Bringing the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
CEO

Bringing the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing

Only July 13, Beijing was selected as host city of the 2008 Summer Olympics. According to USA Today, Beijing won “because of an aggressive and sophisticated public relations strategy.”

Paul Holmes

Only July 13, Beijing was selected as host city of the 2008 Summer Olympics.  According to USA Today, Beijing won “because of an aggressive and sophisticated public relations strategy.” Reuters said Weber Shandwick’s formidable PR effort was “Beijing’s secret weapon” in its successful bid.
 
In planning for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing’s bid committee realized human rights issues had played a pivotal role in its losing the 2000 Olympics to Sydney. Securing the Games would mean influencing 124 IOC members, as well changing public opinion of China on the world stage. In an unprecedented move, the bid committee looked to outside expertise and retained the services of WSW in January of 2001, just seven months before the IOC was due to pick the winning city.
 
Goals and objectives:
 
The ultimate goal was to win the Games for Beijing. WSW’s objectives were to first prove that Beijing had the technical capacity to host the Games successfully; cleave the human rights concerns from the Beijing bid in the minds of opinion leaders; and position the bid and the Olympics as a means of further engaging China.
 
Strategy:
 
WSW organized a team of 50 from offices all over the world led by SVP Mike Holtzman. An inspired choice, Holtzman had served in the Clinton administration as public affairs advisor to US Trade Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, who had negotiated eased trade restrictions with China. Beijing’s Olympic bid mirrored earlier debates over trade: Would the international community support Beijing’s bid because they knew it would drive change in China? Or, would China’s critics prevail, further isolating it from the international community?
 
If  WSW could de-link short-term political controversies from the technical and historic merits of the bid, demonstrating to the IOC not only China’s capacity to host the games, but also a roadmap of societal progress should it win, Beijing’s bid would be compelling. Moreover, it could tap into the existing debate over whether “engagement” was preferable to “isolation”
 
A WSW team conducted a message summit with Chinese officials—in itself a first. Four fundamental messages evolved: China did indeed have the communications technology and infrastructure necessary; China had made great environmental strides rivaling those of the West; the Olympics are Intended to bring the fraternity of sport to the world—including China; and hosting the Olympics would inevitably improve China’s human rights outlook.
 
The messages would be derived using a two-part media strategy: First through influential third-party endorsers and then amplifying those same endorsements through the media.
 
Tactics:
 
WSW identified and secured third-party endorsers expert in key areas: technology and infrastructure experts who could talk about Beijing’s ability to host the event; environmental experts who could address the great strides China was making; sports marketers and athletes impassioned about the value of sports in achieving positive change; and finally statesmen, politicians, influencials and academics committed to the engagement argument for advancing human rights.
 
To leverage the third-party endorsements in the media, WSW employed a combination of pro-active and reactive techniques. WSW secured interviews and appearances with major broadcast and print media. WSW also wrote and placed Op-Eds and by-liners. Global media monitoring and soundings identified valuable reactive opportunities that served to broaden the debate.
 
WSW also developed a viral e-mail campaign that delivered and reinforced key messages to journalists, opinion leaders and influential sports figures on a regular basis. The e-mails were built on a rich environment platform including text, audio and video each addressing key issues.
 
WSW also publicized several special events in Beijing. During the IOC’s Evaluation Commission’s site visit to Beijing, WSW developed and presented a message of the day for each of their four days of the evaluation. Other events Included a showing of paintings by Charles Billich, world-renowned Olympic artist; the signing of the first Chinese basketball player to the NBA; a gathering of former Olympians in Beijing; and a concert by the Three Tenors in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
 
Weber Shandwick worked to promote Beijing’s bid in Africa, Australia, Asia and Latin America. These markets were crucial to Beijing’s bid because of their concentration of IOC members and because Beijing was a favorite among fellow developing countries. In Europe, Bell Pottinger, e.sp implemented the PR program. Bell Pottinger and the Europe program were coordinated and managed by Weber Shandwick Worldwide. The PR effort included daily media monitoring, strategic counsel, and development of press releases, events, and endorsers, resulting in favorable coverage and political support.
 
On May 15, the IOC released its preliminary report on the five cities in contention: Istanbul, Paris, Toronto, Osaka, and Beijing. Of the five, Istanbul and Osaka, while not eliminated, were found wanting. WSW, anticipating a tactical media opportunity, was ready to capitalize on Beijing’s place on the short list by positioning it as a victory. WSW staffers were waiting in the hallway with a release that built on the groundswell of support for Beijing. The media sprinted with the story.
 
WSW continued to build on the IOC’s implied endorsement with continued proactive and reactive media relations focused on separating the human rights issues while underscoring the engagement argument. During this period, several important news pieces were placed containing endorsements by key supporters. In addition, endorsements from key members of Congress silenced many critics Washington. And a statement from the White House was right on message: “Politics should be separated from sport.”
 
Efforts continued in Moscow where WSW’s team worked closely with the media to include the third-party endorsers. A major story in the Moscow Times on the day of the vote included three key endorsers and trumpeted the engagement argument (see below). The piece was read by IOC officials as they ate breakfast on the morning of the vote. Beijing was named host city just eight-hours later. Upon victory, WSW drafted a positive statement read by the Mayor of Beijing and released to the thousands of media present and to outlets around the world. 
 
Results:
 
Beijing was selected as site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The engagement argument had prevailed over isolation. Now that it is under the government, the emergency agencies, the military, the hospitals a geopolitical debate.
 
On an industry level, WSW had affirmed the efficacy of public relations as a tool that can positively influence global discourse and harmony. Of WSW’s efforts, USA Today noted: “Beijing won because of an aggressive and sophisticated public relations strategy that played to sentiment within the IOC that the Olympic Movement can help transform China.” Reuters added: “Weber Shandwick’s formidable PR effort was Beijing’s secret weapon in its successful bid.”
 
Key Placement:
 
Media coverage of Beijing’s bid was prolific: billions of impressions were calculated. Importantly the coverage shifted over the course of the 8-month campaign from negative in tone,  ascribing to Beijing “long-shot status,” to saying the bid was a sure thing, and even better, a good thing.
 
Well representing the key placements obtained by Weber Shandwick was a piece written by Alan Abrahamson of the Los Angeles Times. Weber Shandwick was working to promote the concept that a Beijing Olympics was consistent with current US-China engagement strategies. After a trip to Beijing and phone calls with our most important endorsers like former US Ambassador to China James Sasser and renowned Berkeley China expert Orville Schell, Abrahamson wrote a piece on this specific issue. The story was picked up subsequently by Reuters and eventually—critically—landed on the front page of the Moscow Times on July 13th, the same day of the IOC’s vote at their summit in Moscow. Read by IOC voting members at breakfast, the piece was a prime, possibly decisive media placement in the contentious campaign.
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