OPINION: View From The Top - Alpha communicator

The charismatic chairwoman of the London 2012 Olympic bid team is in upbeat mood, says Gidon Freeman

Barbara Cassani is refusing to have her picture taken. The American chairwoman of London 2012, the vehicle through which the UK capital is bidding to host the summer Olympics eight years hence, is one of the most high-profile senior managers on the UK corporate scene. She has therefore had her picture taken literally hundreds of times in the six years since she shot to prominence as the launch CEO of British Airways's budget airline Go. But, on this occasion, she simply refuses to allow the photographer to set up his shots. When you ask her why, you get the flipside of her famously self-assured charm - a steely look and a (mildly rude) snap: 'No one told me there'd be pictures and I haven't washed my hair. It's not going to happen.' Personally, I can't see why - her hair is immaculate, as is her suit, but she has had her say, and will brook no refusal.

It may have been this headstrong nature that the then BA chief executive Bob Ayling identified as the winning characteristic when he was casting around internally for a boss of his low-cost subsidiary back in 1997.

Ayling, with the BA board, committed £25m to Cassani's launch - eventually named Go - and sold out three years later to 3i for £137m.

Apart from the hair issue, Cassani is the ideal PR-friendly boss, and was an inspired choice to lead, and be the public face of, London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. In Go: An Airline Adventure, the book she published earlier this year, she paid tributes to those in her team who helped build the airline from nothing to a value (when 3i sold it to easyJet) of £374m. She seemed to save the most gushing praise for her PR advisers, James Hogan - a partner at Go and BA's corporate agency Brunswick - and Brandon Stockwell - the creative PRO whose team at Cohn & Wolfe had the unenviable task of putting bums on Go aircraft seats.

Fear of media appearances in early days

Her position as media darling was not always assured. She describes vividly the trepidation she felt when she was first presented to the media, and the learning curve she travelled to be in a position where she considered media slots as opportunities rather than threats.

'That trepidation was sincere,' she says. 'At Go I felt like I was in a jungle with a tiger pit lurking round the corner. There was so much controversy I didn't know what they were going to accuse us of next. The key lesson was that you need something new to say. James (Hogan) taught me to be as prepared and professional as you need to be when presenting to the board. Now I'm relaxed - I never used to do live stuff. I got verbally attacked on air once and just froze with nothing to say. You learn not to make that mistake again.'

Cassani, who leads a surprisingly small team from the rather bland open plan office space on floor 50 of the original Canary Wharf tower, spends varying amounts of time on media relations work. When next week's deadline hits for the first formal submission of London's application to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), she'll spend 80 per cent of that week on PR - the week we meet, PRWeek is her only interview.

Indeed, next week's deadline is a milestone for the hastily assembled team to pass - you can tell they are hastily assembled as each computer terminal has a piece of white A4 stuck to it with the name of who sits there in big bold letters. Beyond that, there is the cut-off point at which the IOC names the shortlisted cities and the deadline 18 months from now, when Cassani et al will either be popping champagne corks, or looking for new jobs.

'The bid is complex because the 125 members of the IOC (who decide on the games's venue) are from diverse backgrounds - some represent sporting groups, others are personal members. A large part of the bid is to win public support since the IOC looks at that, and sends its own pollsters down to gauge, but there is a domestic comms agenda and an international comms agenda.'

One of the things that shines through in Cassani's book on Go, as when you meet her, is the ability to engage staff and external stakeholders with an infectious charm. 'Being a good communicator is at the heart of achieving your goals,' she says. 'If you can't convince people to have the same goals as you, you get nowhere. If you can get them all rowing in the same direction, you can achieve whatever you want - and strength in communications does that.'

This is the key message from Cassani, and it has the homespun and can't-argue-with quality most of her public utterances share. At one stage she says: 'If you communicate the message "do as you would have done to you" successfully to all the relevant groups with a stake in the outcome, it encourages people to feel good about the work they're doing.'

Covering all fronts

The key corporate message is far more complex: 'I would break that down into several categories. There is the domestic agenda, where the message is "we've got a proposal we think can win with both the IOC and the city of London". But there is also the message that London will not be the only beneficiary of the games. The regeneration message (London 2012 promises a boost in investment and infrastructure in London's north east) is huge.

There is already a commitment that regeneration will happen, but if the bid succeeds it will happen faster - in a decade rather than in two. That's the key message to the London boroughs, to MPs, to government.'

On one level, it is quite obvious what success will look like to the London 2012 team - a positive decision by the IOC and disappointment in Leipzig, Madrid, Paris and the host of other applicant cities. But for Cassani, who has an element of the showman about her, there is wider glory in sight: 'The 750,000 who lined the streets for the rugby guys (she still drops in these odd Americanisms), that's what success will look like.'

As for whether Cassani, or indeed any of the other committed and hard-working people working with her on the bid, will be there beyond next summer, that is a different issue: 'I don't know if I'll be here - it's not entirely my decision. July 2005 is the key date - after that the job that is required to be done (and the seven-year gap) may require different skills from the ones I have. I would be very interested in doing it though.'

In short, everything you've read about Cassani is true. She is a life force, full of zest and beans and all those other cliches. She is also, by my guess, capable of being spiky around the office and fairly ruthless.

Given her combative style, I would not like to be on the IOC when she came to explain the London bid. And I wouldn't like to be her hairdresser.

1997: Cassani is picked by the then British Airways CEO Bob Ayling to launch Go

2001: She leaves the firm after then-owners 3i sell it to easyJet for a stunning £374m

2003: Cassani is appointed chairman of the London 2012 bid to host the Olympics

2005: The International Olympic Committee makes its decision on which city will host the 2012 games.


London 2012's communications and public affairs director Mike Lee is putting in place the building blocks of a classic corporate comms department, with a few subtle but key differences.

Lee, the outgoing holder of the same title at UEFA, has divided his team into four units; PR and communications, government relations, community relations and a speakers' bureau.

The first of these teams is the best-resourced by headcount. It is led by Jackie Brock-Doyle, who handled PR during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

It includes, as head of media, Steve Parry, a former Reuters sports editor with a professional history in the Olympic movement - he has served as a media consultant to the IOC.

The government relations function is key, since political support for the bid is one of the things the IOC will take into account when making its final decision on the 2012 host city in May 2005. This team is headed by a former colleague of Lee's at Westminster Strategy, John Zerafa. Community relations, currently staffed by Ayesha Qureshi, but with a team leader appointment imminent, is equally significant, since the support of London's boroughs and the Greater London Authority will be monitored independently by the IOC ahead of its crunch decision.

Finally, the speakers' bureau, to which recruitment is ongoing, will make use of Cassani, bid CEO Keith Mills and Lee in finding platforms to communicate their main messages. It will utilise as 'brand ambassadors' members of the bid board, such as former Olympians Lord (Seb) Coe and Sir Steve Redgrave.

It is a lean team of just ten staff, and Lee insists 'budgets will be watched very carefully'. Despite this, the organisation is limbering up for pitches early next year for advice likely to focus on building public and government support for the bid. At the heart of the bid is a PR challenge, from the factors the IOC takes into account - including public support - to building internal morale for the slender team to push ahead with this massive effort.

A key problem is the limitation on the type of campaigning the PROs are allowed to do: 'The IOC has rules banning stuff done in the past - lunches, visits. It would be a disaster to be disbarred simply because we broke those rules.'

The team had an early brush with these regulations last month, when the Prime Minister's comments in support of the bid at a meeting in Nigeria prompted a complaint from the IOC that he had lobbied in breach of the rules. In the context of this regulatory minefield, it is some challenge ahead.

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