The Atlanta-based electronic publication Around the Rings is the insider's source for tracking what it calls the "business of the Olympics."
PRWeek recently spoke with editor Ed Hula, recently returned from two months of non-stop international travel, about the high-stakes process of selecting Olympic cities.
PRWeek: How long has Around the Rings been around?
Ed Hula: Under that name, since late 1996. It was previously a by-mail subscription publication, in the early ‘90s. It was called ‘The Hula Report.’ Then we had our first Web site and called it Around the Rings, and it’s been in that incarnation and developing. It’s far different today than it was 10 years ago.
PRWeek: It’s electronic only now?
Hula: Yes, though we do some print publications around some special events: International Olympic Committee (IOC) meetings or special sessions such as in Guatemala recently, or the Olympic Games themselves. But our stock in trade, the breaking news, is all electronic.
PRWeek: You update content daily?
Hula: Yes. Three, four, five times or more a day. We slow down a little bit depending on how many people we have to put stuff into the pipeline. But today we have three stories so far, including one about Cuban boxers not coming to the championships in the US; that will be posted in an hour or so. There’s tons of news; every time I wait for it to slow down it doesn’t.
PRWeek: How many people on your editorial staff?
Hula: I have five or six people, all part time. A writer in England, another reporter in Germany, someone in Vancouver, and then two or three people who write copy here in the office.
PRWeek: You just track the IOC selection process?
Hula: We call it the business of the Olympics. It’s how everything works. Right now our feature story is about Osaka and the World Championships of Track and Field being the unofficial start of the 2016 Summer Olympics race. All the leaders from the serious contenders were there to meet and greet and talk with IOC members in the early days of the championships, and it’s really the first time we’ve seen them all out like this. The story we’ll have up in an hour or so will be about politics, the Cubans deciding not to come to the championships in Chicago, probably for fear over defections and so on.
PRWeek: Campaigns related to Olympic bids seem to be very elaborate and expensive.
Hula: It is a minor industry at the rates they’re spending money. It used to be $20 million to $25 million to promote a bid from beginning to end. Now they’re taking about spending upwards of $50M or more for the 2016 race. So that’s $300 million if there are six candidates. Maybe they won’t all spend that much, but it’s $100 million or more, give or take – it’s almost real money.
PRWeek: There was a big scandal related to the Salt Lake City Olympics. Have they reformed their ways since? Is it a black box, understanding the selection process, or is it pretty transparent now?
Hula: Right, that happened in the late ‘90s. After Salt Lake City had already been selected and they were under way with preparations, it was revealed the extent of the gift giving. It’s remarkably changed. Parts of [the selection process] are transparent. But the actual vote is the secret vote and there’s no discussion and debate publicly by members of the IOC about which city is better than the other. They kind of sit in silence, ask a few questions, and then go make their vote in secret. So you don’t really know why.
PRWeek: But you try after the fact to find out through unnamed sources?
Hula: Right, or you can get a sense from talking to members whether they’re shooting straight with you. The old joke is each city counts up the votes promised by IOC members and quickly every one of them has the majority needed to win. There’s a reason for that; it’s to keep the members independent, keep them from being exposed to national influences. In a number of countries, the member of the IOC is very closely tied with the government or must have close relationships with the government. It could open them up to undue influence.
PRWeek: Are there certain factors that make for a good bid?
Hula: Sure. A good team, a compelling story, a hook or angle why to have these games here. Good venues or a good plan for the venues. That’s certainly the case for Sochi, Russia, which was picked for the 2014 Winter Olympics. They don’t have anything there. They’ve got to spent $12 billion to build an infrastructure.
PRWeek: Then they have to show the IOC they will go through with their plans. That happened with Athens -- they fell behind in their schedule?
Hula: Right. They got behind schedule and added things on afterward; it was not the best situation. So they want to avoid that. That’s one of the things they have to closely watch. They had their first meeting between the IOC and the Russian in Moscow this week and the guy leading the IOC delegation told me they’ll be watching first the things that have already been flagged, and one of them is the extensive construction. It gets cold there. Weather can play a factor in the construction, where they’re at. They only have less than seven years to the games there.
PRWeek: Do human rights play much into their selection of cities?
Hula: It seems like every country that has the games, generally speaking, has people raising questions about political issues. As manifold as they are in China, China is probably going to be one in which more attention is paid than any other games.
PRWeek: Is it a factor in the IOC’s decision?
Hula: No, apparently not. Not in the case of China. I was talking with the IOC president and one of the things he said was that he knew from the moment they picked China that there would political questions to confront. The IOC tries to stay above it all.
PRWeek: They’re supposed to be non-political?
Hula: Nonpolitical about sport, right. So they applaud the idea of freedom of choice, association, non-discrimination – that’s all part of the Olympic spirit in the eyes of the IOC. They hope that the Olympics make those issues better in China, but they are not directly getting involved with those kinds of questions.
PRWeek: In dealing with groups that assist in promoting cities, do you get bombarded with information?
Hula: I don’t know if bombarded is the right word, but the ones that earn their keep do seem to be the most persistent. For some of these bid committees, it’s really important that they have an efficient, aggressive communicator, because they may not speak English as their first language. And they really need that kind of help. Again, these are pretty high stakes contests now, as in the case of Sochi, which hired a PR team [Weber Shandwick]. Pyeonchang to some degree used Hill & Knowlton, and then Salzburg was just kind of, eh, they missed the boat -- they went internal and didn’t have any help from any significant agency in the 2014 race.
PRWeek: Are you glad to hear from the firms?
Hula: Yes, because they become a regular source of information about the bid. Sometimes the subject matter gets ridiculous. The connection to the bid gets very tenuous for some of the releases put out.
PRWeek: Like with an event?
Hula: Right, an event they put together as a sign that the city is ready to host something. Athlete press releases are always kind of suspect and kind of tiring, because generally speaking athletes do it for remuneration. They may be indeed in favor of the Sochi bid, but they also have their time and troubles to be compensated for. It’s important to know that athletes are involved, but send me a press release when Maria Sharapova is against the Sochi bid. It’s like, dog bites man that’s not news, but when man bites dog that’s news.
PRWeek: Are some bid organizations are more open than others?
Hula: It varies. We can talk for a moment about Beijing, where it’s been at times like pulling teeth. It’s been an unsatisfactory experience for the most part for the past few years, just culturally and with language barriers that have been difficult to surmount. After dealing with Olympic Games in Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens – where all these cities have a very well cultivated public relations culture – they just don’t get it in Beijing. There’s little outreach to international journalists. They make things very complicated; they make it hard to find information. They lack continuous press contact. On top of that, I have to deal with a 12-hour time difference because I don’t have anybody working for me right now in Beijing. Even when I’m there, it can be a battle. Eventually, everything sort of gets done, but it’s not a well-oiled machine. It may be different the way they’re organizing the venue, the sports, the accommodations, et cetera, that may be all swell, but media operations have left a lot to be desired.
PRWeek: How many readers do you have?
Hula: Through our subscription, it’s several thousand. Then, you can go to the Web site and see some things though not be able to read the stories. Page impressions are in the tens of thousands daily. The serious readers, we know who they are, are the decision makers in the Olympic business world: sponsors, broadcasters, IOC members, people who have a vested interest in the business of the games. So it’s a very targeted audience we have.
PRWeek: How did you get into this?
Hula: I was a radio news director in Atlanta while the city was bidding for the Olympics in the 1980s. It was one of the stories we were covering. I went off to Tokyo for the 1990 session and was with the Atlanta crew as the city’s name was read out. It was one of those moments of epiphany. You’re working in Atlanta and the Olympics will be there in six years. About a year or so later I left the radio network and went off on my own to follow Atlanta Olympic preparations for some radio stations. As you get immersed in the story, you discover all these other things going on with it. Then a newsletter publisher in Georgia encouraged me to follow up and make a newsletter.
PRWeek: Must be always interesting. Plus you get to travel all around the world.
Hula: Yeah, I never expected that either. That’s been pretty much part of the way we do business; we go where we need to go. We have some help. I’m exchanging emails right now with our guy in Germany so he can go to the IOC meeting at the end of the month in Stuttgart. That’s saves me some wear and tear but I still go a lot of places – I’ve flown about 100,000 miles this year.