For months the world has been questioning the readiness of Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Olympic Games. Newspaper headlines have been a nightmare for organizers, ranging from dead bodies washing ashore, police raiding local favelas, a rise in the Zika virus and serious concerns surrounding the safety of visitors and athletes. All of this while the country also experiences the worst recession in its history and political upheaval at the highest levels of government. While the newspaper headlines are correct in many regards, the headlines spread internationally and caused deep wounds in the credibility of the Games. Rio organizers had to do something to fix this immediately. The organizers were able to change this narrative due to three strategically executed PR messages:
- We Shall Overcome!
Whenever negative headlines arose in the press, there was always a concerted effort to normalize fears and draw comparison to other host cities in the past. Almost every Olympic host city has been accused of poor preparation, overdue construction and other major concerns. In the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, officials took out an insurance policy in case the events got canceled altogether. We all remember the social media buzz surrounding concerns from athletes staying in the Olympic village at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games regarding incomplete construction and poor living conditions. For PR professionals, headlines like these were an opportunity to mitigate fears and level the playing field between host nations. It was an opportunity to reassure visitors and athletes that the organizers were committed, just like every previous host nation, to having the Games ready for the world stage.
- Athletes, Athletes, Athletes!
For the Rio Olympics, the audience was already privy to Rio’s existing political and infrastructure problems leading up to the Games. For PR officials, the storyline had to change. The audience always loves a good story; thus, Rio officials made a concerted effort to highlight the stories of athletes. I was walking to work and listening to NPR one morning, and while the host panel were discussing the Olympic Games and Rio de Janeiro’s “lack of readiness,” there was an athlete on the show who simply stated: “Athletes just want to compete.” He explained that athletes spend their whole lives waiting for this moment and weren’t going to let little details stop them from competing. By highlighting the commitment, courage and fighting spirit of the athletes, officials were able to change the narrative from fear and disaster to optimism and anticipation for the Games.
- Embrace the Olympic Spirit!
The Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games was the last opportunity Rio organizers had to leave a significant impact on the minds of the audience. If it went well, the audience would embrace the Olympic spirit and focus on the events ahead. If it went south, it would be another headline citing Rio’s unpreparedness for the Games. In my head, I pictured PR officials running around reviewing every minute detail and making sure that the ceremony stayed on message.
Their hard work paid off; Rio absolutely delivered! The opening ceremony was truly phenomenal. Focusing on the themes of climate change and the environment, the ceremony was a rich glimpse into life in Brazil. The organizers made sure to feature the indigenous people of the country and highlight the influence that favelas have on the culture of Brazil as a whole. One could not have an opening ceremony in Rio without the strong rhythms and bright colors of a Brazilian Carnival. The beauty of the people of Brazil was on full display when Brazilian model and actress Giselle Bündchen, in a surprise to all, graced the stadium floor. The Rio organizers included two strategically placed, touching moments of the ceremony:the Parade of Nations, which included for the first time a “Refugee Team” to showcase the perseverance of refugee athletes which, and Lea T participating in the lighting of the Olympic torch, the first transgender woman to participate in any Olympic Games.
As the Games continue, and we witness unbelievable feats of strength and skill from our favorite athletes, hear their stories and celebrate in their successes, we slowly forget that the Rio Games were previously expected to be a disaster. This transformation didn’t occur due to an abrupt change in the economy, the elimination of Zika or increased security; it came because through it all, the Olympic spirit always prevails. Rio organizers have tapped into that spirit, and I believe the Games have not only survived as a result, but have captivated the world.