CAMPAIGNS: Vancouver bests all challenges to win 2010 Games

A rocky road was just one reason Vancouver's 2010 Olympic bid was...rocky. But by answering each IOC and media concern, the city won the Games.

A rocky road was just one reason Vancouver's 2010 Olympic bid was...rocky. But by answering each IOC and media concern, the city won the Games.

A simple image of a road is often used as a metaphor for an athlete's arduous journey to the Olympics. For Vancouver, the notion that there's a road to the ultimate competition took on a different, more literal meaning as the city's hopes to host the 2010 Winter Games were almost quashed at the start by the shortcomings in the scenic artery that leads to Whistler, where the events will take place. Deemed insufficient and potentially unsafe by many, the Sea to Sky Highway was long regarded as the Achilles heel of Vancouver's otherwise strong bid to grab the Games. A huge transportation project would take care of that, but more obstacles loomed, not least the Vancouver mayor's call for a referendum on the Games. Communications played a major role in the resolution of all of these issues because the hopefuls, forbidden from direct lobbying, had to use the media to reach the International Olympic Committee members. To assist in shaping a bid that would best efforts by Salzburg, Austria and Pyeongchang, South Korea, Vancouver enlisted the help of Brown Lloyd James (BLJ), whose Mike Holtzman and John Gans had Olympic experience in the form of their work in helping to win the 2008 Summer Games for Beijing when the pair was at Weber Shandwick. Holtzman and Gans helped spearhead an aggressive campaign that was able to turn the bid's impediments into strong points. "There was a massive international media campaign to keep the pulse of the thing alive all the time, but it was the ability to look at weaknesses and turn them into strengths," says Holtzman, an EVP at BLJ. "Every time there was a weakness identified, it was somehow turned into a strength." Strategy As Gans explains it, there are two crucial messages that need to be conveyed about a city that wants to host the Olympics. The first is the message that the city has the infrastructure to accommodate not only the athletes and events, but also the throngs of people that will come to watch the Games. The second is a broader, more intangible story about the city's brand, what Gans, an assistant VP, calls "a bigger picture." In Vancouver's case, that bigger picture was simple: Vancouver is trustworthy, honest, and eager to be part of Canada's proud Olympic heritage. "The image," says Andrea Shaw, VP of communications for the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation, "was that if the IOC would lend their brand to us by allowing us to host the Games in 2010, we would not only achieve what they want, we would indeed make the brand better." The primary message about the city's infrastructure was about as complicated as the city's branding was straightforward. The road problem and plebiscite - ordered after a similar referendum dashed Bern, Switzerland's Olympic hopes - both stood as potential PR debacles, but both issues were eventually turned into victories. Tactics To tackle the insufficiencies of the Sea to Sky Highway, the Bid Corporation brought in transit experts to develop a solution, which would eventually be presented to the IOC's Evaluation Commission. The committee would later approve the plans, but Holtzman and Gans didn't stop there. They enlisted a Spanish engineer to look over the plans, and his approval was recorded in an exclusive interview with the influential Olympics publication Around the Rings. The referendum was an even more daunting prospect. No city that put its Olympic bid to a public vote had ever won. So when Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell decided he wanted to gauge his constituents' feelings, the bid effort got worried. "When plebiscite came out, Austria was still going very strong and Pyeongchang was gaining speed. You had the situation where everything was up in the air," Gans says. After an intense get-out-the-vote effort, the bid won, with 64% voting in favor of hosting the Games. Much as with the road, BLJ capitalized on this by taking the mayor on a European media tour. "We felt we had settled the public-support issue through both the independent polling and the IOC's polling," Holtzman says. "We didn't need to go to the streets to test that, but once we did, by shifting the debate from a test of support to a demonstration of support, we effectively turned it into an advantage." Next, the task of handling the dispersed community of journalists who cover the Olympics was split. BLJ dealt with international reporters, while the Bid Corporation handled the domestic press. The combined PR effort met both positive and negative developments aggressively, with press releases and conferences. For instance, when a TV camera picked up an Olympic official's comment that the controversial highway was too long, BLJ organized an impromptu press conference for more than 150 journalists where they heard the official voluntarily rescind the statement and explain that he'd been misquoted. Regular outreach to the media and other influencers was also a key part of the campaign, and an important component of that effort was e-mail, one of the few ways to reach IOC members directly, in addition to media, business leaders, and prominent figures in the sporting world. "You're allowed to maintain a website, and if the e-mails are launched from the website, it's legal," Holtzman notes. "It's a gray area in the sense that these kinds of communications are permitted, but you still must be discreet and restrained." These e-mails, with text, photographs, and Flash movies, were meant to introduce the city to those who hadn't been there. "It was just a regular update, but it gave them access and links to all kinds of things in Vancouver." Results The e-mail effort recently won an award from Strategy Magazine, the Canadian marketing publication, but the real laurel was the final three-vote victory that will bring the 2010 Winter Games to Vancouver.

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