The Olympics and Crisis Communications

August 1, 2016

Few global sporting events have the capacity to capture people’s attention like the Olympic Games. This year in Rio has been no different, with the International Olympic Committee predicting that 3.6 billion people around the world will watch some part of the XXXI Olympiad. That is a truly remarkable figure when you consider that it means that one out of every two humans on the planet will tune in at some point. And because of this, the stakes are never higher when it comes to preparing for any issue or crisis that might arise.

In the period leading up to this year’s Olympics, media coverage tended to focus on predictable stories such as construction delays, cost overruns, corruption and risks to athletes from pollution.  Then came Zika.  All of a sudden, media coverage began spiking, and it triggered additional coverage about murder and mayhem in the streets of Rio. Then, in what felt like the perfect media firestorm, media coverage included references to Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff and her impeachment scandal.

Now in the week of the Opening Ceremony, Olympic officials are sure to feel as though they already have been through the ringer. However, it’s likely that this has only been the warm-up. In an era of social media, news travels faster than at any time in human history. When it’s bad news, it travels faster still, resulting in a razor-thin margin of error during times of crisis. While the nature of a potential crisis is nearly impossible to predict, there are several basic principles of crisis communications preparedness that Olympic officials should embrace:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. The first few minutes after a crisis often determine how the story gets played and for how long. This is why it is critical to have a plan in place before a crisis begins. This includes identifying areas of vulnerability, and developing plans, including anticipating questions, determining who is responsible for specific tasks, etc. This crisis “playbook” should include the five most important steps of crisis management: plan, build, monitor, activate, and inform.
  • Transparency builds trust. A perceived “cover up” is almost always more damaging than whatever caused the crisis in the first place. It is unrealistic to expect that all of the information coming in during a crisis will be accurate, and it’s likely that mistakes will be made, even in organizations that have undergone intense preparation. The most effective crisis communications programs understand this.
  • Social media is the indispensable tool for crisis response. Since much of the information in the hours following a crisis is likely to originate on social media, effective communications involve deploying social media tools to tell your side of the story. Refusing to engage on social media to dispel misconceptions and refute false information can be a recipe for disaster.

When managed effectively, crises are quickly forgotten. It is only when communications are an afterthought that the messages from your detractors dominate the narrative. It will be fascinating to find out what people remember when the 2016 games come to a close.


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