Canadian Interview: Heather Armstrong

Heather Armstrong, press representative for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), spoke to PRWeek about navigating the negative coverage and building buzz for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Since the Salk Lake City Olympics, the former AVP of communications of Rogers has served as a press attaché for the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC). This year, she remained in Toronto, fielding questions early on from media who were ready to write off the Canadian team after a week without winning a single medal. Armstrong— who starts as director of board relations at The Hospital for Sick Children in September — spoke to PRWeek about navigating the negative coverage and building buzz for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

How did the COC handle the initial negative coverage?
People started asking questions that suggested the wheels were falling off. Because of the fact that we weren't winning any medals and that the COC had set a very aggressive, but achievable, goal this year to place in the top 16 nations in terms of medals, the mood turned very sombre. But what a difference a day makes: We woke up one morning with three medals, at the end of the next day we had five medals and now we're sitting in 13th place with 17 medals (Canada finished in 14th place with 18 medals). What was important for us to say [in the media] was that Canada traditionally does better in the second half of the games than the first, and that the sports we're strongest in haven't even started their competitions yet.

What do you attribute to some of the success at this year's games, from a communications point of view?
The COC has put in a place a number of programs that enable athletes to be entirely focused on their game day. In Beijing, we had a fabulous program called the Friends and Family program, run by Hbc, one of the sponsors. It is entirely responsible for managing the friends and the family of athletes, so when the athletes are there they don't have to worry about, say, seats for their mother.

How is the COC preparing for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics?
The challenge is: What do you need to do to keep people focused on — Olympic athletes and the Olympic movement outside of the Games? The Canadian Olympic Committee has just launched the Canadian Olympic Foundation, which is focused on fundraising and bringing attention to the overall movement during non-Games times. Everyone focuses on the athletes when they are competing for 16 days, but there are a lot more days in the four years where the athletes could use more attention.

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