Rio?

Never has a host nation been in such political and economic turmoil before an Olympic Games. When the International Olympic Committee picked Rio de Janeiro to host South America’s first Olympics, Brazil was a rising star on the world stage, with a booming economy. Now, two months before the games begin, the country is in its worst recession since the 1930s. It’s also at the centre of a massive corruption scandal involving oil giant Petrobras. And the political situation has imploded, with the Senate voting to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the challenge posed by the Zika virus. With some athletes and spectators re-thinking their participation, there’s been debate in the media about whether the Olympics should be postponed or moved. The official line from the World Health Organisation is the games will be safe, but visitors should take sensible precautions. Organisations involved in the Games just need to make sure their communications align with those of public health officials.

What does this mean for Olympic sponsors?

The political, economic and health crises in Brazil have not gone unnoticed by Olympic sponsors, which include Procter & Gamble, General Electric, and Panasonic. Publicly, these mega-brands remain committed to the event, but behind the scenes, they need to re-work their communications strategies to strike the right tone, given the instability in the country and the public’s sour mood. They also need to nail down their official response, should one of their Olympic ambassadors or an athlete they support get struck down with the Zika virus.

Preparing for the worst

This is where crisis communications training comes in. Before any sporting event, and especially with the Olympics, the media tends to revolve their conversations around the problems. Good communications will help keep people informed and the more transparency there is, the better it will be. This will be particularly important in the final weeks before the Games, when the world’s media will descend on the city looking for stories to write about.

Olympic sponsors need to be scenario planning – not just for questions about corruption and the Zika virus, but for any reputational risk that could arise from their involvement. For instance, McDonald’s or Coca-Cola should be prepared to address questions about the rise of obesity in Brazil and other developing countries.

Shout about the good stuff

To make the most of the media interest, sponsors should be highlighting the CSR components of their Olympic strategies. General Electric, for instance made a sizeable legacy gift to Rio to coincide with the 100-day countdown to the Opening Ceremony. And Nissan launched a mentorship programme as part of its commitment to the Rio Games. The effort is subsidising 31 Brazilian athletes for the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Let the Games begin

What’s happening in Rio is something brands need to keep an eye on. But the fact is, most Olympics are preceded by controversies and last-minute worries, only for the mood to lift once the cauldron has been lit and the host country has won its first medal. Perhaps that will be the case in Rio, when the TV pictures show the Olympic flame burning against a backdrop of the Copacabana beach, Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue.

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