Olympic sponsors navigate through protests

BEIJING: Protests in London, Paris, and San Francisco have marred the Olympic Torch Relay events and fueled the continued politicization of this year's Games in Beijing.

BEIJING: Protests in London, Paris, and San Francisco have marred the Olympic Torch Relay events and fueled the continued politicization of this year's Games in Beijing.

The protesters have attempted to stop the relay to call attention to China's policies in Tibet.

Torch relay co-sponsor Lenovo is actively responding to media inquiries on the issue, while also keeping “key stakeholders informed, communicating directly with customers, business partners and employees,” said Reid Walker, Lenovo VP, global communications and sponsorships, via e-mail.

The computer manufacturer is emphasizing that in spite of the demonstrations, a large number of people turned out to support the relay, Walker said, adding that any sponsorship requires a long-term view.

“While it's disappointing to have seen some of the activism disrupt the relay… the Olympic Torch Relay is not a three-day event,” he said. “It is a 21-city, international relay followed by more than 90 cities in China.”

Lenovo hired Ketchum for PR related to the 2006 Olympic Winter Games and the 2008 Beijing games, but the firm was not contracted to address issues regarding current events, Walker said.

Various government leaders, including presidential-hopefuls Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) joined the fray, calling on President Bush to boycott the Games' opening ceremony.

The PR firm representing Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), Hill & Knowlton, said it could not comment on its strategy for addressing the controversy or other topics related to the games. Paul Taaffe, CEO of H&K, added that his firm has stressed groups' right to protest, but that using the Olympics as a political platform is inappropriate.

A representative of the BOCOG said the 2008 Summer Olympics will change China in a positive way.

“I think the Olympic Games is a great public awakening, and having this interface with the international community [is positive],” said Jeff Ruffolo, senior expert in BOCOG's media center.

Meanwhile, a major agency CEO with knowledge of the Chinese PR environment confirmed a Financial Times April 4 report that undisclosed parties representing China's interests were meeting with PR firms to bolster the country's reputation prior to the Olympic Games. He would neither confirm, nor deny whether his agency took part in discussions.

The source said he did not expect China to hire any of these firms, referring to it as a “Western bake-off” for ideas to discuss internally.

“Everything I've heard [is that China is] gathering information from a variety of PR agencies, taking it internally, and debating [whether the advice is] a wise course of action,” he said. “It's way too late in the game to put an agency in place.”

Multiple other global agency CEOs contacted by PRWeek denied they had spoken to the Chinese government. Taaffe, for one, said H&K did not speak to the Chinese government, nor had any plans to represent it.

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