Posts Tagged ‘olympics’

When Blade Runner goes blunt

So why has Stuart Higgins packed his bags and taken the long 12 hour flight to South Africa to wrangle one of the toughest PR gigs of the moment? Benjamin Disraeli said “One secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes”.

Higgins is no slouch as the ex-editor of the Sun was. Having first served as Editor, Higgins is the game keeper has turned poacher. He has worked with a number of high-profile figures with great success, most notably in his efforts to humanise Andy Murray.

Some commentators might suggest the Pistorius spill would usually be a job for Max Clifford or a US juggernaut, but I’m not surprised. The job has fallen into the hands of Higgins for a number of reasons: first and foremost is familiarity. Higgins provided Pistorius with PR support for the 2012 Olympic Games, and it appears Clifford may be laying low at the moment. The US megafauna, such as Matthew Hiltzik and Mark Fabiani are probably put off by the budget, and are likely to feel greater psychological separation from South Africa than those in the UK do.

Pistorius’s fall from grace will not be judged by a jury, a process abolished by South Africa in 1969. This gritty, high-profile case will put Higgins’s mark on the international map win or lose. I wish him luck with a very tough gig.

Lacklustre Lance Better Peddle Fast If He Wants to Remain in the Fame Game

Stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and most recently, his Sydney Olympic medal, the only wheels turning under Lance Armstrong right now are those of the press machine. After months of denying the allegations placed against him for doping and being placed under a life ban, Armstrong’s missing the taste of the fame game and has turned to the Supreme Oracle that is Oprah Winfrey to try and redeem his name in a celebrity-bares-all interview.

Obviously, Armstrong has an ambition to try and get back into the public frame. He craves the love of the herd and must be desperate to reinvent this odious legacy. When someone like Armstrong has had such an extraordinary career, they can become addicted to its limelight. He is ambitious, and is already seeding memes about taking part in a triathlon.

Armstrong is currently being held back by a number of unresolved issues. To date, he has kept his head below the parapet, and but for the perseverance of a few dogged and dedicated journalists would probably still be denying the allegations now – like many big brands, Armstrong fell victim to hubris.

Some reports suggest that the Anti-Doping Agency gave Armstrong a chance to plea bargain – a move that could have been one of the most significant moves in the war against drugs that we’ve seen – however – Armstrong seems to have maintained the arrogant belief that he could beat all these charges on his own.

As the crowd have gathered force and the Livestrong campaign has distanced itself from his brand however, Armstrong has had to accept that it’s time to change tack. And change tack he has.

The Oprah Winfrey campaign has been exceedingly well-executed. The interview has been presented as “no holds bound”, with Winfrey claiming to have been “mesmerised” by the interview and to have prepared for it “like a college exam”, bringing over 112 interview questions into the round with her.

In addition to all this pre-release press, Armstrong has the added advantage of having given the interview as a pre-record from his own home. All the props he needs to fashion a comeback are there. The world is watching intently, and the journalists who have hounded Armstrong to date will be baying for answers.

Despite having all the props and the power of Oprah behind him, Armstrong gave a lacklustre first offering. Although this is to be expected in a game of two halves, the confession offered by Armstrong was sterile – offered by a personality that didn’t look particularly full of contrition. He shed no tears and displayed no visible signs of emotion. At times he appeared arrogant and self-contained.

It is time to come clean – but will the exercise reposition him? Who knows.

The PR onslaught is the start of the rehabilitation. Like Chernobyl, he is a voyeur’s toxic attraction. His brand has the radiation equivalent to about 400 Hiroshimas and it’s lonely living in the dead zone. I predict this PR exercise will inch forward and dilute a microscopic fraction of the issues. However, if he hasn’t structured a plan of epic genius, there is more chance of the Russian nuclear sire becoming habitable in the next 5 years.

If Saint Augustine were alive he might proclaim “The media hast made him for thyself , and its heart is restless until it finds its rest in it”. Because the world expected this to be a classic PR exercise the optimised event was indeed a perfect PR pitch. It might not be the best advert for Armstrong and the sport of cycling: the real winner is Mark Fabiani.

Fabiani, lawyer-cum-public-relations-strategist has represented Armstrong since July 2010, when the FDA made its initial investigation into the first doping allegations. With his business partner Chris Lehane, Fabiani has worked the some of the stickiest reputation management issues the world has seen, earning them the title the “Masters of Disaster” for their handling of the Clintons’ reputations in the wake of the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.

Never Mind the Mayans, Here’s the Apocalypse

Whether or not the Apocalypse is approaching this Friday is speculation that I will leave to the Mayans. As life flashes past us, however, the approaching end of year provides a good opportunity to contemplate the changes that have happened in our world over the course of this past year and some of the PR dilemmas generated by a tsunami of negative memes.

As we have been quaffing the dregs of the Diamond Jubilee and delighting in the now-distant memory of the success of Team GB, a strange transformation has been taking place in the celebrity sphere. Celebrity culture has been punctured by the Post-Savilegate Twitter Trials that now drive the media agenda.

Whether we are looking at the names of those implicated in Operation Yewtree or Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell’s scuff with the Metropolitan Police, it is the ire of the crowd that has dictated, and continues to dictate the narrative – and in some cases – the outcome of the story. Where the old vanguard festers in its own corruption, there is growth, but not of the kind we might anticipate.

Where the post-World War Two working class would turn to professions such as boxing, football or music to seek fame upon the Yellow Brick Road, in recent decades we have seen the emergence of people seeking fame for fame’s sake. The value of culture has been undermined by a sugar rush driven by ten years’ worth of reality TV. Further proof of this generational lust for fame and overarching cultural shift came in the form of an interview earlier this week with Rylan Clark, the X Factor’s latest pantomime Dame. In Rylan’s words, “I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be famous. I didn’t know what I wanted to be famous for. I didn’t care. It was about being, not doing.”

But reality TV and Twitter cannot produce the kind of culture we export around the world. As luminaries argue over the future of the Arts post eBacc, they miss the point. The first question we should be asking is why this type of culture has slid so far down our list of priorities. I can point to one word: ‘elite’.

The word ‘elite’ has become a political power word that plays upon British class sensibilities. What we forget is that the word is not always about exclusivity, but about quality – and the UK is in possession of a cultural elite of which it should be proud.

The daring production and creativity showcased in the Olympic opening ceremony was a brilliant example of this, showing that a risky idea could reinvigorate the nation. It reminded us of just what Brand Britain has to offer in terms of quality of thought across all disciplines. Writing about the event, Frank Cottrell-Boyce reminded us of GK Chesterton’s old adage: “The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder.”

I fear that this prophecy might be the actual Apocalypse we are awaiting. While we laud the efforts of our artists and thinkers at a time when the world’s eyes are upon us, we have failed to create the right circumstances to sustain this creativity in the future. The likes of Danny Boyle were supported by a subsidised sector and institutions that many would now consider ‘elitist’.

The fact that these institutions have failed to defend themselves from such criticisms is a PR disaster not only for these institutions, but ultimately, for all creatives and potential creators of culture that we celebrated this year.

Our EU neighbours don’t appear to suffer from the same problem although they too are feeling the bite of the downturn. Where Angela Merkel is frequently seen at the opera and Germany has increased Arts spending by 8 per cent despite spending cuts, in the UK we continue to peel and pare the Arts out of existence.

While we may be able to reduce Shakespeare to 140 characters, we could never get Shakespeare from 140 characters, and though we may enjoy Rylan’s exploits, I don’t think he could get close to igniting the nation in the way Danny Boyle did.

If I could have one Christmas wish, it would be for our politicians to stop being too embarrassed to stand by culture and support it for fear of being branded ‘elitist’. The Arts are for everyone, and nothing embodies this better than the volunteers who worked tirelessly to create the opening ceremony this summer. Unlike the ultra-ambitious fame junkies like Rylan Clark (though he too has his place), they were not chasing Fame for Fame’s Sake, but Art for Art’s sake: for the people, to be shared by all.

In a world driven by the Twitterati, I can only hope that we start to see some real support for – and investment in – the Arts. If we run away from away from our cultural heritage, what will be left to export? Financial services? Well, we’ve seen where that’s got us.

The most challenging PR brief for 2013 will be how to rehabilitate elite culture and save it from damnation.

Olympics Hysteria: harnessing the power of the crowd

The media this week has been awash with commentary on the vast gap in the British cultural landscape between August 2011 and August 2012. This time last year, we were transfixed by images of rioters smashing windows and burning buildings. Now, we are overwhelmed by Olympic spirit, and it is the athletes stealing victory and winning medals that capture the national imagination.

What is it that has grasped the British people and changed the mood of a whole country? The panacea that is the Olympics has raised everybody’s spirits to the point of almost mass hysteria, yet we are still in the grip of an ever burgeoning economic decline with seemingly little light at the end of the tunnel. The Olympics has provided us with a perfect bubble to forget about our worries for a few glorious weeks.

The riots demonstrated the enormous, and terrifying, power of the herd mentality- how easily individuals take the decision to step outside their normal morality when led by the crowd. The astonishing feat the organisers of the Olympics have pulled off is harnessing this very same mind set, but instead of the individualism that drove the riots, weaving it through with memes of community. The volunteer stewards have been celebrated almost as much as the competitors themselves. The heroes of the Games, Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins et al, we are reminded, come from the most normal of backgrounds. The message, clearly: The Olympics belong to all of us. And we have responded by taking ownership of them in glorious fashion.

Is this the start of a new era for Britain, defined by positivity and belief in our country? Or will we come plummeting to ground where the bubble bursts? For those in positions of leadership, there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seize the legacy of the Olympics, using the might of the crowd and turning it into something meaningful and long lasting. In August 2013 we’ll be looking back and reflecting on where the intervening year has taken us. So where will you be?

Danny Boyle and the Power of Risk

Picture the scene: mad lefty Irishman Danny Boyle speaks to a panel of landed prime ministers, landed wannabe prime ministers, bureaucrats, eurocrats and Seb Coe, a menswear salesman pretending to be a Lord.

His proposal? That, as the eyes of the world rest on London and a thousand dignitaries deliberate where to put their cash, we open our hard-won Olympic games with a kind of New Labour Cirque Du Soleil. There will be Mike Oldfield, there will be peasants, sheep, fluorescent bird costumes and the Arctic Monkeys. The NHS will be celebrated, the Empire ignored. Mark Rylance will figure more prominently than Sir Paul Mccartney. This will cost the taxpayer more than the bonuses of every top city CEO combined.

Hats off to him for his salesmanship, hats off to them for saying yes. Immediately before the ceremony, 43% thought the Olympics worth it. After, this had risen to 52%. The ceremony was praised widely for its idiosyncrasies, irreverence and out-and-out barminess- all recognised as particularly British qualities. Whereas Bejing 2008’s opening ceremony was seen as an assertion of global prowess, London 2012 responded to the needs of the Now! Economy, the need to address an uncertain world with humility, humanity and humour.

The lesson for business leaders? Risk pays. We’re all too often letting caution dominate what we do. The flipside of Danny Boyle’s maverick ideas is the IOC’s over regulation of everything from the brands that are allowed into the Olympic Park to the athletes’ use of Twitter, the constant warnings of overcrowding in London that have led to a huge loss of footfall for central London shops, restaurants, theatres and bars. By all means, stick to your bread and butter 80% of the time. But allow a little risk into your life- embrace the 20% Maverick Factor. After all, if even the Queen is willing to jump out of a helicopter on a parachute for the sake of Brand Britain, what could you do?

Bradley Wiggins- a new breed of celebrity

This post originally appeared yesterday on The Huffington Post.

Bradley Wiggins’ success in the Tour de France was testament to the willpower, training and raw talent of an individual. His stellar status in the media- whilst certainly not hindered by his victory – has more to do with his suitability as a new kind of celebrity in the post-Leveson world.

Wiggins is perfect fodder for a media conscious of a need to prove its moral worth and a public operating zero tolerance for excess or frippery in its icons. Frugal, modest, for the most part softly spoken, Wiggins nonetheless radiates self-effacing charm. His embodiment of the classic attributes of the British sportsman- fair play, quiet confidence, team spirit- make him a perfect proposition for those in search of a comforting icon for an austerity age.

What’s more, he is possessed of something essential for lasting success in a ‘now economy’ age defined by freedom of information and a voracious public: a powerful narrative element. This operates across two interlinked axes: his compelling battle against dopers as a kind of angry young man of cycling, and a troubled childhood defined by the departure and alcoholism of his father, Australian cycling champ Gary Wiggins. Brad’s effortless actions and easy grace win the headlines, his tortured past and occasional four letter outbursts fill out the features.

It’s also worth noting that Wiggins is free from the burden of hype which surrounds those sports previously perceived to be of premier interest- notably this summer international football and grand slam tennis. For the majority of the public he emerged from nowhere, a figurehead for a sport previously firmly under the radar. As such, his actions were both surprising and illuminating, and carried a corresponding freshness.

There is much that brands can seek to imitate on the basis of the Bradley Wiggins effect: calm confidence, outspoken comment on pertinent issues, making oneself transparent without appearing self-obsessed. Most importantly, though, Wiggo- or ‘Le Gentleman’ as he is affectionately known- is committed to an ideology which is deeply meaningful not only to he but to the British public. In his case, this is the age-old code of good old British sportsmanship, but a similar resource might just as easily be found in a well-crafted and honest brand vision statement.

The Now Economy rewards those who define their terms according to personal passion, measure their success against hard-won personal milestones, and are willing to allow the media to discover their commitment and energy in their own time.

Crisps, schoolkids and rumblings of Olympic legacy trouble

The latest draconian sponsorship enforcement measures for London 2012 were spread across the tabloids yesterday. Allegedly, the angelic schoolkids selected for Danny Boyle’s green and pleasant opening ceremony will be forced by sponsor Adidas to either wear their trainers, or trainers with no branding visible. Meanwhile, reports have come in of police guards forced to decant their lunches, airport style, into clear plastic bags to avoid inadvertently advertising rivals of food brand sponsors. Of course, it’s only confirmation of what we already know- the expectations of Olympic sponsors are a marketing cliché from a bygone era.

These measures were always going to be put in place. The main issue is that absolutely no hint of this level of sponsor control was seeded when the London Olympic story began. Nobody is asking for total, face-value stark facts right from the outset- or at least no-one who understands the realities of managing that kind of brand- but there are ways of spinning this. Most importantly, the idyllic Olympic Myth should not have swept its all too necessary corporate bogeymen totally out of the way in favour of flaxen-haired athletic and political heroes.

Frankly I can’t completely picture the stone faced corporate conspiracy drones imagined by the British population, transferring Walkers crisps into polythene tombs with horrifying robot efficiency. There’s likely a degree of media exaggeration in play here, but it’s worth noting that these memes of sponsor control are gradually escalating. These complaints run deep.

Nonetheless, the Olympic period will be something close to the party it was promised to be. Griping about the allowances given to sponsors is unlikely to detract from crowd atmosphere on the day, or at least it couldn’t do so by itself.

The problem will come when the all important evaluation of legacy and impact begins- whether that be September, December, or even next summer. A lack of transparency- or at least translucency- doesn’t suit the kind of messaging needed to manage something as extensive as London 2012, whose narrative continues right through to 2016, and doesn’t even end there, despite the baton being passed to Rio. Macdonald’s step back from the Olympic tax break was an understandable move, but it smacks of a brand on the back foot.

The wounded trust felt by the public may be set aside for a few crucial weeks, but it will undoubtedly creep back, spread overseas and create enormous problems for both national and international organisers when difficult questions begin to be asked more bluntly and much earlier.

My Thoughts on The Olympic Torch Fiasco from Early June

The Mail’s furore at the Olympic torch sponsor-gate is misplaced. It’s emerged that, whilst a large proportion of torch bearers are the promised saintly examples of youthful attainment and inspiration, a few are portly middle managers called Kevin, whose achievements stretch little further than turning up to work for a company whose coffers are helping fund the relay. To which I say, what did you expect? It’s reasonable to want to have a go on a toy you’re paying for. The issue here isn’t sponsorship in sport, it’s the way that sponsorship is sold to the public.

According to official communications, revenue from sponsorship accounts for more than 40% of Olympic revenues. Partners also provide ‘vital technical services and product support to the whole of the Olympic Family.’ You don’t have to tunnel far through the bullshit to understand that the Olympics could not in a million years happen on their modern scale without hefty corporate backing.

Here’s the thing: by and large, this is not a problem. Obviously, nobody wants to watch a month long ad disguised as a sporting event, but provided a few moral scruples are applied and a balance is struck between idealised narrative and what’s required to fit the bill, I can’t imagine that many people in our commoditized world have a serious issue with corporate funding per se.

The reason that there is an issue- and unquestionably there will be more issues before the world’s athletes touch down on British soil- is the total lack of this kind of frank talk in LOCOG’s communications. The British Public were sold a 21st century fairytale, in which the torch was to be escorted through a series of autumnal hedgerowed lanes, tastefully graffitied urban jungles and the set of Downton Abbey by an unrelenting stream of youth club leaders and the cheerfully disenfranchised. What they got was reality, where for every few stirring stories of personal triumph over adversity, we are required to tolerate one Ralph-Lauren wearing project manager with a dopey grin on his mug.

The question is now begged of how many more flies remain to be picked out of the ointment. The Olympics is, by and large, a purely commercial proposition to a sponsor, and they won’t have paid without significant assurances around logo visibility, ticketing allowances and more. We had another flicker of media rebellion last week amidst revelations about the price of eating and drinking inside the stadium. The press and the public will not swallow a myth forever- in fact, feed them one and they’ll start actively looking to disprove it. Unless you really can offer them happily ever after, there is no way round the need for some transparency and honesty.

The Olympics has always been a vehicle for outrageously overblown propaganda- the torch relay itself was largely invented by Joseph Goebbels for the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as a means of portraying perceived ideological links between Naziism and Ancient Greece. However, in a Now Economy defined by vocal crowds and marmite world views, it’s pretty hard to make this kind of thing stick. Rather than risk it, you’re much better off speaking to people like adults than risking a half-pregnant promotional fiasco.

Promote It Like Beckham

Tottenham Hotspur have pulled off a nifty coup for the New Year, bringing David Beckham in to train after a few weeks of speculation and “will he/won’t he?” in the tabloids. Regarding Beckham actually playing for the team, nothing is certain still, but that is hardly the point.

The point is that this is a perfect way for Beckham to maintain his British profile prior to LA Galaxy’s season start in March, it’s not a bad way for Beckham to get fit for that purpose too and, if he does sign, Spurs will be able to turn quite some coin on the back of the fans who will want Beckham shirts. Read the rest of this entry »

Royal wedding? Screw the recession, there’s dosh to be made…

And so the day has come! Prince William is to marry Kate Middleton. Be of good cheer, Britain, there’s new blood being drafted into the old firm!

It really is fabulous news, in such tough economic times, that the cuts will not affect everything. In 2011 there will be something for the whole nation to celebrate, especially the merchandise sellers, caterers and makers of bunting. It’s really an early Christmas present for them all.

And better still, it’ll take place 30 years after Charles and Diana’s wedding. We will have a new Princess of Hearts – and the same sort of economic straits then as now. Perhaps we’ll get anniversary riots in Brixton and Toxteth too, only to have the wedding calm them down.

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