BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Winning bid is merely Beijing's first PR hurdle

There can rarely have been a more acclaimed venue for the Olympics

than Sydney. There can scarcely be a more controversial one than

Beijing.



The International Olympic Committee's decision last Friday to grant

Beijing the 2008 Games raised eyebrows, given China's human rights

record. But as the battle for the Olympics hotted up in recent weeks,

China's PR dynamism also surprised observers.



Not known for slick media-friendliness, at the start of 2001 the Chinese

government appeared to be headed for a PR wooden spoon in the race to

hold the world's greatest sporting event.



The Guardian sports correspondent Vivek Chaudhary recalls being baffled

by his dealings with the Beijing backers: 'We couldn't find out who to

contact. Getting information was near impossible.'



Beijing's bid committee suddenly changed tack and made the (for them)

unprecedented decision to bring on board Bell Pottinger's sports arm,

e.sp (PRWeek, 23 March 2001), and Weber Shandwick Worldwide to help

communicate better.



Chaudhary says that lines of communication cleared - and, while human

rights issues did not disappear overnight, questions on all issues were

efficiently handled. He believes e.sp's press trips to China were

particularly useful in helping persuade the media to look at the country

differently.



Crucially for Beijing, coverage no longer focused exclusively on human

rights, and the argument that an Olympics would lead to improvements

gained prominence.



e.sp MD Jon Tibbs said it was still too early to say how far the agency

had succeeded in its brief to help balance coverage, but he said

negotiations to represent Beijing's Olympic organising committee - once

it is up and running this autumn - were at an advanced stage.



Tibbs also says that predictions of a fractious relationship with WSW

have proved unfounded: 'They came with the power of their Washington

lobbying arm - very recently the Bush administration came out with a

neutral stance on the bid. We brought in-depth knowledge of the Olympic

bidding process.'



However, Susan Kobrin, head of press at human rights group Amnesty

International, believes the PR battle is only just heating up: 'The IOC

and the sponsors - corporations such as General Motors and McDonald's -

won't want to be associated with human rights abuses, so there will be

pressure on China to improve,' she says.



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