London 2012: The greatest show on earth

As London kicks off its first Olympics since 1948, Kate Magee finds out how some of the key people behind the Games have been gearing up for the event.

The Olympic Park
The Olympic Park

On Friday 27 July, the world's eyes will be fixed on London, as the Olympic opening ceremony fires the starting pistol on he biggest sporting event ever to be held on these shores.

The scale of the event is staggering. More than 194 countries are due to compete, 11 million tickets have been sold and, crucially for the PR industry, 30,000 journalists have descended on the capital.

Media coverage will be crucial to the reputation of London 2012 but it may be out of a PR professional's control. A recent survey by researchers at Penn State University showed that as air pollution and temperatures increased at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, journalists were more likely to use negative words in stories about the host country and competitors.

How London 2012 is perceived and which brands make the most of the spotlight will all be revealed over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, PRWeek spoke to several key PR insiders about their preparations for the Games.

THE ATHLETES: Claire Furlong, chief press officer, Team GB Athletics

Olympic athletes

Furlong is heading comms for the largest and perhaps most high-profile section of Team GB - the 78 athletes. Her biggest challenges will be co-ordinating media for them all, as well as managing the media's expectations of the time they can get with the athletes.

Before the competition, the athletes have different schedules. 'It's like trying to herd cats. It's not like a hockey team where you could get them all together and nail it in one media day, they all have different schedules,' she says.

The athletics competition begins on 3 August. Athletes are flying out to the training camps (the main one in Portugal and the high altitude one in the Pyrenees) ten to 12 days before they compete. They will arrive at the Olympic village three days before they compete.

Media activity has been split into three parts:

1. Broadcast rights holder the BBC and national newspapers were invited to attend the Aviva two-day athletics meet at Crystal Palace in mid-July. Here, they could interview the 20 athletes who are now in the altitude camp.

2. A media day will be held in the Portuguese training camp for the national media. They will have access to the majority of the team. The BBC will have three days to interview every athlete.

3. There will be a Team GB press conference on 3 August with the head coach and team captain.

Furlong says her main challenge once the Games begin will be to 'strike the right balance between capitalising on media interest, while pacifying coaches and athletes and not impacting on performance', she says.

During the morning and evening sessions Furlong will be spending her time in the 'mixed zone' - where the media interview athletes after performances.

She has asked athletes to spend 90 seconds giving interviews after each round, but this is optional while they are still performing.

But every athlete has to stop and take media interviews when they go out of the competition.

THE TRANSPORT: Stuart Ross, director of news, TFL

BMX rider

Although Ross believes London's public transport system is ready to host the Games, it will be put under pressure with an expected one million extra visitors in London each day of the competition.

'We're well aware transport will be an issue that is scrutinised by the media,' says Ross. Over the past two years, the team has been making Londoners aware of the impact of the Games on their travel, and has been running an integrated campaign since January called 'Get Ahead of the Games'.

The PR team is now running a 24/7 media operation that will continue until the end of the Paralympics. This will help international media meet their deadlines.

Normally TFL has 27 press officers, but it has hired experienced contractors and staff from other parts of the business, to double its size. There will also be 3,000 'travel ambassadors' at key transport hubs, handing out maps and information, and emails will be sent out to raise awareness of travel hotspots.

'We have a huge programme of engagement with the media. During the Games we will issue twice-daily press notices explaining how the transport system is working, and how we've been dealing with any issues,' says Ross.

London 2012 has been touted as the first 'Socialympics', and with free WiFi at several stations, digital comms will be crucial for TFL.

TFL has several Twitter feeds that will be providing real-time travel advice and social media will be monitored closely. Ross says he is not too worried about negative tweets being made about the transport system. 'I think people recognise that social media aren't necessarily reflective of what's happening on the ground. We already get thousands of tweets about TFL and not all of them are complimentary. It would be impossible to respond to all of those individually,' he says. But the team will be monitoring the site and will offer proactive information where there is a ground swell or trend on Twitter of people reporting an issue.

THE ORGANISER - Jackie Brock-Doyle, director fo comms and public affairs, LOCOG

Olympic Park

'The entire comms strategy for London 2012 has been put on one page. Each year we've identified our drumbeat of progress - what we have to deliver. We have four key events each year. We've announced what we want to be judged on each year. We have used no TV advertising.

Every press release or film we've produced is tagged back to one of the five campaign themes - youth, transformation, athletes (sports/inspiration), London (the place to be) or people (accessibility of the Games). We think we've had a quarter of a million UK print articles about the Olympics, and 50,000 since the "one year to go" deadline was announced. The challenge has been how to maintain excitement and interest.

Our audacious vision was for this to be "everyone's Games". The International Olympic Association presents the Games to a city, not a country. So a big thing for us was how to engage the whole of the UK when we can't give or sell enough tickets to people who want them.

Our first KPI was to raise £2bn of private money. The value for money debate will go on for another ten years. We have to keep telling people what the value is.

Social media are the big change. Through these, journalists can get quickly and easily to the naysayers.'

(Excerpts from a speech at the AMEC conference on 14 June)

THE VOLUNTEERS: Lorna Gozzard and Juliet Philip, volunteer press officers, London 2012

Lorna Gozzard

In total there will be 4,000 to 5,000 people working as part of the Press Operations team during the Olympics and the Paralympics. Many PR professionals, including Kindred director Lorna Gozzard and Juliet Philip, PR consultant for EML Wildfire, are taking time off work to volunteer. The official handbook describes the job as to 'provide clear and accurate information, resolve any issues quickly and meet the overall needs of the world's press'.

Gozzard is working as a mixed zone team member for the Paralympic Games in the Copper Box, a venue on the main Olympic site, while Philip is working in the Media Centre Workroom at Eton Dorney, where the rowing and canoeing events are taking place. Philip will be at the front desk doing the meet and great and making sure journalists have what they need. 'We have to be at the desk by 7.30am, so one of the biggest challenges will be getting up by 5am - and then staying awake,' she says.

And the motivation? Gozzard explains: 'I live in Stratford so have seen the Olympic site grow from scratch. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - how many people get to say they've been involved in an Olympic Games?'

THE SPONSOR: Myf Ryan, general manager marketing, Westfield UK/EU

Myf Ryan, Westfield

Most visitors to the Olympic Park will pass through the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre. There are two in-house comms staff, alongside Pitch PR, which will handle Olympics-related work, and retained agency Yellow Door.

The PR team is working with the centre's 250 retailers to make sure the retailers and Westfield as a brand enjoy the benefits of its location.

As well as promoting the centre's services, including a multilingual concierge, late-night food and drink and extended opening hours, the centre is running a digital campaign around the concept 'I was there'. Consumers will be encouraged to upload pictures of themselves to create real stories of the Olympics.

The campaign will use Westfield's west London property to 'set up a friendly competition between east and west London', says Ryan. 'We want this to flow through into the broader regeneration of London story.'

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