From news hijacking to poor crisis management – did the IOC learn from Rio Olympics – here’s our verdict

It’s finally arrived. The Tokyo 2021 Olympics, delayed by a year due to Covid disruption, is on our screens, with the usual suspects – and some breakthrough athletes as young as thirteen and as old as 62 – clinching medals and writing their names into the history books in the process. But with a wave of controversies in all shapes and sizes, have Olympic organisers learned from the gaffes experienced in the Rio Olympics five years ago?

At the time, the IBA team took a detailed look at ‘PoolGate’ – the mishap that saw divers competing for Gold in a bizarre, murky green pool. This quickly took social media by storm, with athletes, pundits and spectators alike weighing in.

Our rating at the time? A bronze medal for the Olympic PR office.

Following a string of headlines ranging from athletes seeking asylum in Japan to being expelled due to breaking Covid restrictions, it looks set to be another consecutive Games ruffled by controversy. Yes, what would it be without Donald Trump weighing in against woke football, and a recurring Russian controversy – this time how a nation called ROC is allowed to compete.  And yes again, we’ve seen Twitter exploding over Simone Biles’ decision to take herself out of many individual gymnastic events, and the debate over Laurel Hubbard’s inclusion. But we’ve seen the enormous wealth of other talent that also competed in the games, with near flawless performances.

But this time the IOC has not entered into the Twitter debates but dealt quickly and firmly with all incidents, justifying their responses where possible and pledging future detailed investigations elsewhere.

Our verdict is that either by ducking or by robust responses to these events, the Tokyo organisers have certainly earned a place on the podium – we’ll leave the final medal decision up to you, the reader.

Enjoy our Olympic blast from the past in this week’s throwback Friday.

In PR terms there’s nothing worse than something unraveling in front of your eyes, while you have absolutely no control over it. But now I think about it, there probably is – have it happen at the most televised, watched and written about sporting event on the planet.

That’s exactly what unfolded this week at the Rio Olympics, during the final of the women’s synchronised 10m platform. Athletes, spectators and global viewers witnessed the diving pool gradually changing from a clear azure blue to murky green.

The Olympic press office has already been dealing with negative pre-games media attention. First the International Olympic Committee’s highly controversial decision to allow Russian athletes to compete in the games was countered by the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to impose an outright ban – and another dropping of the PR baton. Meanwhile, another media focus point was the highly polluted waters of Rio’s Guanabara Bay, where the sailing regatta is taking place.

The last thing the press office needed was pollution spreading to the purpose-built Maria Lenk Aquatic Center. British medal-winning diver Tom Daley added to his respected role of diving industry influencer by tweeting to his 2.5 million followers.

Ermmm…what happened?! — Tom Daley (@TomDaley1994) August 9, 2016

Tom’s Tweet amplified the story, triggering a barrage of Tweets about #GreenPool.

High scoring hot-topic heist Meanwhile, Clorox picked up the PR baton and ran with it.

Pools have bleachable moments too — Clorox (@Clorox) August 10, 2016

In the PR business we call this tactic ‘hijacking’ trending media topics to gain journalist, prospect and customer attention, see one of our recent blogs.

Clorox received over 1,000 likes and 450 retweets of this tongue-in-cheek photo. To put this into context its social account usually gets around 20-40 total likes and retweets for a post.

In fact the Tweet’s reach went even further than that. Journalists are now commonly putting together ‘how social media reacted’ stories around trending topics. The Clorox Tweet was used by national publications around the world – NBC in the US, The Guardian in the UK, HR3 in Germany and even the Huffington Post in Greece.

I’d score that a 10.0.

Gold medal public relations? But what to award to the Olympic press office?

You might think from the above that the press team would find themselves out of the medals, perhaps not even qualifying for the team final.

Yet actually, let’s look at how they responded to the green pool incident. Firstly after testing the water, a short statement from the official Twitter account.

The water quality at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre was tested and there were no risks for the athletes. We are investigating the cause. — Rio 2016 (@Rio2016_en) 9 August 2016

So the organizers showed themselves to be on the case while assuaging any fears for athlete’s health, all in 140 characters. Remember, you’re always best to respond through the same media if you have the ’instant rebuttal’.

A statement followed. “As a result, the pH level of the water was outside the usual range, causing the discoloration. The FINA Sport Medicine Committee conducted tests on the water quality and concluded that there was no risk to the health and safety of the athletes, and no reason for the competition to be affected.”

A straightforward answer nipping all this in the bud, and since then even Tom Daley himself has defended the green pool – great third party influencer endorsement.

So perhaps a tentative bronze medal for the press office. They have coined this the Green Games after all!

Jamie Kightley is Head of iBAengage at IBA International

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