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Rings around the world
Wednesday, 06 May 2009 10:48

With the host of the 2016 Olympics soon to be named, Caroline Parry takes a look at the communication strategies of the four candidate cities - and the challenges they must overcome:

The Olympic motto may be ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’, but the most prized Olympic competition doesn’t call for athleticism or physical training. More and more, it’s the race to be named host city that captures the  imagination. Bidding for the games has become a significant event in its own right – with contestants no less competitive or determined that those wearing the shorts.

Tasked with persuading the 115 voting members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to select their city, the teams behind each bid are locked in a titanic communication struggle, governed by strict rules and an unforgiving time frame. The campaigns last about two years from initial application to the IOC through to the final decision, so going the distance as a candidate city requires the stamina of a marathon runner.

With the bids for the 2016 games officially submitted at the start of February and the winning city due to be decided in Copenhagen on 2 October, the four candidates – Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo – may be entering the final lap of their campaigns but, according to Mike Lee, director of communication and public affairs for the London 2012 bid, this is the most intense phase.“There are a number of  international presentations to go, a lot of which will be head to head with the other candidates,” says Lee, who is acting as a communication consultant for the Rio bid.

During an intense globe-trotting period, the IOC Evaluation Committee, which has up to ten members, will visit each city for a week to examine the bid books in depth. These began in Chicago on 2 April and end in Madrid on 9 May. And it’s by this stage, says Lee, that a communication strategy needs to have been developed in three ways. He explains: “A successful campaign should have built up support across the domestic media and with the public; a good relationship with international journalists so that they  understand your bid and its unique selling points; and a strong but flexible narrative, the heart of your bid story.”

Rules is rules
That strategy becomes crucial because of the suffocating restrictions placed on candidates by IOC rules. Cities are forbidden, for example, from inviting any IOC members to visit them or from sending them anything that could be seen as a gift, such as guide books to the area. While bidding cities are allocated formal meeting times with members at the calendar of events and are also allowed to send a monthly update – about any aspect of the bid or related initiatives – via the post each month, their access is otherwise officially limited.

That said, there is a less talked-about strategy, says a source close to one of the bids who asked not to e identified: where members of the bid teams will ‘happen’ to be at the same events as IOC members. He says: “Everyone does as much unofficial ‘bumping into people’ as everyone else. It is a political event like any election.”

Nonetheless, the official restrictions mean face time with the decision-makers is tightly rationed. So candidate cities need to effect a groundswell of opinion – both at home and abroad – that alters perceptions indirectly. What results is a flurry of communications that takes in media relations, PR, branding and even the use of social media.

Taking aim
Winning domestic support is essential so it can shine through when the IOC Evaluation Committee is in town; yet getting coverage from international journalists is one of the few ways to speak to IOC members. Jon Tibbs, founder of strategic communications agency Jon Tibbs Associates and consultant to the Tokyo bid, says the latter requires a “sophisticated international communication strategy” that is a balance of PR and media relations, including a strong relationship with the specialist Olympic media. “Ultimately, you are communicating with just 115 people and each one has influencers and pressure groups but you are still speaking to no more than about 1,500 people, perhaps 5,000 in the broadest sense. It is not just about getting ads out there but it is about a targeted and very carefully planned campaign.”

Importantly, this process helps to create a dialogue which can itself shape the bidders’ strategy. Scott Bowers, the co-head of Weber Shandwick Sport, which is also working with Tokyo, says for that reason the early part of the bid is “about listening and getting feedback”. He adds: “If you talk at them [the IOC], you will have no impact. You have to understand what they need from an Olympic city.”

How the bid cities have interpreted this has been laid out in their bid books and the result, says Lee, is four strong but very different bids – but here too, IOC rules stifle individuality to keep the playing field level and substance to the fore. With all cities asked to answer 17 specific questions from the IOC on issues of such as finance, infrastructure and transport, environment and sustainability and legacy, there is a uniformity to what is covered.

“Olympic bids are now operating the type of international communication programmes you would normally see at blue-chip companies”

Teams with clout
Much of the flavour for each bid is determined by the team’s personnel – each has different mix of highprofile politicians, business leaders, celebrities, sports stars and communications experts.

Chicago’s team is chaired by the city’s mayor, Richard Daley, and includes Patrick Ryan, the founder of insurance giant Aon Corporation, Mike Roberts, a former chief operations officer of McDonalds (which is based in the city), and Lori Healey, a former chief of staff to Daley.

It seemed for a time that new President Barack Obama, a Chicago local, might also become a de facto member of the team, after he mentioned the bid in his historic election night speech. While he has submitted a video message, at the time of writing the team had yet to secure his presence in Copenhagen. Still, he represents a weapon in Chicago’s armoury – not unlike London 2012’s use of then Prime Minister Tony Blair – that its rivals can not surpass.

With a team featuring several former Olympians, Tokyo’s bid has garnered widespread support from the public. Tokyo Governor, Shin taro Ishihara, is president of the team and is supported by two vice presidents: Tsunekazu Takeda, who has competed in five Olympic games and is president of the Japanese Olympians Association, and Tokyo vice governor Kenji Tanigawa.

Madrid also opts for former Olympians, with the team led by Mercedes Coghen, a former gold-medalwinning captain of the Spanish Field Hockey Team at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.

Meanwhile, Rio 2016 is led by Carlos Arthur Nuzman, president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee. The honourary council includes Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, and the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes. Leonardo Grymer, the bid’s communications director, has extensive experience in sports marketing.

Bid positioning
Where the bids truly begin to differ is in concept and tone. This is where the four cities jostle to create istinct positioning for their campaigns. Chicago’s energetic and spirited approach makes great use of its spectacular waterfront setting; Tokyo’s concept of “setting the stage for heroes” sits alongside its promise of “the most compact and efficient Olympic Games ever”; Madrid, which lost out to London for the 2012 games, is positioning itself as the “safe option in uncertain times” and presenting a games “with the human touch”; and Rio’s bid is imbued with Latin American passion but focuses on the fact it would be the first time the games are hosted in South America.

Acknowledging the influence of a strong brand identity, this positioning is developed through bid logos and campaign straplines. Chicago has already faced difficulties with its branding after its first logo, which used a torch image to represent its skyline, parkland and waterfront location, had to be redesigned. The IOC forbids the use of Olympic iconography, such as the torch, forcing the city to create a second choice logo using a Chicago Star, which also appears on the city’s flag.

Not only has Chicago changed its logo, but in March it also relaunched its overall positioning, changing its strapline from ‘Stir the Soul’ to ‘Let Friendship Shine’. While this suggests the bid team is struggling to find an identity with which it is comfortable, ‘friendship’ ties in neatly with the campaign’s media strategy, which has a strong social networking and new media element.

The Chicago bid is determined to make 2016 a ‘New Media Olympics’ and has been active in building up a variety of communities on Facebook. Its official page has over 19,000 members but it has a number of pages that showing support from groups within the city, and is also using Flickr and Twitter.

“One of the ways we looked at new media was using it to get as many Chicagoans involved as possible,” says Mike Mitten, its chief brand officer. “We want to maintain support for our bid and, frankly, grow it and one of the ways we want do this is using new media platforms.”

There are more than 50 groups dedicated to bid. However, in garnering support in this way, it has also encouraged those against the bid to speak out and several ‘Say No to Chicago 2016’ groups also exist. This highlights some of the problems that Chicago has had getting local support for the bid and, at the time of writing, various interest groups were threatening to protest during the IOC evaluation visit. There have also been concerns that abrupt changes in the leadership of the United States Olympic Committee could raise too many questions and mar its bid. As with corporate communications, stability and consistency is key.

Madrid’s ‘safe’ positioning is reflected in a more low key approach to media strategy. While Coghen has said a Madrid Games would be a “fiesta” for Spanish-speaking people, it has built its campaign on the fact that more than 77% of the necessary venues are either ready or under construction and its 92% local support. It also has a Facebook page and, in December last year, appointed Senior Rushmore to handle its advertising, with a higher profile media and social media campaign expected.

It struck an emotional note with one of its promotional films, set in the 2017 after the games; it shows a diverse range of people delivering stirring lines such as “I learnt”, “I embraced”, “I laughed” which, say observers, has done much to humanise its campaign.

Formed of decorative strings used to signify blessings during celebrations, Tokyo’s logo is closely aligned to its ‘Uniting Our Worlds’ tagline. The concept was also developed in a promotional film, showing a Japanese people mesmerised by coloured lines of silk flowing over Tokyo. The lines met at the end to create the logo.

Green message
Environmental and social responsibility features strongly in the Tokyo bid. It has been worked into a major ten-year redevelopment plan for Tokyo, which for the games includes reclaiming a landfill site to create a forest. It also claims it could deliver the first carbon-minus games. Its organised approach to building the games into its regeneration has also been seen in its scrupulously planned communication strategy.

From its friendly interactive website – a marked difference to the dry corporate approach taken by its rivals – to its targeted advertising and proactive media campaign, the inside source says Japan has been on the ball from day one. When local support was deemed unsatisfactory, partially due to controversy surrounding the relocation of the popular Tuskiji Fish Market, it used the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building as major outdoor ad spaces to promote the bid. It has also been tactical in its  approach to the IOC with a high level of advertising, including taking the first page ad in the in-flight magazine of an internal airline flying IOC members to Acapulco for a meeting. It has even thought of details as small as ensuring that, when looked at together, its monthly updates to IOC will show a message.

Rio has a point of difference that none of its rivals can touch – a reason why it should host the games and the opportunity of an historic first. At the recent Sportaccord presentation, bid leader Nuzman received a round of applause from audience members when showing a map of the previous Olympic locations, every city in Europe, Asia, North America was orange while South America was blue. It struck a chord with the audience.

As such it has taken a different approach to its imagery using just blue, green and yellow in its logo, which recall the Brazilian flag more than the Olympic rings. Passion is also central to Rio’s campaign, highlighted by its ‘Live Your Passion’ strapline, which was launched at midnight on New Year’s Eve using a giant Ferris  wheel on Copacabana Beach.

There is no doubt that each city is passionate about the vision it has set out and confident about its ability to put on an unforgettable Olympic Games, but bidding has become more sophisticated than ever.

“Looking at the communication involved in Olympic bidding,” Nuzman says, “it is now operating the type of international programmes you would normally see at blue-chip companies.” And with a prize of major international investment and about £10 billion in turnover even in uncertain economic times, it is not hard  to see why the cities are engaged in a battle worthy of the Olympics itself.

 

The financial hurdle
An essential part of the communication process is proving that the city can raise finance and stay in budget. Beijing’s cost was staggering, while London 2012’s budget has already risen to more than four times the original budget.
Beijing (2008) $40bn
London (original) $3.4bn
London (current) £13.5bn
Tokyo $4.4bn
Chicago $4.8bn
Madrid $5.6bn
Rio $14.4bn