8. India’s Commonwealth Games Organising Committee
Bedevilled by poor planning and infrastructure issues, the run-up to India’s Commonwealth Games took a turn for the worse when journalists began reporting on the shoddy state of the athlete accommodation. Matters were compounded by a string of poorly-judged comments from India’s CWG Organizing Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi, amid mounting evidence of rampant corruption. “Eventually, Kalmadi’s brand was so damaged that he was constantly heckled when making remarks at the CWG Inauguration – a real low point in a series of low points that plagued the event and its run in,” says Fleishman Hillard Asia-Pacific SVP Tarun Deo. While the Games ultimately passed of without incident, a comprehensive fraud inquiry is underway, and Kalmadi has been sacked.
“The CWG made several strategic mistakes from a communications stand point. It clearly lacked an overarching strategic communications plan as well as a strong crisis plan, which for an international event should have been thought through up front,” says Gutenberg PR CEO Harjiv Singh. “This showed when instead of proactively leading a communications effort they ended up being reactive once the negative stories broke.”
Kalmadi’s efforts, and those of other spokespersons, were particularly harmful, and the absence of strategic PR counsel was glaring. “The Organizing Committee did appoint a PR firm in a move that sought to provide a competent communications structure and some degree of professionalism in this area both in India and Internationally but like it was with everything else to do with the Games – they were poorly managed and directed and were not allowed to do the job they were hired to in the first place,” says Deo.
Bayley points out that the Organizing Committee also erred in its engagement of athletes and officials. “The organizers needed to focus on maintaining the trust amongst atheletes and officials so that this community could be used as advocates to bring some perspective into the media reporting.”
“Clearly, the one lesson that the Indian government needs to learn is that communications is an important part of governance and it requires professionals to train and manage this function,” says Singh.
Bayley adds that the Games only served to reinforce international perceptions of India “as having huge potential, but struggling with the level of planning, organisation and disciplined execution required to make a success of this kind of high profile event.”
The calamitous nature of its public relations also calls the Games’ sporting legacy in India into question, despite the impressive performance of several Indian athletes. This, says Deo, will be “little remembered”.
“In the end the CWG suffered from the deluge of negative sentiment that drove unfavourable reportage and the search for even more unsavoury ‘news’ material/angles to write about. Bottom line – very little sporting legacy.”
Concludes Singh: “Even though the CWG ended up being a lot better than the perception that was created, the majority of people who did not attend it will always view it as a disaster. Perception is reality and the government needs to do a lot better at managing the country's reputation.”
9. BAA and the Blizzard
When snow storms engulfed London during the peak Christmas travel season, Heathrow airport came to a virtual standstill. As the UK, and indeed Europe’s, most important travel hub, this was bad enough. Even worse were the scenes of chaos that dominated news coverage: families sleeping on floors, a lack of food and water, and the erection of unheated tents to cope with overspill. All of this occurred while other European airports appeared to cope considerably better with even worse conditions. Ironically, the crisis struck while BAA was reviewing its corporate PR support, currently handled by Finsbury.
Woolfall, who was at Terminal 3 as the saga unfolded, believes that “BAA hid”. “BAA failed to provide passengers with information. This was the single most complained about issue. People can be surprisingly patient in a crisis if they feel they are being kept in touch with what’s happening. At Heathrow it was radio silence.”
Instead passengers had to rely on online news sources, including Twitter, to glean information and vent their own frustration. “But the most ludicrous move was not to allow Sky and other broadcasters – running the story 24/7 – into T3 to film,” says Woolfall. “Why stop them? What was the point and what do they do instead?
They ran mobile phone video that made the airport look like a war zone and BAA churlish for ‘banning’ them.” The contrast with Gatwick Airport, which took to the airwaves to proclaim the success of its investment in snow-clearing equipment, was profound.
Woolfall uses the Gatwick comparison to demonstrate how a brand should behave in this situation. “Gatwick invited the media in to see the snow ploughs on the runway and repeatedly talked about the millions it had spent on them.
Its spokesman was accessible; he had clear and compelling messages and, critically, Gatwick managed to create the impression of a company that was in tune with its customers’ concerns and on their side.” “BAA’s response to the crisis could have been an opportunity to show it was working flat out to help resolve matters and show a human side to the brand and the company,” adds Woolfall. “It missed a trick and other brands should learn from this.”
Specifically, Woolfall points out that brands must test their crisis plans regularly, media train staff to deal with hostility and ensure social media engagement is proactive. “If hundreds or thousands of your customers are tweeting about you, it doesn’t take a genius to realise your clients need to be on Twitter.”
While the overwhelming majority of the coverage of Wikileaks’ massive data dump of U.S. embassy cables focused on the political and diplomatic fallout, several of the leaked cables involved information about corporate activities. There were claims that Pfizer had dug up dirt of the Nigerian attorney general to avoid an investigation of the company’s clinical trials in Africa, and that BP had experienced an unreported incident—similar to the Gulf of Mexico disaster—in Azerbaijan. And Wikileaks has already published material relating to the Swiss bank Julius Baer; the Kaupthing Bank in Iceland; and Barclays, JP Morgan and the Toll Collect Consortium in Germany. Now there is speculation that Wikileaks is about to publish embarrassing material about Bank of America.
Analysis: While business has, for the most part, not been the focus of Wikileaks’ attention, it is clear that digital and social media have made whistleblowing easier, and more potentially damaging, for corporations as well as for governments.
In a Forbes interview, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said about half of the unpublished material that Wikileaks possesses pertains to the private sector, and suggested: “Wikileaks means it’s easier to run a good business and harder to run a bad business, and all CEOs should be encouraged by this.”
According to Richard Levick, who runs crisis specialist Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, DC: “From a business perspective, a salient point is usually lost: that while credible forensics is wise and necessary, those initiatives – without more -- comprise a defensive strategy. To win this game, you need an offense as well. In fact, the entire WikiLeaks saga offers both a lesson and opportunity for businesses to permanently fortify just such an offense-based arsenal, not just for similar leaks but in most attacks in the Internet age.
“By ‘offense,’ we do not mean a concerted attack on Julian Assange and his colleagues. Let government officials here and abroad handle that. We’re talking instead about a well-integrated campaign to seed the marketplace with ongoing positive messages that effectively defuse or at least diminish the impact of anything that may be disclosed in the months ahead.”
Levick’s analysis of search engine optimization reveals that “WikiLeaks and its progeny entirely control the conversation. There are no BoA messages to be found when the search is WikiLeaks related. It is long past time for BoA and others to see the Internet not just as an opportunity to control the conversation on the brand, but in crisis, litigation and public affairs.”
“If the WikiLeaks story proves anything,” says Levick, “it’s that there is always a WikiLeaks lurking, be it an NGO or a plaintiffs’ lawyer or a regulatory agency. Every moment of silence is therefore a call to arms, and a decisive advantage once the inevitable war begins anew.”
Adds Stuart Smith, who heads the corporate practice at Hill & Knowlton in London: “The conversation around Wikileaks (in relation the private sector) that fascinated me the most was a side issue really: the whole debate around defensive domain registration. “Anecdotally, the approach of various companies to this issue varies with some aggressively buying up variations on domain names such as ‘Ihateyourcompany.com. Bank of America received large amounts of coverage for apparently buying up a wide range of domain names. Commentary raged about the wisdom of doing this or indeed whether they were just the victims of unfortunate timing.
“Some called this practice ‘prudent brand protection’. Others called it a largely futile gesture. After all, no matter what domains are bought, it’s a red rag to a bull for a campaigner who can always find another caustically amusing phrase which will be just as damaging as those the company sought to suppress. Maybe it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”