The Olympics offer potential sponsorship gold, but there are risks

The pageantry, the passion, the global reach—all have significant allure for marketers and brand managers. Still, crises can hit even amid the revelry, so a response plan is essential.

Olympic sponsorships can lead to big returns. 

Brand managers planning to participate in the 2020 Olympic Games are thinking seriously about potential sponsorship strategies—and for good reason. 

During the Olympics, brands can intersect with target audiences when those audiences are at their highest point of engagement and passion. It’s truly an unprecedented opportunity to tap the feelings of patriotism, unity and family that are synonymous with the Olympic ceremonies and games. 

The event’s global visibility also provides reach and exposure that few other events can. Sports leagues such as the NFL, NHL, and NASCAR enjoy regular attention from invested sports fans, but the Olympics brings in new viewers from all over who might tune in and pay attention only once every four years.

The impact is clear: Sponsors see a visible lift in brand awareness after the Olympics. One survey by Turnkey Sports and Sports Business Journal shows that both Bridgestone and Liberty Mutual—both of which sponsored committees at the 2018 Winter Olympics—saw 7 percentage point increases in the number of consumers who said they’d consider purchasing their products. 

What’s more, gains can happen even without significant spending on advertising. Bridgestone had only two ad spots, and Liberty Mutual had no ads during the games. Sponsorship alone provided boosts to those brands, which proves that sponsoring anything associated with the Olympics can be hugely beneficial. But that’s true only if there’s been  diligent preparation.

Forming an effective PR crisis management plan

Regardless, brands also have as much to lose as they do to gain from these sponsorships. Consider one of the most well-known Olympic sponsorship blunders: the Ryan Lochte situation during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The companies that sponsored Lochte experienced firsthand the risks of sponsoring a high-profile event like the Olympics—but it was too late for them to create a robust PR crisis management plan. 

Communicators must remember that when it comes to a plan for mitigating crisis, it’s not a matter of if they’ll need it, but when. The best way to prepare for a crisis, then, is long before it occurs. 

Build rapport with stakeholders now to create goodwill and trust to tap into when something goes wrong. Both journalists and the public will be more likely to give your brand the benefit of the doubt if you already have a good reputation.

Examine specific sponsorships and assess the relationship for potential crises. Consider the types of risks that celebrities or athletes might bring to the table, then think through which parties will need to know what if things go south.

Remember this: The Olympics are global, iconic and massively complex. Don’t just think about your particular sponsorship, but also consider what else might go wrong during the event that your organization would have to respond to. Consider both natural and human-made crises such as weather events, protests or violent attacks.

When a crisis arises, assess the impact on your brand reputation and decide whether your organization must take the lead on the response. For example, in Lochte’s case, his sponsors had a little bit of cover: The local police and oversight organizations did their own investigations. This bought time for the sponsoring organizations to decide how and when to act.

Besides this, prepare messages and spokespeople for different scenarios. An injury or dropout requires a different response from, say, inappropriate behavior or misconduct. Know who your go-to people are to handle every possible incident and prep them before problems occur. 

Moving from plan to action

No matter how good your plan is, it’s still only an outline. When the crisis hits, adjust your response to the crisis level and the target audience—don’t be afraid to pivot in real time to address factors you might not have accounted for. The key to a PR crisis management plan is honest and transparent communication. Create a clear response protocol, especially for managing media requests. 

As Lochte’s sponsors learned, communicators must be prepared for news to spread quickly. During an event as big as the Olympics, it’s especially crucial that you manage your crisis promptly and can access relevant people and plans anywhere, at any time, and across multiple time zones.

After your crisis passes, it’s time to debrief. Gather your team and figure out what worked well and what didn’t. Consider how your crisis management plan should be adjusted for the next sponsorship. Finally, always keep communicating with stakeholders and continue nurturing relationships. That will set you up for even greater success next time.

The Olympics are an exciting time for athletes, spectators and brands all over the world. Make the most of your sponsorship by preparing to overcome any hurdles that might arise. Dive into the next Olympics round with a robust PR crisis management plan, and you can trust that the benefits will outweigh the risks.

Susan Saronitman leads the corporate practice at Mitchell.


One Response to “The Olympics offer potential sponsorship gold, but there are risks”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Yes! And give yourself the advantages you can get by diversifying your sponsorship so you sponsor not only great athletes but also great teachers or school coaches, great doctors and hospitals that help athletes perform at their best and safely, and perhaps great parents who have helped Olympic and other athletes to excel.

    Athletes sweat but less visibly so do parents.

    The more admirable people you sponsor by divrsification—and at no extra cost for budget—the more appreciation you may get. PR Daily had a story on sponsorships a few weeks ago.

    Do yourself a BIG favor by retaining Susan Saronitman’s firm or one of the others like Taylor that is either all sports or like Edelman has a major sports department. O’Dwyer’s newsletter has an annual issue on top sports PR firms and how much each bills. You may get more placement opportunities than you’d think of on your own plus a lot more experience with what to do if there’s trouble.

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