rio olympics, rio communication lessons, rio crisis managementRio…those three letters say more about a troubled brand than just about any others. Whether it’s Zika, political corruption, athletes bowing out, flawed doping oversight or a tottering economy, nothing says crisis like RIO.

As a crisis communications pro, I look to these kinds of calamities for the lessons they offer. Here’s what I see as the big take-aways for any brand under this kind of siege:

Establish your organization as THE source of information about the crisis – In the midst of a crisis you must maintain control of the message. Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, you want to be the best source for information. Take control of your own reputation or I guarantee someone else will. Right now, everyone from The International Business Times to the Huffington Post is offering dire predictions about the games. This is contributing to the feeling of hopelessness that’s lead both spectators and athletes to take a pass on Rio2016. Four months before the start of the games, only half of the tickets had been sold. And 17 athletes, including LeBron James and Vijay Singh, have dropped out. What does that mean for your organization? That you must get out in front of a cascading flow of bad news by establishing your organization as the hub of correct information. In the midst of a developing crisis, you should be putting out frequent press releases, that are distributed to the press (yes, traditional media still has the credibility you need) and through your site. It’s also a good idea to create a landing page dedicated to the situation that has the latest information. Then mobilize your social media to promote that specific page as the ultimate source. The Boston Police Department seized informational control in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing through their twitter account. Over the five days of the manhunt, @Boston_Police issued 148 tweets, positioning themselves as a digital hub for both the media and the general public. Their communications helped them to mobilize people in the search for the bomber, vent their concerns and eventually find relief when the situation was concluded.

Run back to mission – The best way to tackle a crisis is to let your mission be your guide in shaping your response. What’s the mission of the Olympic Games? The IOC describes their reason for being this way: “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” Their site, Rio2016 is doing just that with stories of athletes, their struggles and their triumphs. I’m a little surprised that their homepage doesn’t feature social media support for these stories. That’s owned media they should be mobilizing. The lesson for business here: Use your mission as your engine, your owned media (website and social) as your fuel and your media relations as your turbo-charger.

Admit short-comings and say what you’ll do to compensate – When stories about your failures abound, it’s time to fess up to what went wrong and explain what you’re doing to fix it. I’m not seeing that in Rio. Instead I’m seeing proclamations by the acting governor of Rio that the games could be a “failure” if his state doesn’t get extra funding for security and transportation. While everyone in Brazil is spending their time covering their posteriors, no one’s taking responsibility for the solution. It took VW awhile to get to that point too, and we all know what that did to their credibility. Finally, after a period of denial and stonewalling, they have offered a settlement that makes them appear to comprehend the damage they’ve done to their trust with consumers. The company recently agreed to pay up to $14.7 billion to settle claims that stem from its diesel emissions cheating scandal. This may very well be one of the largest consumer class-action settlements ever in the United States. But given that the company’s stock has lost more than 50 percent of its value, it’s clearly a step that needed to be taken to begin rebuilding trust. The lesson for your business: Stonewalling can be dangerous to your reputation’s long-term health. Don’t wait to lose 50 percent of anything before swallowing your pride and getting on with needed compensation.

Express concern and compassion – In the face of a crisis, an organization’s responses must be an ongoing showcase of concern over the incident and compassion for those who are affected by it. I’ve seen neither from the folks in Rio. It’s providing fuel for the media conflagration. The big lesson for any company during a crisis is that people want to know you’re on it. They want to know you care about what’s happening, even if you can’t fix it immediately. And they want to know that there are real people in your company who are compassionate about the outcomes. If you demonstrate that early and often, people will allow you space to get working on the “fix.” If you took nothing from BP’s long-term lack of compassionate response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, take that.

There’s no doubt that the opening ceremonies will take place at Maracana Stadium on Aug. 5. The Olympic Flame will flare and many of the problems highlighted in the run-up to the games will be forgotten. But the residual damage to the Olympic brand may be tougher to fix. Damaged brands can heal but that healing takes effort and dollars. It remains to be seen if the Olympics and the IOC comprehend that lesson. Your business can and should be smarter than that.

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  • Erik Bernstein
    Reply

    Great read Andrea. Another item I’m curious about is how nontraditional and even public coverage via social media is going to clash with the “official” images and video we see of the Games. We’ve already watched a number of scandals pop up over there, I’d guess a good number are venturing over specifically to find issues to expose.

    • Andrea
      Reply

      The June 27 issue of AdWeek had some great commentary about that very issue. I suspect you’re right that “personal broadcasting” by both athletes and fans is going to do more to shape the image of these games than much of the official communications. Stay tuned….

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