Olympic hurdles for Sydney PR teams - The road to the Sydney Olympics has been pocked with PR problems - from threats of Aboriginal protests to ticket scandals. Michael Kessler reports from down under

When hundreds of thousands of people gather in Sydney this month for the Summer Olympics, officials hope that the many PR gaffes that have pocked the road to the games will just be a bad memory. It's been a rough year of scandals encompassing everything from marching bands, tickets and the torch relay to the constant threat of Aboriginal protests during the games.

When hundreds of thousands of people gather in Sydney this month for the Summer Olympics, officials hope that the many PR gaffes that have pocked the road to the games will just be a bad memory. It's been a rough year of scandals encompassing everything from marching bands, tickets and the torch relay to the constant threat of Aboriginal protests during the games.

When hundreds of thousands of people gather in Sydney this month for the Summer Olympics, officials hope that the many PR gaffes that have pocked the road to the games will just be a bad memory. It's been a rough year of scandals encompassing everything from marching bands, tickets and the torch relay to the constant threat of Aboriginal protests during the games.

Many people feel that it is the lack of PR expertise at SOCOG (Sydney Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games) that has led to these problems.

The Sydney Games haven't put forth a coherent image - a job made harder by the scandals.

First, the world learned last year that the Salt Lake City bid committee for the 2002 winter games spent dollars 1 million buying favors and votes from International Olympic Committee (IOC) members. Sydney was exonerated in an ensuing inquiry, but a lot of the mud from the IOC scandal stuck. Shortly after, it was revealed that on the eve of the vote to give Sydney the games some Australian Olympic officials had agreed to pay for sports projects to two African delegates. Australia's own IOC member, Phil Coles, was lucky to escape expulsion after he was reprimanded for accepting lavish hospitality and subsequently was forced to relinquish some of his Olympic positions.

Then there was the marching bands fiasco in June last year, in which 1,300 American, 200 Japanese and 500 Australian youngsters were invited to perform a seven-minute routine as part of the opening ceremony. When the press revealed that most of the marchers were from overseas, a huge debate broke out - one that veered on ugly nationalism. SOCOG canceled the invitations, which outraged the bands; many of the kids had been practicing for nine months and had been saving up for the airfare. The committee faced a dollars 10 million lawsuit for breach of contract from the company hired to bring the bands.

A messy compromise was reached, and the situation went back to the status quo ante. But SOCOG had shown itself to be petty and disorganized. Various spokespeople contradicted each other, and mixed messages were sent out daily. The inability to sell the bands as part of a worldwide cultural event reflected badly on SOCOG's ability to reign in its PR strategy.

Next came the ticket scandal. Eager to put Salt Lake City behind it, SOCOG had been actively marketing Sydney 2000 as the 'people's games,' encouraging the idea that everybody would have equal access to the 9.6 million tickets. It even employed Australia's revered former cricket captain, Mark Taylor, as a spokesperson to promote the tickets. 'Every Australian has an equal chance of getting the tickets they want' in the lottery, he told the viewers on national TV. 'It doesn't get any fairer than that.'

Those applying for tickets had to provide their top three choices of events to attend. But suspicions began to surface in late September 1999 when many people got only their third preference, which they were forced to accept - no refunds were allowed.

The truth comes out

Then the truth began to emerge. SOCOG had planned to raise dollars 100 million (Australian) through selling the best tickets to businesses, exclusive clubs and ticketing brokers - well over 90% of seats for many of the most prestigious events had been allocated for private sale to the privileged elite. The then marketing manager for ticketing, Paul Reading, boasted that anyone could buy tickets - 'provided the price is right.' A public outcry forced SOCOG to release a complete breakdown of ticket allocations.

Only a third of the tickets were ever made available - and mostly for the less-popular sports or for the heats and quarter-finals and semi-finals.

As SOCOG came under fire from all sides, its officials continued to insist that their strategy was the correct one, the only one that would ensure that they met their revenue targets. It was only when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) threatened legal action that SOCOG made an about face. Olympic minister and SOCOG president Michael Knight apologized 16 times at a press conference in October. The outcome was that aggrieved people could get a refund but, significantly, none will get any of the better seats.

'There were people inside the organization who said no, that the ticketing information (the breakdown of ticket distribution) should not be made public - it was not made public in Atlanta, nor in previous Olympic games,' says Milton Cockburn, the general manager of media for Sydney 2000. 'That advice was accepted (until the public outcry). With the benefit of hindsight it was clearly the wrong advice and regrettably I don't think a sufficient number of people in the organization knew enough about the subject that they were able to challenge that conventional wisdom.'

As far as Cockburn is concerned, the PR response put in place to deal with the ticket scandal was a simple one: 'The strategy was one of full disclosure making it very clear what we'd done. You only begin to repair these things when you at least let people know the extent of the mistake that's been made. I believe if we had known what we were doing in ticketing we would have avoided these mistakes substantially.'

After the Salt Lake City and ticketing disasters, SOCOG attempted to repair its image, publicizing the May torch-lighting in ancient Olympia as a way of stirring up public enthusiasm. The torch was supposed to be received by a 16-year-old schoolgirl of Greek origin, Yianna Souleles, who was thought to be the perfect representative of the Australian multicultural society. She arrived in Greece with school friends, giggling as she posed in the ancient ruins with the flag draped over her shoulders.

On the eve of the ceremonial lighting, however, Yianna's smile disappeared when she was told that she was being replaced by Sophie Gosper, the 11-year-old daughter of Australia's most senior Olympic official, IOC vice president Kevin Gosper. The taunt of favoritism and wheeling and dealing resurfaced. SOCOG's public relations effort had been blown out of the water - again.

Gosper aggravated the situation by insisting he had had nothing to do with the decision, but it was too late, the mud had stuck. He was soon forced to apologize and eventually gave up his chance to run with the torch at the Melbourne cricket ground where he had won Olympic silver in 1956. The public perception that Gosper had behaved arrogantly was hard to shake off.

But SOCOG's Cockburn doesn't quite see it that way. He thinks some of the issues like the Gosper episode were exaggerated: 'I think my main criticism of the Olympic reporters is that by and large they haven't been able to paint on a broad canvas. I don't think that they really have set out to try and put the Olympics into a proper perspective.'

Graham Cassidy, NSW media director of the Sydney Media Center, on leave from his position as Olympic minister Knight's media director, agrees.

'The Australian media has a reputation for being one of the toughest and roughest in the world. It has upheld its reputation,' he maintains.

Finally, there was resistance to the idea of a temporary beach volleyball stadium being built at Sydney's famous Bondi Beach, some 10 kilometers from the city center. Community anger turned into large protests. Alternative beach venues were suggested but SOCOG dug in deep and refused to shift its position. A deal whereby the beach's iconic community pavilion, which sits proudly on the sand, would be refurbished with Olympic money was finally accepted by the local Waverly council, but public meetings on the issue have continued. Protesters unsuccessfully attempted to impede initial construction. Now, some four months down the track, the 10,000-capacity stadium has been completed and public acceptance appears to have grown. SOCOG assumed management of the site a little over a month ago until the end of the games.

What can be done now?

All these snafus have prevented the Sydney Olympics from truly getting its PR engine going.

Experts like Richard Cashman, director of the Sydney Center for Olympic Studies, which promotes academic research on the Olympics, will tell you that all Olympic Games travel through a cycle: from the coziness of the initial bid, when public support hovers around the 90% mark; to the long, hard work in between, including site construction and a period of media 'gloves off' that sees public support reduced to around 65%; to the year-long run up to the games where support peaks again at around 90%. Cashman believes that the Sydney games have followed this pattern except that the PR blunders prevented the move back up to 90% until the last month or so.

For Milton Cockburn, the final verdict is always going to be shaped by the early days of the bid. 'The big problem you have from a media point of view, I suppose a PR point of view, is that you have extraordinary naivete on the part of a bid city when it wins the bid,' he offers. 'It doesn't really know what it's swallowed. I'd have to say that nobody, including the organizing committee, really understands the size of the monster that you have invited to your birthday party.'

Says Kathy Melocco, a specialist in events reputation management whose company works with the City of Sydney Council on its international city program: 'The secret to managing reputation of an event is to go up front strongly with a positive issue that you want to lead with and to come up underneath with the next positive issue so when the first one peaks you've got the next one going and the messages keep flowing. And that hasn't happened in Sydney.'

Yet, these communications catastrophes seem to indicate even larger image issues.

'Sydney seems never to have been able to find a voice, it's never been able to find a theme or something that resonates with the public,' says Ed Hula, a journalist with Radio 2UE who is covering his third Olympics.

'And about the time they needed to settle in and find something like that, the IOC crisis struck. From then on, instead of being able to get people excited about Sydney, they were protecting the games, saying they were unsullied by the corruption. Even before that they were plodding about - they didn't have a professional PR approach to the media. The result has been that it's not been a great public image of the Sydney Olympics, or not a powerful image of the games as they could have had.'

Melocco, of Global Communication Strategists, concurs. She believes that the ticket scandal, for example, grew from the lack of a good communications strategy in general. 'I think the fundamental problem lay at the very top of SOCOG initially and the lack of understanding of what PR is,' she says. 'It's not media relations only. There's been confusion about spin versus good communications strategies.'

Indeed, SOCOG today employs some 200 people in its media division - a mix of fairly inexperienced PR people, former journalists and new college grads. These recruits can answer media inquiries but they are not long-term PR strategists. It is the Sydney Olympics' lack of PR expertise that frustrates working journalists like Ed Hula.

'SOCOG has zippo in the way of PR professionals, (unlike) the way Atlanta was set up,' Hula says. 'Everybody who worked in press relations in Atlanta was a PR person. So I think that Atlanta did a much better job in handling PR questions, image questions. What they seem to be lacking is a professional who is in a position to really work with the overall SOCOG image.'

Hula and other critics suggest that the handlers of Olympic minister Michael Knight, a career politician, have been more concerned with his image than with the image of the games. 'Michael Knight's minders are in the business of marketing a political image, but they are out of their field when it comes to corporate PR, which is what the Olympics are all about,' Hula says. 'I think a corporate-trained PR staff probably would have done a far better job of managing the crises.'

Brian Finn, from Edelman's Sydney office, who represent various Olympic sponsors such as Visa and UPS, says that 'one of the general issues everybody has been confronted with is that the other problems associated with the run up to these Olympics has affected the success or otherwise of a lot of PR initiatives.'

The Olympic Transport and Roads Authority (ORTA), for instance, has the massive job of convincing Sydneysiders (residents) to leave their cars behind during the games and of persuading people not attending to change their work and traveling routines. It has required a huge communication campaign over the past five years for which ORTA has been awarded national and state PR awards.

Still, 'there's no doubt that the (Salt Lake City and ticket) crises took the focus away and has made it more difficult to get the message across as effectively,' says Paul Willoughby, who heads up ORTA's Corporate Affairs and Communications Division.

Aboriginal protest

And SOCOG has yet to fully confront its biggest PR challenge. Aboriginal leaders have made it clear that they will use the 2000 Olympics as an opportunity to draw media attention to their cause. In response, SOCOG decided early on to adopt a policy of political inclusiveness. It set up an indigenous liaison group (NIAC) comprising some of Australia's most respected and prominent indigenous leaders. Up until recently it was thought that this group had the ear of Olympic minister Knight, advising him on a range of issues that ensured proper indigenous participation and representation at the games. NIAC was also assisting Knight with the administration of the significant Aboriginal cultural pavilion being set up on the Olympic grounds.

But in a complete about face, last month Knight awarded the contract for the pavilion's administration to a group called Metro (Metropolitan Land Council), which had also been delegated the leaders of the official Olympic protests at a meeting of all the 118 NSW indigenous land councils.

The deal is that the venue will not be used for demonstrations. Has SOCOG bought off protest?

'Yes, there's no doubt it has,' says Richard Cashman.

But there are a lot of different indigenous groups in Sydney, with a corresponding number of indigenous protest sites and tent embassies are being set up in the city. It's still too early to judge how effective the Olympic movement will be in cushioning an effective relationship between indigenous activists and the international media.

The implementation of a 'crisis media management program' to deal with negative stories about the environment, the ozone and Aboriginal issues has been a SOCOG priority since the bid win.

To this end, the off-site Sydney Media Centre (SMC) was formally opened a month ago to service the 5,000 unaccredited journalists expected to visit Sydney. This is the first Olympics at which reporters without access to the main Press Centre will have an official place to work. In Atlanta there was concern that many of the negative stories after the bombing came from the unaccredited journalists, who were not briefed by officials.

The Sydney Media Centre hopes to dissipate the potential media impact of political protests.

'I think there are some who regard it as a propaganda center to push out key state and federal messages,' says Jane Sloane, the SMC's general manager. 'But unless we've got appealing spokespeople, personalities and some kind of sexy drawcard, we're not going to have too many people sitting around. They'll be bored and walk away, so we've got to be really careful in ensuring that what we're providing at the center is relevant and appealing rather than ensuring that we're meeting some bureaucrat's brief.'

Some would argue that it has been the involvement of too many bureaucrats that has unnecessarily politicized the PR strategy of SOCOG. Others think it's too early to mark SOCOG's performance on a scorecard.

'We can't be judged until the games actually happen,' says Paul Willoughby.

'Only then will we know that the outcome of our communication strategy has been successful.'

'The interesting observation from a reputation management point of view is that the ring brand is incredibly strong to have withstood the scandals that have been bombarding it from one end to the other,' says Kathy Melocco.

'How it survives in the end, well, that will come out in the wash up.'



Age: 52

Olympic organization: Sydney Media Centre

Budget: Adollars 6.5 million (USdollars 3.8 million)

Position: Media director

Responsibilities: Will brief all international and local media on a daily basis on on-going Olympic news

Started with Olympics: Joined media center August 2000; for previous five years was Olympic minister's media advisor

Previous position: Worked as a journalist for 30 years

Quote: 'The crisis for preparation is week in, week out, month in, month out - a roller-coaster ride of issues management. That's exactly what putting on the games is all about.'


Age: 50

Olympic organization: SOCOG (Sydney Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games)

Budget: Adollars 12 million (USdollars 7.1 million)

Position: General manager of media, Sydney 2000

Responsibilities: Oversees two divisions: Media Information and Press Operations, including the administration of the Main Press Center at the Olympic site

Started with Olympics: 1997

Previous position: Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald

Quote: 'The biggest challenge for me is to repair the public image of SOCOG after the ticketing mistakes of last year.'


Age: 37

Olympic organization: Sydney Media Centre

Budget: Adollars 6.5 million (USdollars 3.8 million)

Position: General manager

Responsibilities: Oversees the administration of the first media center for unaccredited press in the history of the Olympics

Started with Olympics: 2000

Previous position: Director of her own events business, Big World Australia

Quote: 'I think the biggest challenge is managing the IT needs of the center. These are really the first Internet-driven games. Keeping people happy, not just the media but the stakeholders, is also important.'


Age: 42

Olympic organization: ORTA (Olympic Roads and Transport Authority)

Budget: Adollars 10 million (USdollars 5.9 million)

Position: Director, corporate affairs and communications

Responsibilities: Communicates to the public the temporary transport regime being introduced during the three weeks of the games, including a ban on all cars to Olympic events

Started with Olympics: 1997

Previous position: Communications advisor for the NSW transport minister

Quote: 'There is no set benchmark for what is success or failure for transport for the games, it is matter of perception. Different people will make different judgments.'

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