Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sponsorship training of Olympic proportions

Guest blog by ANTHONY WESTENBERG, account director, Palette PR

When I was working in Amsterdam as the global communications manager for Randstad, I had the honour to represent my company in the Public Affairs Task Group, established for sponsors of the Dutch Olympic team to share ideas and map out a common communications strategy for our participation in Beijing.

Our first meeting was a roundtable discussion about our motivation for supporting the Dutch athletes. We all had similar goals: associating with top performers, striving for perfection. However, during the coffee breaks, the sponsors quietly asked about the other companies’ business presence in China. Though unspoken, I think we all wanted to be reassured that none of us had any skeletons lurking in the closet.

Then we held a brainstorm session identifying issues and scenarios that could happen in China - from an athlete pulling out a Tibetan flag at the opening ceremonies, to corruption, censoring reporters and major human rights infractions. We categorized each as either ‘within’ or ‘outside’ our influence.

An ‘outside our influence’ example would be the chosen location of the games (an IOC decision); while our sponsor support focused on the athletes themselves. For this reason, we felt it would have been misguided for a group in the Netherlands to boycott the products and services of sponsors on an issue outside of our control; such as pollution in Beijing.

Our group drafted talking points and helped provide some athletes with another form of training: how to handle media interviews. We were careful not to tell them how they should comment about the various issues swirling around China, from pollution to child labour.

Perhaps the IOC chose China with the idea of encouraging change from within. The spotlight on China will hopefully encourage their government to become more open while also showcasing China to the rest of the world.

With Canada taking centre stage during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, I wonder what issues sponsors will discuss on the peripheral rings of the global soapbox. The field is open: from doping to Aboriginal engagement to the environment.

Regardless, I am assuming that there will be a platform for sponsors to meet and exchange ideas/experiences in preparation for a peaceful, transparent and sport-filled extravaganza.

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