Olympic sponsors on edge before Winter Games
By BRUCE HOROVITZ | USA Today | Published: February 6, 2014
Olympic sponsors have rarely been so on edge before an Olympic Games.
When the Winter Olympics begin on Friday in Sochi, all 10 major sponsors, which each pay up to $100 million to sponsor a full winter and summer cycle, will be hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst — such as an act of terrorism.
"They're absolutely more nervous than in any previous Olympics," says Larry Smith, senior consultant at the Institute for Crisis Management. "If any one of them were my client, I'd be jumping up and down shouting that they have to prepare."
USA TODAY reached out to all 10 major sponsors to discuss their crisis plans, but only two responded. In an e-mail, Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, noted, "We've adapted our program to fit the special needs of Sochi.' And McDonald's spokeswoman Becca Hary notes, "A full security plan is in place. ... We can't share the details of the plan for security reasons."
Here's what crisis communications experts say the major sponsors are doing, or should be doing, in the hope that none of this planning will ever be used:
- Creating risk audits. Each sponsor has likely retained a crisis specialist to create a "risk assessment and vulnerability audit" for the company, says Melissa Agnes, president of Agnes + Day, a crisis intelligence firm. "Then you have to create a plan for the most high-risk scenarios."
- Preparing two kinds of ads. Major sponsors all have multimillion-dollar campaigns in place, many featuring Olympic athletes. Most also have, at least on paper, ads of compassion and support that could air following any incidents of terrorism. "Any delay in these communications would show you're not as caring," notes Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management.
- Preparing scripts for CEOs. Early, generalized drafts of statements that sponsor CEOs might make after a terrorist act also need to be crafted ahead of time, says Bernstein.
- Preparing to go dark. After a tragic event such as terrorism, it's often best for marketers linked to the event to pull all advertising, suggests Eric Dezenhall, a crisis consultant and author of Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management. "You have to be very careful about anything that would be viewed as a PR stunt, such as capitalizing on the tragedy," he says.
- Pre-approving donations. After a disaster is not a good time for a company to start discussing what kinds of corporate donations may be available for victims. These kinds of decisions need to be made before the Games begin so that the money can be immediately available if needed, says Dezenhall.
For big sponsors, dealing with acts of terrorism is far easier than responding to a self-created crisis for which the company itself is culpable, such as a defective product that harms people, says Dezenhall. After a terrorist attack, he notes, "sponsors won't be blamed. There's an intuitive understanding that they gain nothing from the catastrophe."