MEDIA ANALYSIS: A chance to reach the world's media

Steven Spielberg's resignation as an adviser to the Beijing Olympics has given charities a platform to voice their concerns over China. Clare O'Connor reports.

In the spotlight: Mia Farrow
In the spotlight: Mia Farrow

When Steven Spielberg stepped down as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympic Games, the media instantly focused their attention on one of his fellow Hollywood stars, long-time political activist Mia Farrow.

The actress's charity, Dream for Darfur, was suddenly catapulted to the top of the international agenda as Spielberg said he had resigned because of China's alleged complicity in the Sudan crisis.

Dream for Darfur, however, is not the only pressure group gaining mileage from Spielberg's announcement. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and a handful of NGOs and charities have found themselves in the media spotlight as the story unfolds, with savvy comms teams using the games as an avenue for highlighting their respective agendas.

Human Rights Watch, for instance, immediately followed Spielberg's announcement with a PR offensive, hitting international headlines with a plea for Olympic corporate sponsors to use their leverage to force China to change its policies.

As the August games draw nearer, the UK's major news outlets have appointed special Olympics correspondents, who will report on what is likely to be an increasingly politicised event. The BBC poached Evening Standard journalist Adrian Warner for this role in May 2007. Warner has covered 10 Olympic Games, starting with the 1988 event in Seoul, when he worked for Reuters.

'My role is for BBC London, so I'll cover Beijing, but relate it to challenges London will have,' says Warner. 'How have they handled security? Accommodation? Drugs testing? What about transport challenges and logistics?'

Warner adds that while Spielberg's resignation provided an obvious opportunity for charity PROs, he has been in regular contact with such organisations long before the director ended his involvement.

'I receive regular emails from various NGOs, such as Free Tibet and Human Rights Watch,' he says. 'It's my view that more information is better than less in terms of PR approaches. That said, I'm not sure I want to receive thousands of emails a day.'

Warner will be one of 150 BBC envoys covering Beijing, joining the broadcaster's producers, technicians and web correspondents for the event.

The Corporation has faced government criticism for the high cost of sending its contingent to China, with Commons culture, media and sport select committee chairman John Whittingdale claiming such a large number of journalists undermines efficiency.

The BBC is not the only media outlet with dedicated Olympics reporters. The Times recently appointed Ashling O'Connor to cover the games (see box), and the Evening Standard's Matthew Beard has taken over from previous correspondent Ross Lydall.

Beard's remit focuses on the sporting events themselves - an area that PROs have been quick to embrace. Sportswear brand Adidas has already taken advantage of media interest in its sponsored athletes.

Press officers have been inviting journalists to Q&A sessions with the world-class track stars paid to wear Adidas clothes, including two-time gold medallists Haile Gebrselassie and Maurice Greene. As O'Connor notes, this sort of access to athletes is crucial for sports journalists covering the Olympics.

Public sector bodies are also keenly pushing their regeneration messages; the host borough for the London 2012 Olympic Games, East London's Newham, has a dedicated team of PROs targeting the media as the area undergoes a radical overhaul.

Media manager Debbie Ashford and her press office team have been churning out press releases on topics as diverse as the design of the 2012 stadia and the Newham Sports Academy's latest judo champion.

Time to prepare
As the Beijing Games approach, comms teams from NGOs are planning media briefings to ensure that UK correspondents understand their respective platforms before descending on China. Amnesty International is teaming up with freedom of speech activists Article 19 and PEN to present a journalist workshop, planned for May.

'We've produced a 21-page brochure for the media, setting out Amnesty's position,' says press officer Steve Ballinger. He adds that a whole host of media outlets have now shown interest in Amnesty's work that may not have listened before. 'We were heavily involved in a Mail on Sunday cover story, and we've had limited success with them in the past,' he says.

Ballinger denies that charities such as Amnesty are politicising what is essentially a sporting event. 'The key thing is that China honours the promises it has made in terms of human rights. We aren't bringing politics to the Olympics; we want it to go ahead successfully.'

Ashling O'Connor, The Times' Olympics correspondent

'My brief is to co-ordinate our Olympics coverage from the Beijing Games through to London 2012. The Times would not create this position were the Olympics not coming to London; that is always in the background.

We haven't had a politicised Olympics since 1992, with the African issue (post-Apartheid South Africa was readmitted after a 32-year ban). If Beijing is highly politicised, there will be a hangover effect that will hit London.

I will be in Beijing for the month of August. The Times has about 10 press accreditations, so we will have general news reporters, sports writers and probably an editor on the ground. Because of Spielberg's decision, I found out about Mia Farrow's organisation Dream for Darfur.

Its press team has been good about keeping me up to date on what it is doing. It wants to keep the issue in the spotlight, and the Olympics is its vehicle.

I am happy to hear from anyone who has a good story, although I am not interested in product placement. The sponsors are trying to justify their investment, and they are very sophisticated in their handling of the media. All sports journalists want access to the athletes, and often this is achieved through their sponsors.'

Journalists who are specialising in Olympics coverage

-- Ashling O'Connor The Times 07824 821 0000

-- Adrian Warner BBC London 020 7208 9240

-- Matthew Beard Evening Standard 020 7938 7670

-- Helen William Press Association 020 7963 7174

-- Martyn Herman Reuters 020 7542 7933

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in