The 2008 PR Olympics

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games kick off on Friday in China and most Americans I’ve spoken to couldn’t care less. Even those who I know love the Olympics say they’ll probably watch less coverage this year because of the time difference and their increasingly stressful lives.

I, for one, will be watching a lot of Olympic coverage. I love the events, the athletes and the story behind the people. I like the features on the host country and, yes, I even like the commercials.

Every Olympic games brings challenges to those intimately involved with the event, and this year is no different. Whether it’s the host country dealing with outsiders’ perceived image, sponsors spending millions to attach themselves to an event that could turn disastrous or athletes trying to win gold and a shot at fame, there are thousands of people under the gun right now.

Here is a quick look at who can make it or break it with the Olympics in terms of public relations.

China: With hundreds of thousands of foreign athletes, journalists and tourists in the country, the Chinese government has an enormous task at hand. The government must persuade visitors that the air is safe, citizens have some semblance of basic rights and that the country is moving forward, not sitting still on gains it has made in the world’s view over the past decade. Whether it be Salt Lake City or Athens or Sydney, the potential for failure has always weighed on officials in the host city and country. Playing host to the world is a hefty task and the Chinese government typically fails when it comes to international public relations. Will this time be different?

Activists: The Olympic torch-run through the United States turned into a rolling protest against China’s repression of Tibet and the country’s awful human rights record. Cameras were rolling and protesters were ready, showing up in force and issuing enough press releases to keep any reporter’s inbox stuffed for weeks. But what’s happened since then? The media coverage has waned as issues such as the election and the economy take center stage. The activists get another shot of getting their message across when the games start, and they need to do so in a creative way that doesn’t detract from the inherent patriotism of celebrating American athletes bringing home gold medals.

Sponsors: Nike will have its logo all over athletes and the company is traditionally a heavy advertiser during the games. Nike also sold over $1B worth of goods in China last year, so there’s a lot riding on the Olympics. Controversies over sponsors typically flare up during the games and this year should be no exception. The danger, however, is that this year’s games are the most controversial due to their setting. Sponsors must walk a tightrope to ensure their message gets across while also distancing themselves from the Chinese government, with whom many of them do business.

Athletes: Carl Lewis. Mary Lou Retton. Bruce Baumgartner. Nadia Comaneci. Eddie The Eagle. These are just some of the athletes who used the Olympic games as a platform to fame and fortune, or at least fifteen minutes of fame. Winning gold medals goes a long way to securing endorsement deals and being provided other opportunities, but so does acting with class and decorum. Four U.S. cyclists have already drawn the ire of the Chinese government and the U.S. Olympic Committee by wearing respiratory masks upon their arrival in China. They’ve apologized, but they’re off to a bad start if they wanted to make a good name for themselves.

NBC: My namesake, Ben Silverman, is running the network now and he’s got a lot riding on the games. Via television and the Internet, NBC will be showing over 3,400 hours of programming, much of it at a time when many Americans are sleeping or working. The buzz around the Olympics isn’t as strong as in previous years due to the time difference, geo-political events and the sour U.S. economy. NBC will have not just to bring the story of the games to Americans, but create stars of athletes and write compelling storylines. Best of luck to the man who stole my Google search ranking!

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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