While bad news stories prefacing an Olympic Games are nothing new – think of the riots ahead of London 2012, the lack of snow before Vancouver's winter games in 2010 – there is a feeling that Sochi has been so soiled by negative coverage that the role of comms has been one of constant firefighting.
Organisers, sponsors and the Russian government have been hit by negative headlines damning Russia’s anti-gay laws, security fears and questions over the country's human rights record.
Andy Sutherden, head of sports and global practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, said: "It would appear the role of comms so far has been to contain issues and neutralise negative publicity. Moving the agenda onto a more positive footing will depend on how well the Games starts and continues."
For Weber Shandwick and Jon Tibbs Associates – which are handling global and B2B public relations for the Games – the brief of promoting Sochi and Russia as a desirable place for tourism and investment is clearly a tough one.
On one hand PR executives are fighting a stream of negative stories, while on the other theoretically good news stories, such as the Torch Relay, risk being lost. In addition, outbursts, such as that of Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov claiming there are no gay people in the city, clearly do not help the comms strategy.
"There will be things that you can’t prevent from happening but you can ensure consistent lines of communication and messaging to influence how they are spread around the world," said Alex Coulson, director PR and social media at IMG Consulting International.
Even well-intentioned PR moves are struggling to cut the ice and be perceived as sincere. For example, the Russian government’s decision to free two members of Pussy Riot two months before their scheduled release was widely interpreted as an attempt by the Kremlin to smooth criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of the Games, as was the freeing of Greenpeace activists.
It is difficult to attach much blame to Weber Shandwick and Jon Tibbs Associates, which would have prepared for the best- and worst-case scenarios. Weber Shandwick, which previously ran the 18-month campaign behind Sochi’s bid to win the staging of the Games, is understood to be running its comms from a number of key offices – including London – where it is headed up director James Hillier.
But things could get worse if the sports media shuns the Games in Russia’s ‘summer capital’. Amy Williams, Team GB’s sole medal winner in Vancouver and a BBC pundit in Sochi, has urged newspaper editors to "stop putting football managers who are swearing on the back pages and put [on] Winter Olympians who win medals".
But there is a case for optimism. The British Olympic Association is buoyant, saying it has received more than 125 media requests for approximately 40 accreditations – a figure comparable with Vancouver – and there are some positive stories which have resonated, such as the early stadium completions and the ‘cluster system’ which means they are in proximity to each other, making Sochi fan-friendly. Also, Sochi will be the first social Winter Olympics – providing the potential for social-buzz during the Games.
Perhaps most tellingly, when it comes to such events it is often the good news stories – multiple Gold medal winners or heroic comebacks – that are remembered.
Joanna Manning-Cooper, former head of PR and media at LOCOG, believes Sochi will produce individual stories which will capture the public imagination. She said: "Winter sports are exciting to watch, and we respond particularly well as a nation when GB athletes are doing well; half the country stayed awake until the early hours to watch the curlers win gold in 2002. The world’s best winter sports athletes will be competing and will have been preparing for these Games for large parts of their lives."