Tokyo strategy bucked trend in winning 2020 Olympics

Nearly a week after the International Olympic Committee picked Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympic Games, communications executives are reflecting on the city's bid to stage the event.

Nearly a week after the International Olympic Committee picked Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympic Games, communications executives are reflecting on the city's bid to stage the event.

Global communications experts say that Tokyo effectively explained what winning the Olympics would mean for its city and Japan in securing the 2020 summer Olympics, which are scheduled to take place nine years after a tsunami and nuclear disaster devastated the country.

More than 1,200 dignitaries and Olympic athletes gathered at 5am local time on Saturday outside a convention center in downtown Tokyo to hear the news. Also celebrating was Weber Shandwick, the key firm for the Tokyo 2020 bid for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Interpublic Group agency was hired last summer to support Tokyo's overall communications strategy, and it approached the work looking to prove itself after the city was unsuccessful in its efforts to obtain the 2016 Olympics.

Communications experts say Weber and Tokyo were able to win the games because they better conveyed why the event should take place there, instead of other cities.

“There's usually a lot of promotion speaking about the specifications of a city and the things it will build if it wins, without telling the committee why the games should be staged there,” explains Michael Payne, a communications consultant and former CMO for the IOC. “For the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro was really the only city that spoke about what it would mean to them.”

Industry experts agree that Tokyo strongly weaved together a narrative of how winning the games would be a godsend as the country continues to recover from the deadly tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster at the Fukushima I nuclear power plant in March 2011. Estimates indicate that hosting the 2020 games could lead to positive economic effects of more than $40.4 billion and create more than 150,000 jobs.

The city's selection bucks a recent trend of the IOC awarding the Olympics to markets that had not previously hosted them, according to Svetlana Picou, SVP and head of the global Olympic practice at Weber.

“There has been, and rightly so, a desire to go to new markets to give the opportunity to a larger number of countries to host the games,” she said, noting the recent selections of Beijing; Sochi, Russia; Rio de Janeiro; and Pyeongchang, South Korea.

In addition to a strong strategy, the successful London 2012 Olympic Games may have helped in the IOC's decision to return to Japan, which previously hosted the Summer Games in 1964 and the Winter Games in 1998, she said.

“With choosing Tokyo 2020, the IOC chose a safe and secure games,” Picou added.

However, shortly after news broke of the IOC's decision, another international sporting body expressed regret for perhaps putting too much emphasis on going into uncharted territory with its marquee event. FIFA president Sepp Blatter reportedly said on Tuesday that running the 2022 FIFA World Cup “in the heat of Qatar's summer was simply not a responsible thing to do.” FIFA picked Qatar over bids from the US, South Korea, Japan, and Australia three years ago.

There are no plans to move the tournament to another country, but the body is determining if it is possible to have it during a cooler time of the year.

On the PR agency side, BLJ Worldwide, the firm that provided communications support for Qatar's bid, has been fighting an uphill battle in the press even before Blatter's admission, agency president Mike Holtzman says.

He claims that he has seen “no shortage of outright racism” from outlets in soccer-loving countries that have filled their pages with stories of “Arabs with Arab money stereotypes.”

Holtzman explains that the best way to keep the naysayers quiet is to keep the messaging drumbeat going that the World Cup will have a transformational effect on the region, which cherishes the sport. It is also emphasizing the country will keep its promises to make the event go off without a hitch, which includes building air-conditioned stadiums, he says.

That strategy is a sound one, according to Rick French, chairman and CEO of French/West/Vaughan. He adds that what Qatar is facing is nothing new, as cities picked to host large events usually contend with pessimism no matter where they are. For instance, red flags were raised about security in London before the successful 2012 Olympics. 

“The reality is that at the end of the day, these games always come out fine,” French says. “Host cities find a way to get it done.”

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