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2021-22 show risks of Olympic sponsorships—with PR lessons to remember

by | Jan 28, 2022 | Public Relations

Sponsors of the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo had to cancel promotional plans because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Sponsors of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics did the same—but the cutbacks were not limited to the continuing Covid pandemic. Accusations of human rights violations in China, paired with a diplomatic boycott spearheaded by the United States, kept most Olympic sponsors from tooting their horns, as they normally do, when spending big bucks on Olympic sponsorships.

True, only several countries followed the U.S lead but the message was clear: Despite the International Olympic Committee saying the opposite, politics and sports do mix. And when the Olympics are next awarded to a totalitarian government, democratic countries will not be quiet.

In the past, the big question sports marketers had to figure out was if they were getting their money’s worth from sponsoring the Olympics. In the future, they will also have to consider if it is worth being tarred by being associated with a sporting event played in totalitarian countries, some of which, like China, might also not be friendly with the United States.

What the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games did was initiate a Sports Cold War between democratic governments and dictatorial countries because even though the athletes of countries joining the U.S. were allowed to participate, for over a year, the message in the U.S. was not about the great athletic events or sponsor’s promotions, but about the human rights violations in the host country and sponsors were not speared from criticism by human rights groups and U.S. government officials.

“Boycotts aren’t new to the Olympics,” Chad de Guzman wrote in TIME. “In 332 BCE, Athens threatened to withdraw from the ancient games after one of the city’s athletes was accused of fixing a match by bribing his opponents. In the modern era, however, countries’ Olympic boycotts have become a showcase for major geopolitical disputes. Though a specific action or policy is usually given as justification for the boycott announcement—as with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—wider political tensions have been at the heart of the decision.

“This time, officials in Washington and the other participating capitals cite human rights abuses in China, including atrocities against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.”

The Beijing boycott is likely to lead to future Olympic boycotts, said Stuart Murray, a sports policy and diplomacy expert teaching at Bond University in Australia.

There’s no doubt that being an Olympics partner can provide world-wide exposure unlike no other sports event. The problem though is that there are controversies inherent with the Olympics that can derail sponsor’s plans.

In additions to promotions being cancelled in Tokyo and China, many sponsors changed their plans or cancelled them because of Russia’s anti-gay laws that received wide media coverage during the 2014 Sochi, Russia, Winter Olympics.

In addition to the negative publicity inherent with the Olympics no matter where the games are staged, there are other risks that sponsors must be willing to take

The Olympic Games will always be remembered for providing public relations cover for totalitarian countries beginning with 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin. In addition to the soon to begin Beijing, China Olympics (February 4-20), other autocratic governments that were awarded the Olympics were Mexico, Russia, the Russian Federation, and Yugoslavia.

Also, ever since the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes, all major events are considered targets for international or domestic terrorism groups, meaning that millions of dollars are spent on security.

From a business viewpoint, sponsors always say how pleased they are with results emanating from their Olympic sponsorships.  But a big negative is that the Olympics are an every-four-years happening and is largely forgotten by its enthusiasts in several weeks, if that long.

Unlike baseball, football, basketball and, to an extent, hockey, that receive media coverage throughout the year, once the Olympics are concluded the media forgets about it until it recovers from its hibernation a few years later.

Given all the political, business risks and negative publicity associated with the Olympics, a question that emerges after every Olympics is “Did the sponsors get their money’s worth from the million of dollars they invested in the games?” Sponsors always say “yes.” Many marketing experts say “no, the money could have been spent more wisely.”

One question that future sponsors of the Olympics must truthfully answer is are the risks of Olympic sponsorships worth the rewards?

There are valuable lessons that PR practitioners should remember from the Tokyo and Beijing Olympic Games:

  • No matter how carefully a program is planned, as poet Robert Burns wrote in “To a Mouse,” “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”
  • Suggesting a partnership with a prestigious organization will not protect a client from receiving negative media coverage.
  • Negative news will always drown out positive news.
  • The fewer the sponsors of an event, the easier it is to gain earned media.
  • Regardless of the project, PR people should always prepare for a PR crisis, and most important,
  • As your mother might have told you when a romance went sour, there are plenty of fish in the sea. The same is true when researching organizations for client tie-ins.

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Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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