Olympic Mettle: Reflections of PR Students Turned Reporters

October 31, 2016

[courtesy of unc]
[courtesy of unc]

Three PR majors were among a group of 25 in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who were invited to serve as “flash quote” reporters for the Olympic News Service (ONS) during the 2016 Summer Games.

The students provided quotes from athletes and coaches to a news site managed by ONS, a unit of the International Olympic Committee, which is accessible by the media for preparing articles, social media posts and broadcast reports.

Senior Lindsey Sullivan aspires to work for a New York PR agency upon graduation, and senior Olivia Ross, a double major in economics, hopes to find an investor relations position. Sophomore Kiley Burns works with the university’s football program and would like to be a professional sports executive someday (ideally the NFL commissioner!).

Olivia covered water sports, including rowing, canoeing, sprint-racing and kayaking. Kiley focused on wrestling, fencing and taekwondo. And Lindsey was on the gymnastics beat.

Upon returning to campus for the fall semester, I interviewed the women about their Olympic experience with an eye toward gleaning millennial observations, insights, criticisms and suggestions — particularly from a PR perspective.

What are your thoughts about how the athletes and coaches were supported by PR professionals in their interactions with the press?

Kiley Burns: To my surprise, the PR professionals (called press attachés) were extremely helpful in facilitating communication with the athletes. Each country had its own press attaché for each sport, who would come to the media “mixed zone” once his/her athlete finished competing. I covered sports that do not receive much attention, so I found that athletes were open to talk to the press, provided they either spoke English or we had a translator.

Lindsey Sullivan: In gymnastics, only the most famous and talented athletes were escorted by press attachés. The attachés would show the athletes who to talk to, and would move them from one reporter to the next after they felt that they had answered enough questions. The American women’s team had many PR people working to support them as they walked through the mixed zone, whereas some foreign athletes would walk through quickly with no questions asked of them.

Olivia Ross: It was difficult to secure interviews with athletes with histories of success or from high-performing countries. These interviews had to be requested, either through a country’s press attaché or the ONS mixed-zone manager. Successful athletes from smaller countries were far easier to talk to; Croatia had three rowers, all of whom medaled, and zero PR professionals.

Do you have any advice about how athletes, coaches or even nations could improve their communications and relationships with media?

OR: Prior to the games, Brazil was under international scrutiny for issues such as Zika, violence, water pollution and government corruption. Although these issues were seldom a problem during the games, the Brazilian government should have communicated this instead of simply not addressing it, which created unanswered questions.

KB: Rio taught me that staying silent is not always the best strategy, especially when hosting the largest event in the world. When I got to Rio, I was pleasantly surprised by how stable it was. A mosquito did not bite me once while I was down there, but every time I searched for Rio before going there, Zika was the primary topic.

LS: Some teams did not alert the media that they would be refusing interviews. This was the main tension I saw, as we would set up our questions and materials, only to have the athletes walk right by. Working with and letting the media know about the athletes’ willingness (or not) to do interviews could have improved some teams’ media relations.

How effective were sponsors?

OR: On Copacabana Beach, Samsung had virtual reality (VR) headsets for the public to try out. Skol, the most popular beer in Brazil, was available for about $4, and fans received their beer in a commemorative Olympic cup. Each cup had a design representing a different sport, which prompted spectators to collect a cup for each of the 28 sports.

KB: Coca-Cola was everywhere. They had workers who would come dressed in Coke gear and replenish each venue multiple times a day. People also traded Coca-Cola pins — a great way to reach out to people throughout the city. Samsung did an effective job targeting people outside of Olympic Park; their VR simulation outside of the beach volleyball venue always had a line. Samsung focused more on the general population, not just ticketholders.

How do you think the image and reputation of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil were impacted by how the Summer Games were handled?

LS: Although Rio and Brazil faced negative media attention before the games, in the end they pulled them off with few to no issues. I actually think the Ryan Lochte scandal may have been good for them in a way, because after he admitted his story was a lie, it highlighted the relative safety of the games. No athletes were harmed, and no one contracted the Zika virus.

KB: Every time I told someone I was going to Brazil, the first thing they said was, “Don’t get Zika.” No one thought Rio was ready to host such a major event. The first time I saw Olympic Park, not one of the venues was completely finished. I wondered how Rio was going to pull it off. Once the games started, however, everyone forgot the negative coverage and focused on the sports.

OR: Rio was able to pull things together at the last minute and prove globally that the 2016 Summer Olympics were not the catastrophe many expected. That being said, there were several instances where Rio’s ill-preparation was evident in terms of construction gaps and organizational issues. The Brazilian citizens proved to be an invaluable PR tool in combatting this; volunteers and workers made Rio a welcoming place to be.

What are your thoughts about how Ryan Lochte, the U.S. men’s swimming team, his sponsors or the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) handled themselves following the gas station incident?

OR: Lochte’s actions were an insult. Brazil suffered from an onslaught of negative media attention, especially in the United States, and worked to combat these perceptions throughout the Olympic Games. I applaud Speedo and Ralph Lauren’s swift reaction in dropping him. By disbanding their contracts, these two companies separated themselves by demonstrating his values and actions weren’t representative of their brands or missions.

KB: Ryan Lochte is a PR nightmare. He and the other swimmers could not have handled the situation any worse. I would have advised Lochte to come clean immediately after the story broke (once he sobered up, of course). He still would look bad, but at least it would have shown that he could take responsibility for his actions. I also would have advised issuing a public apology that showed some semblance of remorse.

LS: Rumors swirled around the Olympic media villages after the night of Lochte’s alleged robbery. We went days without knowing what had happened, and if Lochte’s team had advised him to confess immediately, the damage to his sponsorships and swimming career may have been less. I think his suspension by the USOC was the right decision. If Lochte and his fellow swimmers had come forward together the next morning and taken the blame, the situation would have certainly gone differently.

Richard G. Clancy III, APR
Richard G. (Rick) Clancy III, APR, is the Edgar Thomas Cato Distinguished Professor of Public Relations at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. Email rickc@email.unc.edu.

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