PR Strategies for Olympics Sponsors Battling Negative Media Coverage

There are many lessons that brand sponsors of this year's Summer Olympics should have learned from the previous Games. And just because it's a celebrated global event, brands should not let their guard down in regards to reputation and bad press.

Some of the most important lessons include:

  • Where the Olympics goes, controversy and negative press follows. It makes no difference whether the games are staged in a democratic country or a totalitarian one; negative coverage will occur.
  • Sponsors are are not immune from negative press coverage and should prepare for such. That's because from the moment the host city is announced until the beginning of athletic competitions, media emphasis is not on the athletes, but about issues surrounding the Olympics, many of them negative.
  • Thus protecting brands from association with negative news is now as important, maybe more important to some brands, as gaining positive earned media.
  • And despite their best efforts, PR people cannot always protect brands from being a target of protest groups and negative press. But there are some strategies that might help.

An Historic Olympic Dilemma

In 2021, a Kurt Streeter column in The New York Times said: “Displacements, human rights violations, health concerns and overspending have dogged the games for many years. The Olympic mission is a mess in need of long-term fixing.”

What Streeter wrote has been a part of Olympic history for decades, and possibly forever.

For example:

How Brands Can Respond to Negative Attacks

One might think that in Paris, a democratic country, controversies might disappear. However, media coverage leading up to these athletic competitions is mostly about bribery, moving the site of the opening ceremonies because of terrorist threats and threats of countries boycotting the games because of the IOC's insistence that athletes from Russia and Belarus be permitted to compete.

Brands that partner with the Olympics already know the risks of becoming targets of human rights and other political protests. But history shows they also haven't forged good strategies to respond to negative attacks. The hackneyed, "We just follow the athletes" is a common response.

Here are some suggestions on how brands should prepare and respond to protests groups and negative media:

  • It's essential that Olympic account groups are staffed by a crisis communication expert. However, not every negative occurrence has to be answered. Sometimes the best response to a negative article or a protest group attack is to do nothing and see if it continues.
  • If the attacks do continue, the brand should respond with statements acknowledging that they understand the reason for the protests, but explain why it believes the Olympic Games are a force for good and should be supported. This can include press releases and social media posts, but should always include face-to-face meetings between a brand representative and protest leaders.
  • Sponsors should demonstrate that sponsoring the Olympics does not mean they are automatically dismissing activist groups' concerns. An example of this is allotting a portion of the sponsor’s website for essays from activist groups stating their cases.
  • Sponsors should appoint an ombudsman to maintain continuous contact with activist groups during and prior to the Olympics.
  • Sponsors should publicly insist that activist groups’ peaceful protests in host countries are not stifled by governments.

There are two years between Olympic Games. That should provide more than enough time for PR practitioners to craft two different Olympic programs—one that can be used if things go smoothly, the other if a crisis response is necessary.

Time is short, but there is still time to prepare an “if things turn sour” program for the Paris Games. And if budget parameters prevent you from doing so this year, do one for the 2026 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

Arthur Solomon was an SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations.