Olympic Q&A: Mary Griswold

Mary Griswold has been working on Olympic programs since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She spoke with Alexandra Bruell about what makes Beijing a thoroughly unique experience.

Mary Griswold has been working on Olympic programs since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She spoke with Alexandra Bruell about what makes Beijing a thoroughly unique experience.

How does your experience working on past games differ from your experience working on the games in Beijing?
Every [Olympics] really brings on a new challenge because the Games take on the personality and the life of the local host country and the market that the host country is in.

Beijing really is such a different Games than any… we've ever seen or any Games we will likely see looking forward. The magnitude, the expectations, the attention— this is really unsurpassed so there's a whole new set of challenges that have arisen.

What are some of those challenges?

Many clients have invested a significant amount of money into the Beijing games with a primary focus of tapping into the Chinese marketplace, and the Chinese marketplace is extremely vast. From a marketing challenge you have to be really focused and strategic in how you're going to use the sponsorship for your business objective in China.

How does that affect the PR that you're doing?

We've worked closely with our [Edelman offices] in China to create communications programs that are specific to the marketplace. China is at a different level in its evolution of [PR] and how that works [with] the media in that marketplace because you still have government-run media. But now there is an influx of social media and outlets that are a bit more on the free press side of media.

The way PR and communications is done in China is very different from the US and really other parts of the world. When we first started working on it, it was a real learning curve for many of the PR professionals who were based outside of China to be able to understand how to best implement a communications program in China. For instance, press conferences are really very key and critical in China, and having the right government partner standing next to you at the press conference and endorsing your program is really critical to getting media coverage in China. Whereas in the States, maybe 10 years ago, a press conference is how we did things but now we look much more creatively on how to get the news out there.

So what have you learned from working on all these Olympic programs?

I think the Olympic Games are really an amazing platform for sponsors and developing communications programs. The one thing about the Olympic Games, and especially as we look at the Beijing Games, [is] it's an incredibly cluttered marketplace. You have this class of Olympians, former Olympians that are being utilized for different programs; you have activations that are happening on the ground; and you have ambush marketers that are also very smart about creating programs that appear to be leveraging the games, so as a PR professional you have to be really strategic and really think ahead about how am I going to get coverage in this environment when a bulk of the media are really there to cover the athletes and the competition on the field of play. You're really working with media that are there to cover the color of the games, so how do you strategically create and implement your programs that are going to be relevant to the media when you could be holding an event that is extremely media newsworthy but there are three other events going on at the same time. I would say that navigating the clutter is a real challenge, and if you can do that, you can win, and I think there's always the unexpected that happens at the games that you need to be prepared for.

I think it's really important to look beyond the 17 days of the games and I think the best programs are those that leverage the Olympic movement, the Olympic platform, really in the year or two leading up to the games. If you just focus on the 17 days you're really missing out. The best programs are those that are simple and support existing business objectives and existing brand equities versus trying to create something totally new and different that doesn't align with the business objectives.

How are these games going to change the future of the Olympic Games, and how will that in turn affect how you do PR for Olympic games?
Well I don't think the Beijing games are going to change Olympic games. Beijing games are kind of special unto themselves because of the marketplace, because China is using these games as their coming out party to the world. I think what's really been fascinating is how these games are so different from any other games, and it's not business as usual. You have to really take into effect the different factors that these games present, the different opportunities these games present.

How do you balance all this travel and the time difference with your work for other clients?

You just do. It means really working around the clock because when you're ready to go to bed in Beijing, New York is waking up, so you probably end up working a full day in Beijing and a half day in New York. It tends to work out, but you don't get a lot of sleep.

Name: Mary Griswold

Title: GM of the sports and sponsorship group

Agency: Edelman

Olympic clients: GE, Johnson & Johnson, and 24-hour Fitness.

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