The upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing have sparked protests across the world. For sponsors and other companies, though, the event is a powerful opportunity to connect with China.
All politics, as legendary Massachusetts politician Tip O'Neill said, is local. Even, one might add, a global event like the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing.
For consumers of Western media, the Beijing Games are likely associated with protests by activist groups over Tibet's political status or human rights in China. But what Western consumers may not realize, according to many China-based PR executives, is that the Olympic spirit is truly alive in China itself. That means sponsorship can deliver big payoffs within the country.
Save Darfur and other activist groups have labeled the 2008 Olympics, running from August 8-24, the "Genocide Games." And some groups have pressured sponsors to withdraw, but that's not going to happen, observers say.
"Our view is that global sponsors that stay the course in China will actually get a greater benefit and commitment from the Chinese people than those who pull out," says Greg Paull, principal of Beijing-based marketing consultancy R3. "[Also], most of the deals for sponsors are through to 2016 or 2020, with huge penalties for pulling out, so doing [so] is not really commercially viable."
That doesn't mean, of course, the West's reaction or interest in the Games is of no importance. Many sponsors, of course, see the Olympics as an opportunity to promote themselves worldwide, so they have to care about bad press oversees. Lenovo has sought to use its sponsorship of the Olympics to build its global brand.
Protests in Western Europe and in the US against the International Torch Relay have certainly put Lenovo, along with cosponsors Samsung and Coca-Cola, in a tough position.
"We continued to emphasize what we believe is the key message of the Games: being a force for peace in a time of trouble," says Bob Page, program director for Lenovo corporate communications. "[The Olympics] are not a three-day event, not defined by protests in two cities. They are much longer-term brand-building activity... Olympic Games are a sporting event about supporting healthy competition and a real quest for excellence and innovation, despite some degree of protest."
The spirit of the games
Such delicacy in dealing with political issues has been the hallmark of the corporate and Chinese government's response to protests. Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in China, whose clients include UPS and Adidas, notes that messaging by sponsors and their PR representatives generally aims to steer away from discussions of politics and toward "the business and spirit" of the Games.
"What our clients have been trying to do is tell the broader story about what is going on here and sticking to what they know best: their areas of business focus and their focus on the Games," he says. "Not one of our clients, nor any of the sponsors I know, got involved in the Games for any political purpose. Yet they can play a role in the progress that is underway in China by the mere fact that these sponsors are working in China and they are interacting with officials every day."
The latter point, that interaction with Western business fosters political change within China, is another subtle but key emphasis of corporate messaging in response to the political issues. David Ko, Waggener Edstrom SVP and MD of its Asia-Pacific office, notes sponsors can't expect to avoid political criticism.
"The key tactic many sponsors have employed to stay clear of the controversy is to be on message about the separation of politics from the Olympic ideal of celebrating the human spirit," he says. "Yes, this could be perceived as corny and naive, but it is important to note that it is a belief sincerely held by the majority of Chinese across the diaspora."
But apart from skirting the political questions, successful sponsorship campaigns tend to mirror the business expertise of the sponsors, notes R3's Paull and other China-based PR and marketing executives.
McDonald's sponsorship communications focus on the company's key demographic, families, with a global campaign to send up to 300 kids to Beijing to live with the athletes, see the Games, learn about Chinese culture, and meet other kids from around the world. With this and other campaigns, communications always seems to focus on idealistic values of sportsmanship and education.
So too has been the focus of communications by both the Chinese government and the government-run Beijing Olympic Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) in response to political criticism. Like the corporate sponsors, though, the government seems to prefer to keep its reaction minimal rather than confrontational.
When UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would not attend the opening ceremonies, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he might boycott them, too, and Steven Spielberg quit his role of artistic advisor for the opening and closing ceremonies. To all these, the typical government comment went not much further than expressing "regret."
Hill & Knowlton, which announced its selection in April 2006 as a "communications consultancy" to BOCOG, declines to discuss what counsel it has provided to the committee on torch protests or any other political issues.
"Our role includes overall communications planning and counseling leading up to the Games, monitoring global media coverage, organizing and executing media trips to Beijing for international journalists and opinion leaders, and enhancing BOCOG's media relations efforts and management," the agency notes in an e-mailed statement.
But how has the government actually reacted to the protests? Ko says it seems to have not made much, if any, of an official response. In fact, when younger people in China began organizing protests and boycotts of Carrefour and other corporate symbols of France, following protests in Paris by activist groups in support of Tibet, the government even sought to retrain protesters.
"The government has definitely taken the high road," Ko says. "[It has] been calling for calm and trying to maintain civility. The idea is, 'Let's not feed the frenzy.'"
The effort to restrain nationalist fervor against perceived criticism of China - as foreign criticism of the Chinese government is widely perceived as criticism of the people, insiders say - is effectively part of the government's overall message, notes David Wolf, president and CEO of Wolf Group Asia.
"The police were not cracking heads, but sitting down with people and saying, 'Is this the impression you want to make, that we don't tolerate foreign opinions?'" Wolf says. "The government has learned a lot over the years about appropriate responses."
Ogilvy's Kronick, whose team has served on occasion as consultant to various Chinese government officials on international public affairs issues, describes the initial government reaction to the Western protests as one of surprise. However, he adds, in the overall reaction by the government (restraint) and by the Chinese citizenry (outrage), the Chinese surprisingly seem to have come off better in the international PR battle than one might assume.
"I had a professor tell me that he thought the winner in the PR battle against China was China," Kronick says. "He said the Chinese [appear] united and what's most important to the Chinese of all things is stability. One thing China has been doing all along over the course of the past seven years is work to tell [its] story better. [And since] the crises over the food export issues, [it has] been trying to communicate more openly and transparently."
For companies or organizations involved in Olympics-related sponsorships, the Sichuan earthquake tempered criticism of China's political issues quite a bit. Nick Wheeler, GM for Ketchum's Beijing office, which works on behalf of sponsors McDonald's and Lenovo, among other clients, says the earthquake and the generally well-regarded response by the government to the disaster may have as big an impact on world opinion of China's government as the Olympics.
"I think the [political issues] have been tempered by the disaster in Sichuan, and in some ways I think the disaster may actually be as much of a defining moment for China this year globally, for the [generally speedy and transparent] way the government has handled it," he adds. "Certainly the earthquake has put a much more human face on China. It will have as much impact as the Games, showing China in a very different light."
Enthusiasm inside China
While the earthquake may have dampened more overt displays of enthusiasm for the Games within China, observers say the interest and support by the Chinese remains as high as ever. That means the opportunities for sponsors to build brand awareness and support within China, home to more than 1.3 billion consumers whose income has been rising rapidly as the country's economy grows, remains as solid as ever.
Indeed, whatever the opinion of consumers in the West about China or the Olympics, PR executives note that the benefits of reaching China during such a high-profile event far outweigh any potential liabilities they may face in the West for being associated with the Games.
"If your priority is penetrating or gaining visibility within the Chinese market, and that is the absolute overriding driver for your sponsorships, then despite controversies [abroad], you could say you've accomplished some of that goal if you've accurately assessed what would be the reaction in China," says Paul Johnson, vice chairman and head of Fleishman-Hillard's public affairs practice.
Given the emphasis within China on "social harmony" and unity, large-scale events such as the Olympics or associated events are a particularly good way to reach consumers.
For example, Porter Novelli affiliate Shunya International recently began work with music producer Rick Garson on a new international concert series called Global Harmony that will debut at the Games. Major concerts, featuring the likes of world-class sopranos such as Cecilia Bartoli and Sumi Jo, will be timed to coincide with major events at the Olympics, broadcast worldwide, and, of course, will provide various opportunities for associated corporate marketing.
China's inherent nationalism means the government has not had to launch any campaigns to get citizens excited about the Games. Rather, public outreach efforts have focused on ways the Chinese can put their best face forward to the world.
These include a "Blue Skies" campaign in which, among other things, a huge number of cars will be kept off the streets during the Games to minimize smog; campaigns to stop spitting, littering, crossing the street against traffic lights, and other "anti-social" behavior typical in any big city; and a public education effort in schools and elsewhere teaching spectators the official Olympic cheer (two claps, two thumbs up, another two claps, and then a fist raised into the air).
Of course, neither the government nor the corporate sponsors can control the news or what people say about them. Johnson says that for companies involved in international sponsorships of the Games, the sudden turn in the tide that the earthquake created for the Chinese and its perception in global media is a good lesson in remembering to expect, and plan for, the unexpected. In part that means building "equity" in one's reputation.
In the case of the government, its relative transparency in communicating about the Sichuan earthquake may have allowed China to bank some of the world's good will. Foreign media and the world at large will watch closely to see if the government's conduct during the Olympics adds or subtracts to that investment.
Building good will
For companies doing business in China, the good will of the Chinese people and the government may be of greater and more lasting importance than any impact in the West from political protests.
"In Chinese, we have an idiom that says you shouldn't 'grab Buddha's legs in an emergency,' which means quick-fix solutions in times of crisis rarely work," WE's Ko says. "The deposit of good will for many international companies operating in China must be built up over time. Companies that have had a presence in China for decades and have a positive track record of engaging with the Chinese authorities... will have an advantage."