Madeleine Fitzpatrick
Feb 24, 2014

What the Russians and the world can learn from Sochi’s failings

The recently concluded Winter Olympics provides some textbook examples of how not to handle issue management.

Sure to be an enduring image from Sochi
Sure to be an enduring image from Sochi

The train wreck that has been the official response to the flood of bad press surrounding the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi reads like a lesson in issue-management worst practice.

In the run-up to the Games the clickbait was practically writing itself. First there was the shoddy state of hotel rooms, with their missing door handles and toxic running water. Then, the fact that parts of the town still resembled a construction site. There was the news of plans to cull all of Sochi’s stray dogs—referred to as “biological trash” by the man hired to do the job. And, most seriously of all, the terrorist threats made by Muslim fundamentalists in the neighbouring North Caucasus region.

Russian officials were mostly tight-lipped in the week leading up to the Games—a PR no-no an undergrad would be able to spot. “If a response is needed, it must be done within eight hours of the crisis happening,” says Scott Kronick, president and CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations, Asia Pacific, citing a study by the firm. Says Brian West, managing director, reputation management, Asia Pacific and global chair, crisis management at Fleishman-Hillard, “In most situations, you’re judged as much by what you don’t say as by what you do.”

Of course, to be able to respond rapidly in a crisis, foresight helps. “Best practice in issue management is all about preparation and planning,” says Paul Hicks, founding partner and CEO of GHC Asia. He breaks these two P’s down into anticipating potential issues, and being prepared to communicate with integrity to key stakeholders. Bearing in mind that President Vladimir Putin had said as far back as a year ago that preparation for the Games was “a year behind schedule”, the Kremlin had adequate time to form contingency plans.

When the official response did come, on February 6, the eve of the opening ceremony, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak was dismissive: “We’ve put 100,000 guests in rooms and only received 103 registered complaints, and every one of those is being taken care of,” The Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying, noting in parenthesis that the definition of “registered complaint” was unclear. Reporters at a news conference were told that Sochi’s problems amounted to “small imperfections in the Olympic facilities and tourist infrastructure”.

Kozak then went on to drop the real bombshell, accusing guests of sabotaging their own rooms in an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the Games: “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day.” Russian officials later insisted there are no surveillance cameras in Sochi’s hotel rooms.

Together with the delay in responding in the first place, the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments exemplify precisely what should be avoided when it comes to issue management: a) responding dismissively, and b) blaming the complainant.

“Know what to say, to whom you need to say it, and when,” advises Fleishman-Hillard’s West, with the added warning that saying nothing is often a false economy. “When in doubt, think of the relationship you want to create or maintain with the key audience,” he says. “What do you want them to say to others about you? What are they saying now?”

One need only compare the popularity of two Sochi-related Twitter accounts to get an idea of what people have been saying. By February 7, the day of the opening ceremony, after just three days online and under 150 tweets, aggregator @SochiProblems had overtaken the official @Sochi2014 account in terms of follower numbers. That evening, 10 minutes into the opening ceremony, a giant, illuminated Olympic ring failed to fully open, leaving a lonely snowflake where the fifth ring should have been. The following day, “Olympic-ring fail” T-shirts went on sale online. By February 11, @SochiProblems had racked up 343,000 followers to @Sochi2014’s 226,000.

Major sporting events in Asia have been similarly dogged by controversy. Among the most salient recent examples, the 2008 Beijing Olympics saw China criticised for its human-rights record, the capital’s air pollution under intense scrutiny, journalists hampered by internet-access and other restrictions, residents evicted from their homes, and fears of possible terrorist attacks. In 2010, the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi were marred by allegations of rampant overspending and corruption. In both cases, organisers managed to pull off successful events despite the issues.

Yet, also in the case of both the Beijing Olympics and the Delhi Commonwealth Games, official responses were slow to come, and muted and lacking in transparency when they did arrive. As developing nations in Asia strive for greater visibility on the world stage, they would do well to bring in experts in issue management ahead of time. Showcasing your country’s ability to host a major sporting event can be the best of all coming-out parties; but it can also backfire. In the case of Sochi, it remains to be seen whether the Games will enter the annals as a success or a failure.


AGENCY COMMENT Authenticity and speed of action key to winning stakeholders’ trust

Brian West, managing director, reputation management, Asia Pacific and global chair, crisis management, Fleishman-Hillard

The first step in reputation management is to maintain adequate awareness among your key audiences. Stay in a dialogue with the people who you need to motivate to act or advocate on the company’s behalf. In times of stress, be present, provide information, be quick and be honest. But reputation management is more than a defensive measure: when done well in today’s environment, it’s an act of robust engagement that creates advocacy, ambassadors and real loyalty.

Have good values, and live up to them in decisions, actions, and relationships. Find out whether your organisation’s decisions and priorities reflect your stated values. Find out whether the company’s values are the same as constituents’ values. Define the value that’s created in each relationship.

Be as you wish to appear to others. Invest in the attributes you want to be known for. Make sure the attributes matter to your key audiences, and communicate them. Be the company, or the person, you want your audiences to think you are.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. The global tolerance for corporate double talk is lower than ever. Hiding the message, hoping to be ignored when there’s bad news, not following through on commitments – that may work with some of the people some of the time. But when they finally realise you’ve been trying to mislead them, or have said less than you need to, less often, those relationships are damaged or ended. You will lose reputation.

AGENCY COMMENT Technological innovation critical to PR’s continued success

Bob Pickard, chairman Asia-Pacific, Huntsworth

The rise of “social operating systems” like Facebook and Twitter, and now WeChat and LINE, makes it possible to share more information with infinitely large communities. At the same time, the sheer scale of our expanding networks is making it more difficult to communicate with individuals in a personal, customised manner. Nowadays communication must consist of listening as well as talking. Given the broadscale yet atomised sensibility demanded by digital, in the future we’ll need the new thinking and augmented capacities we currently lack.

Public-relations professionals have always been intelligent agents of information knowing how to, where to, and when to share information with which people in different sequences so that they do or think things achieving intended communications and commercial outcomes. We used to need relationships with dozens of journalists, and would communicate through them with a mass audience via story placement.

Now we need to “know” vast numbers of people—be they elite opinion makers or average citizens—and maintain active, customised relationships with hundreds, thousands, even millions. The dead reckoning of today’s PR minds won’t be enough to handle all this, and there’s no canvas large enough to paint the far more sophisticated plans that will be required. It’s inevitable that we’ll need to delegate more and more power to super-smart systems that will help us communicate in what’s becoming an unbelievably complex environment.

We need technology to help simplify exponential complexity: today’s best algorithms aren’t solving problems of scale and sensibility that are getting too big for our current capability to address.


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