Olympic-Sized PR Flubs: What Rio 2016 Can Teach Us About Crisis Comms

August 17, 2016

We’re 12 days into Rio 2016, and the steady stream of vexing, hair-raising headlines dominating the news cycle is already the stuff of legend. Still, the blunders over the last week and a half don’t even scratch the surface on some of the really unsettling news that’s plagued the Olympics narrative for months. Stories from Brazil have sparked deep concern, fear and even outrage among both human and animal rights activists, athletes themselves, and most importantly, the world at large. A million PR foibles, a million missed opportunities to attempt to right some of the wrongs. Below, I’ve plucked examples of Rio’s biggest media flops so far, and, with a rather large grain of salt, I offer you my nuggets of wisdom on how a more thoughtful approach, in any PR disaster, can go a long way toward redirecting a communications crisis.

First, we’ll take a look at Zika. It all started with a mosquito. And now, the World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus a global public health emergency. Growing fears about contracting the virus even inspired a slew of top competitors to bow out of this year’s games. And Brazilian officials have done little to address or alleviate these concerns.


Next, the water. Water safety at Rio 2016 has been a major point of contention right from the start, and recent tests show that many of the aquatic competition sites are far more polluted and contaminated than originally thought. In fact, prior to the start of the games, local health experts doled out the really encouraging suggestion that athletes “just keep their mouths shut.”

So where did Rio’s PR strategy go off the rails? For starters, Olympic officials generally opted to sweep negative press under the rug in lieu of telling the truth. As we’re in the business of public relations, we know it’s paramount that a client’s perceived reputation be one of honesty and transparency, even when potential news could be deemed unpleasant or damaging. It’s no secret Zika has people worried. And you can’t exactly gloss over floating dead bodies, untreated sewage or inexplicably green water. These are things that don’t go unnoticed. Whoever helmed the response plan here really should have stuck to the old adage, ‘the truth will set you free.’ At least then, you’re more likely to earn the public’s respect, and hopefully, evoke their sympathy.

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Furthermore, when reacting to negative press, timeliness is everything. Yet, the Olympic committee has noticeably skirted around some of the most troubling moments leading up to this year’s games, like the shooting death of 17-year-old jaguar Juma back in June, or the discovery of a long and far-reaching Russian doping scandal. That’s why initiating contact with your concerned audience as early as possible is key to establishing trust and maintaining a positive rapport.

Yet even with its laundry list of controversies, Rio 2016 has captured the world’s attention. You’ve got the world’s strongest, most talented athletes competing on a global scale. The water crisis seems far less concerning when you’re watching Simone Biles dominate her floor routine. But if you ever find yourself manning a PR crisis on behalf of one of your clients, you may not, and probably will not, have the luxury of guaranteed positive press, or an engaged audience who’s ready to side with you. Crisis communications can be a tough area to navigate, especially when you aren’t expecting a crisis to arise. Staying open and honest and addressing the public’s concerns head on in a timely fashion are just two tried and true ways we can help bolster a client’s reputation if and when they’re faced with a crisis situation.

– Jennifer

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