ANALYSIS: Olympic rules pose bid PR challenge

International Olympic Committee rules on bidding for the Games limit what PROs can do to aid London's cause. Does that mean the bid process will be a PR-free zone? Far from it, says Andy Allen.

Nine years before the 2012 Olympic Games are set to open, some of London's finest PROs will soon be engaged in an Olympian contest of their own, as they seek to promote the capital's newly launched bid to host the event.

Exactly who will form London's team for this particular showdown will be apparent within an estimated ten weeks, when the company being set up to mastermind the bid is due to appoint a director of comms and stage a pitch for external PR support.

What is clear already, however, is that among the opponents will be New York, Paris, Leipzig, Madrid, Havana and, possibly, Moscow. Exactly who goes on to become official candidates (London is widely expected to make the grade) will be decided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in July 2004, while the ultimate winner will be announced in 2005.

The IOC's control over the process means that London's PR strategists will be primarily seeking to influence a very select target audience.

British Olympic Association (BOA) media manager Philip Pope, who has looked after the campaign so far to persuade the Government and key stakeholders to back the games, but will shortly take a back seat, says: 'This isn't a popularity contest among the world at large - the only people who matter are the 126 members of the IOC.'

Two failed campaigns by Manchester and one from Birmingham caused the BOA to look long and hard at what was required for a successful bid.

Feedback from IOC members showed that no British city apart from London was considered big enough to hold a modern version of the games.

And there are lessons to be learned from those failed bids. Manchester City Council head of press Janine Watson believes one thing the city learned from two unsuccessful bids, before its winning Commonwealth bid, was to ensure that stakeholders agree key messages early on and stick to them.

In Manchester, there was massive public backing for the bid. A survey by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport puts current backing from the British population for London at around 80 per cent. That may sound high but, according to John Tibbs, who worked on Beijing's successful 2008 bid while at Bell Pottinger (he now runs Weber Shandwick partner Jon Tibbs Associates), national figures need to be around the mid- to high-80s, with local figures in the 90s, to match previous successful bids. London's rival Madrid, for example, claims 100 per cent support.

Surely this is nothing that can't be fixed by massaging and interpreting the figures? Once off the starting block, London's finest PR agencies and Governmental communicators can make sure surveys show huge enthusiasm among the populace, while all the time lobbying the famously high-living IOC members, sneakily briefing against rival cities and hosting lavish press junkets.

Not quite. Rules have been tightened since the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City in 2002, and the new rules have been designed to ensure a fair fight.

For starters, government figures on public backing will need to be verified by IOC third-party polls. Also, to level the spending playing field IOC delegates cannot be directly lobbied and are banned from visiting host cities except as part of a small, organised tour. Any bidding city is banned from comparing itself to another. Candidates are not allowed to promote their bid internationally during the applicant stage and, even after being declared a candidate city, are limited in what they can do. Paid-for media trips are also forbidden.

Does all this tie the hands of the PR teams? Not according to Tibbs. He agrees IOC delegates hold the key, but points out that many members are subject to influence from domestic audiences such as sports bodies, governments, media and athletes. Besides, some of the 126 delegates are more influential than others.

Tibbs is slightly more worried about the rules prohibiting paid-for media trips - which was considered a useful factor in bringing doubters round in their view of Beijing - as the more cash-strapped media outlets may be unable to visit candidate cities.

But overall he is phlegmatic, pointing out that the bid offers a great challenge for London's PR community - especially as above the line communications will largely be ruled out from the start.

Freelance comms consultant Mark Dolly is another PRO with bidding experience, having worked on the unsuccessful San Francisco campaign. His advice is not to overlook the importance of the final audio/video presentation to IOC delegates: 'When you're up there and really pitching, it can make a big impact.'

Dolly says that, while the playing field has been levelled, London's position as a huge media centre will give it an advantage compared to many rival bidders - particularly given the disproportionate influence of its cross-border media, such as the FT.

With various stakeholder groups set to be lobbied as a way of influencing IOC members, bid PROs will be kept busy in the months and years ahead.

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