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From Toilet Troubles to Soiled Sponsorships; Sochi’s Games are an International PR Nightmare

What should be an international celebration of excellence and camaraderie has become a massive cluster of violations and complications. Sochi’s 2014 winter Olympic Games haven’t even officially kicked off, however the PR nightmare surrounding their planning and execution is well under way. Despite the fact that the Sochi Games are the most expensive Olympics ever staged (totaling around $48 Billion), event venues and hotels remain unfinished, poorly built and/or completely unfit for human occupation. These logistical problems are only further exasperated by the mounting concern over Russia’s subpar animal and human rights standards. The country’s anti-gay policies are getting major sponsors such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds in hot water with consumers while the systematic and inhumane extermination of Sochi’s stray dog population continues to make headlines and strike the hearts of animal lovers everywhere. Even the competing athletes seem to remain low on Sochi’s priority list, as several outdoor courses have been deemed ‘unsafe,’ forcing decorated athletes to pull out of high profile events. As PR pros with strong backgrounds in Sports and Crisis Communications, RCG’s NYC office has some tips for the Olympic Committee to put out these fires while ensuring the Olympic torch stays lit.

Sochi’s Social Snafus:

In response to strange and sometimes unsanitary conditions, journalists from around the globe have taken to Twitter to share their mounting strange Sochi stories through the @SochiProblems account and use of the #SochiProblems hashtag. 

For a seasoned PR pro, this social media snafu would typically be proactively addressed with public responses, statements and an immediate reallocation of efforts to address the problems at hand. The city of Sochi and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, have remained mum.

Spay The Strays:

Sochi’s overwhelming stray dog population is a problem that could have been addressed logistically and through proactive media outreach for over a year. NBC Washington reports that, although Sochi City Hall announced a plan to build shelters in early 2013, none have been built. Instead, the city has employed Pest Control companies to “exterminate” the animals through systematic gunfire.  While the damage has already been done in the eyes of the media (and of the animal-loving public) a good PR solution would be to finally institute the construction of shelters while simultaneously creating city provided services to humanely spay/neuter the dogs, preventing further population growth. A strategic partnership with an international animal rights organization like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, would improve public opinion of the Sochi Games while also eliminating the option of “extermination” as an easy fix.

Slopestyle Safety:

Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the location of where one of the newest Olympic event, the Slopestyle, will make its debut, is already causing problems for some of the world’s top athletes. Shawn White, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, released a statement early Thursday morning withdrawing himself from the competition, after he deemed the course unsafe for competition. In his statement he said, “With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on.” Numerous other athletes, including Australian mogul skier Nicole Parks and Finland Snowboarder Merika Enn, have crashed during their training runs, and even sustained injuries prior to the start of the games. While the officials are making last minute changes to the course, competitors continue to voice their concerns.

Any seasoned PR pro will admit that the launch of a new event, Olympic or otherwise, is destined to be met with a few, possibly significant, glitches. However, it’s how those glitches are addressed that can make or break a ‘successful’ event. In the perfect PR world, IOC would directly address Slopestyle safety concerns, perhaps by hosting a press conference to share newly implemented safety modifications and reiterated the IOC’s focus on ensuring safety of every Olympic competitor.

Sponsor Subjugation:

Taking into account the plethora of political and LGBT/human rights backlash surrounding the Sochi games, would-be activists are turning to social media “hijacking” to get their message across. Followers from various gay activist groups, like Queer Nation NY, have dominated big brand hash tags, originally meant to cheer on the US Olympians competing for gold in Sochi, in order to springboard their own message against Russia’s anti-gay policies. As pointed out by The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices Editor-at-Large, Michelangelo Signorile, big brands like McDonalds and Coca-Cola remain on high alert after having their hashtags hijacked in the name of human rights. Any brand, big or small, must be proactive to stay ahead of the political backlash that is paralyzing the still-to-start 2014 Olympic Games. Coca-Cola was quick to turn their negative comments into a positive, posting their iconic 1971 commercial to their Facebook page in a public show of support for “love, equality, and happiness.” (Facebook.com/Coca-Cola).

Despite all the negative media attention surrounding the Sochi Games, it is important for all parties involved to remember that  the Olympics are an international gathering meant to ease tensions rather than create them. The IOC should be acutely aware that the Sochi controversies have the potential to cause permanent harm to the Olympic brand, as well as to all brands associated with the games through sponsorships or otherwise. From a PR standpoint the solution here is relatively simple: Be Proactive. Concerns should be addressed from the get-go, not a year later. In PR, or in any industry for that matter, the last minute is rarely the best minute. Be prepared; expect the occasional glitch, and above all, put safety first.

 

-Sarah Cox & Liz Austin

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