The arrival of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Evaluation Commission on 16 February will see London 2012 pull out all the stops to show the capital in the best possible light.
It is 144 days until IOC members convene in Singapore to vote on which city will host the 2012 Games, but next week will see the Evaluation Commission – just 13 all-important individuals – spend four days in London to pore over details of the city’s bid.
The Evaluation Commission has already been to Madrid and, after four days in London, will then move on to inspect the three other cities still in the running (see below).
PR plays a crucial role
London 2012 comms director Mike Lee says the right PR strategy will be ‘crucial’ during the visit of the Evaluation Commission, which will be presented with proposals ‘behind closed doors’ in an undisclosed London hotel; visits are also lined up to key potential sporting venues.
IOC regulations limit media access during the visit, but journalists will get regular briefings and access to both key venues and senior figures in respect of each of 17 key themes such as security, legacy and transport.
The period will bring a ‘massive’ branding campaign, with flags and banners in 2012 colours all over key sites in London – shouting the now-familiar slogans ‘Back the Bid’ and ‘Make Britain Proud’.
The Evaluation Commission will be ‘out and about, picking up the mood of London, reading the papers’, adds Lee. His PR team has ‘good news’ stories ready to go.
London 2012 has, by consensus, generated mostly positive coverage so far, but a front-page article in The Observer 12 days ago was surely a blow to morale (the paper quoted an unnamed member of the 22-strong London 2012 board as saying Paris was certain to win). London 2012 bid leader Lord Coe was later said to be ‘incredulous’ at the report.
Denis Campbell, who wrote the article, says it has been a ‘hell of an achievement’ to keep the British press largely on-message for so long, with dissent largely confined to sports columnists rather than entire sports desks. He says Coe and Lee have been ‘quite assiduous’ in currying favour with the national press, taking sports editors for lunch and keeping correspondents 'well serviced'.
But David Welch, the former Daily Telegraph sports editor who was instrumental in driving the paper’s support for London’s bid, believes London 2012 has spent too much energy attempting to win round brickbats (‘who may not even be persuadable’) instead of encouraging supportive media to stick with the story.
Daily Telegraph sports writer Sue Mott concurs, saying she has found the London 2012 PR team ‘mixed’ and she ‘hasn’t had one call with a proactive idea [for a story] from London 2012.’
Despite the buzz the visit of the Evaluation Commission will create, the IOC’s visit is just one juncture in a campaign that will run right up to the decisive 6 July vote.
PR-wise, Campbell says the priority for Lee’s team is to ‘maintain the impression, both at home and abroad, that London has a fighting chance of winning’.
He believes PR will have ‘no influence at all’ on the Evaluation Commission, which, he says, will focus on – and ‘pull apart’ – technical aspects of each city’s bid.
Lee, too, acknowledges that the bid will be ‘won or lost on the international front’ and that the road to Singapore will see more emphasis on the international media.
Sports journalist Mihir Bose agrees that the international media will become all-important, saying: ‘You can contain bad stories nationally but not internationally. The influence of the British press [on journalists overseas] is immense – and these negative stories get picked up.’
Although London has, by consensus, done well to emerge as a realistic bidder for the games, Paris remains the bookies’ hot favourite to win.
Campbell says the Paris bid is strong on all technical aspects (existing stadia and transport, for example), so proactive PR has been ‘less important’ for the French capital.
Bose, who believes the race is ‘very difficult to call’, praises the PR team behind the Paris bid: ‘All their leaders speak English – they are much more in tune with the Anglo-Saxon press for this bid than in the past, and much more media-focused.’
Both London and Paris share the need to convince the IOC that their entire countries are backing the bid – and continue to campaign in this regard.
Jerome Lenfant, director of media relations for Paris 2012, says PR activity has aimed to shore up support across France but that the focus of the city’s PR work will increasingly turn to the international media.
A fighting chance
Robert Phillips, co-founder of consumer agency Jackie Cooper PR, says he hopes the London bid team still has the ‘oomph to run the last stretch’ and that ‘it has more in its PR armoury that will really blow people away’.
Phillips is one of many, though, who points out that the underlying problems London faces – such as shoddy transport reliability – cannot be saved by even the best PR.
But can London win? Welch says: ‘Of course London can win. A lot
can happen in the next five months – either “for London” or “against Paris”. In some ways, being second favourite at this stage is better than being in the lead.’
How the Evaluation Commission rates London next week will be crucial – but whether its bid will end with the wide-eyed joy of Kelly Holmes at Athens 2004 or Paula Radcliffe-style tears at the same Games will only be known for sure on 6 July.
The cities/PR firms battling it out
City Odds Agency
Paris 2-5 Weber Shandwick/Jon Tibbs Associates
London 3-1 Hill & Knowlton
Madrid 6-1 No PR firm
New York 14-1 Rubenstein Associates
Moscow 33-1 Burson-Marsteller/The Willard Group
Odds supplied by Ladbrokes and correct as PRWeek went to press