ANALYSIS: PR team limbers up for the Manchester Games - As the launch of the Manchester Commonwealth Games nears, its PR team is gearing up for what could be the city's biggest ever sporting and media extravaganza, says Andy Allen

In just over 100 days a disparate collection of athletes from a range of backgrounds and disciplines will gather to take part in Britain's largest ever sporting event - Manchester's 2002 Commonwealth Games.

In addition, a team that is, by the standards of its industry, every bit as varied is already up and running, communicating the key messages of the Games.

A group of 40 PR and marketing practitioners has been assembled from throughout the PR world for the Games. When the stadiums sit empty after the grand finale on 4 August they will go their separate ways.

The task of making the Games a PR success is, in some ways, not an enviable one. The Sydney Olympics is a hard act to follow and Malaysia's 1998 Commonwealth Games - traditionally the poorer relative of the Olympics - was widely regarded as a damp squib, despite receiving millions of pounds of public funding.

Nevertheless, there are strong signs that the British public is already warming to Manchester's sporting extravaganza. Three-quarters of the one million tickets available have already been sold, potentially making these Games the best-attended ever - on paper at least.

And despite early fears, it looks as if the facilities will be finished on time and on budget.

These facts mean less stressful jobs for head of communications Mike Hales and head of press and media Tina Williamson. Last June, the fledgling communications department was established, with Hales - former head of BBC sports publicity - its only member. Over the past month the final members of the team have been brought in, just in time for increasing media interest.

It is an unorthodox mix that attempts to bring together experience from a range of backgrounds. The ten-strong PR and media team, which forms, with marketing, the two departments that make up Hales' communication division, is led by Tina Williamson. Her background lies primarily in sports sponsorship - she is former PR manager for yachtsman Chay Blyth's Challenge Business vessel.

Her deputy, senior press officer Roz Hughes, brings local public sector experience. Others in the team have backgrounds in B2B corporate PR, broadcast PR and regional and national journalism.

Venue press offices and facilities for the 4,000-plus media representatives expected to converge on Manchester will be run by Bath-based media services specialist Matchtight. And PR for the centrepiece event - the Queen's Jubilee Baton Relay - will be run by Capital PR.

Before Christmas, 90 per cent of Williams' work involved reacting to press enquiries. It is now centred around driving home key messages, promoting Manchester internationally, the Games' role as a centrepiece of the Queen's Jubilee year and stressing the fun and festivities of the Games to appeal beyond hardcore sports enthusiasts.

Since another key message brands this event as 'the affordable Games', it would not be prudent to be seen to be spending heavily on PR and marketing.

Systems are being put in place for crisis management if security or 'doping' issues arise. But Williams admits this is a little way beyond the department's control, with so many other agencies involved.

In the meantime, sponsors are naturally keen to maximise their exposure.

The task is to avoid diluting the brand. It's a case of persuading them that a successful Games will, by default, mean positive publicity for them, says Williamson.

The Times head of sport Keith Blackmore says: 'I've found them to be pretty helpful and quite trusting. We've approached them with a couple of unorthodox feature ideas and they've been good at giving us the access we need.'

He believes the main challenges will come once the Games are underway and it becomes clear how Manchester's infrastructure is coping with its massive influx of guests.

If doping does rear its ugly head, Blackmore believes the office will 'pass that test, if it comes, with flying colours' now that procedures for dealing with such cases are well established.

On a local level, Emily Knowles, Commonwealth Games correspondent for regional TV news show Granada Reports, is anxious that she doesn't lose out to the national stations. She says the team has passed the test so far.

Games CEO Frances Done says editorial columns are the best place to get across the Games' key messages and praises the team's efforts.

It's hard for callers not be struck by the department's evident enthusiasm.

Everything is in place for the Games to be a PR success as much as a sporting triumph. The only uncontrollable factor is, of course, Manchester's notorious wet weather. Then again, Hales and his team are probably working on that, too.

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