Crisis communications on the world's biggest stage

With all eyes on Sochi, there is no bigger stage on which to promote your brand. Conversely, there's also no bigger stage on which to expose your brand to crisis.

In Sochi tonight, tables are set – and tickets are purchased – for C-suite executives of top sponsors to entertain their most important customers and clients. Spare-no-expense venues are ready to give attendees engaging experiences with the world's most prominent brands, and hopefully they have working hotels to return to at the end of the day. And, of course, the sponsors are working overtime to secure business and deliver a return on the massive investment that comes with top sponsorship.

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in the final stretch, a lot was written about whether the city and the Russian government were prepared to handle the unexpected. They have a significant responsibility to ensure the games are safe and enjoyable for spectators and athletes. Sponsors, too, have an enormous task in front of them as they plan to manage the inherent risk that comes with arguably the world's most visible sports sponsorship. Against that backdrop, here are three guidelines for effectively managing crisis communications at the Olympics:

1. Accept that real-time becomes hyper-real
During the 17 days of the games, the 24-hour news cycle goes into hyper-drive. Having thousands of journalists on the ground means increased competition among news outlets who all want “the scoop,” driving thousands of opportunities to dig up controversy or report hearsay. Under the spotlight of the games, there is always news to be written around the world. Even more than usual, misinformation gets reported as fact in the rush to deliver news first. For this reason, brands must kill rumors quickly and, most importantly, deliver information in a flash if a crisis strikes. This means decision-making needs to be even faster. 

Brands are well-served to assess all issues and have decision-making authority on site – not back at company headquarters many time zones away. This allows for incidents to be triaged and dealt with immediately. Taken together, in-depth real-time social listening, response, and analytics efforts ensure the right audiences get the right information during a crisis. Further, technology platforms like SharePoint, Basecamp, and others can be customized to allow for real-time collaboration.

2. Leverage the crisis communications infrastructure to tell the proactive story
Some companies are hesitant to invest in crisis planning for sponsorships because they believe it's an expense against which they may never see a return. But the Olympics stage is too big. Pairing proactive, opportunistic storytelling with a crisis communications workflow takes advantage of rapid response built into the system, and can be well worth the relatively minimal investment. 

For example, our agency designed an on-site media command center for a client during the 2012 Olympics in London that allowed complete integration between issues management and crisis response and traditional public relations teams. This central command was also connected to our 24-hour listening and engagement centers to capitalize on news opportunities in key global markets. This infrastructure was critical. On the proactive side, we used it to spot positive storytelling opportunities for a global audience. From a crisis mitigation perspective, the system allowed us to spot activists planning a protest outside a major hotel, and we were able to inform authorities in time to prevent disruption to spectators – and protect our client's brand.  

3. Use employees as eyes and ears
Often, the best warning of the unexpected can come from one of the hundreds of staff members working for sponsors at the games. Operationally, significant effort goes into giving these employees instructions to put on the best show for customers and clients, but crisis communications planners can use them to great advantage to spot developing threats and emerging issues. Giving employees a way to contact communications staff directly – and creating a decision making infrastructure to support it – can be an effective early warning system, buying precious time enough to activate the crisis management team.

Ultimately, the massive investment that comes with being a top sponsor can be effectively protected for relatively minimal cost. Building an on-the-ground system that leverages the speed of the 24-hour news cycle and pairs crisis communications with proactive public relations efforts can lead to major reputational gains, even if – as we hope – there is never a crisis to manage in the first place.

Josh Morton is director of issues management and crisis response at GolinHarris. He spent 17 days on the ground in 2012 at the Summer Olympic Games in London.

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