U.S. Olympics PR chief shares lessons from knitting controversy

Patrick Sandusky, the chief communications officer at the U.S. Olympic Committee, spoke to PR Daily about the recent PR crisis that gripped the organization.

Every year, the United States Olympic Committee sends out hundreds of cease and desist letters to organizations that use the term “Olympics” for commercial and non-commercial purposes. It’s rarely cause for pun-filled media ruckus.

But when the USOC asked the knitting enthusiasts at the social network Ravelry to stop using the term Ravelympics, the group took to social media to decry what it saw as insensitive language. The Streisand Effect took hold, and the story went viral.

It took two official apologies and literally hundreds of personally tweeted responses from USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky to assuage the angry knitters.

[Read more about the PR controversy here.]

I had a pun-free conversation with Sandusky, who made it his personal mission to communicate his organization’s stance to as many critics as it took.

Why do you think the cease and desist letter struck such a chord with the knitting community?

First and foremost, I think it struck a chord because there was some insensitive language that was too pointed to this group that was probably a bit stronger than needed to be at this stage of trying to protect our trademark.

Speaking of that trademark, Congress gave the USOC exclusive rights to use any language around “Olympics” in 1978. What’s the background of that trademark?

It’s the Amateur Sports Act—that’s the name of the law. It was strengthened in the 1990s and renamed the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act. It’s also something that’s gone to the Supreme Court, which decided we do own the rights to the term “Olympics” and several terms around that and have every right to ask organizations that are using it for commercial and non-commercial purposes—because it’s still a dilution of the brand—to give us the jurisdiction over that to not use our trademark.

I’m sure in your crisis communications plan there’s nothing that mentions hordes of offended knitters. Is there anything that can prepare you for something like this?

While we don’t have anything in line for this specific group, we obviously have a pretty active and nimble team that can deal with and lead on communications issues on a pretty immediate and proactive manner. If you look at the size and scope and depth of our organization, and in the span of less than 24 hours we were able to nudge this to a point where I believe everyone was at least accepting of the fact that this was a trademark that we own. The letter itself that was sent to this group was definitely too strident in its tone. It’s something as we moved forward apologized for and I think most people accepted that apology—at least from what we’ve seen in our Facebook comments, Twitter posts, and Twitter comments to me directly. You’re not going to convince everybody, but I think the vast majority of people have at least accepted it and have moved on—and that’s in 24 hours.

For communicators, social media can often be your best friend and worst enemy. What role did social media play in advancing the controversy and addressing the critics?

Social media is a great tool. I don’t think there are a lot of negatives to it. You have to use the appropriate communications tools for the people that you’re targeting. This was obviously a very active group within social media. We primarily used social media to address the issues with this group, to frankly hear their feedback. After our first statement, realizing that there were still some people that didn’t think we went far enough and that the language was wrong, the communications team was able to garner internal support that this was something that needed to be directly apologized for—and we did. With this particular group, I think it was effective to communicate via our Facebook page and their Facebook page and on Twitter. If we have issues with other groups in the future, that might not be the right channel.

Our goal as communications professionals is to asses the situation and understand the right channels and utilize those channels that best communicate to who you’re targeting. And that can vary depending on the issue and the audience.

I noticed you used your personal Twitter account to reach out to some of the critics on that channel. What was behind that choice?

I’m a firm believer that people don’t believe organizations as much as they believe individuals. And if somebody’s going to put their name on it and be a voice of reason specifically as a person who works at an organization and not just hide behind a blanket generic Twitter account—which has its uses without a doubt. And we have far more people that follow that than follow me. But it was something to supplement the main Twitter feed and show that this wasn’t just a generic corporate account speaking corporate speak but it was an actual person willing to answer questions. And I answered more than, I think, 500 people online who contacted me directly with their questions. All those answers aren’t going to be sufficient for some people but at least they’re getting a response and not just being pointed to a generic statement. We believe here that we’re the people that are responsible for the organization and I don’t have any problem putting my name on organizational decisions and responding directly.

What have you learned from this experience?

I’ve certainly learned that the knitting community is an amazingly well connected community in social media. I was not aware of that beforehand. I think we’ve learned you can be reasonable with certain groups around your trademark without having to be overly aggressive. The point still stands for us. We do believe they’re in violation of the law Congress passed and how we’ll protect our trademark but we could have gone about it in a slightly more sensitive way.

Also, I think getting feedback from people as we went through the day and understanding what they were upset about and being willing to adjust what the organization is saying based on what people are feeling is just smart. It doesn’t make any sense to say, ‘There’s our statement and that’s it,’ and hide behind it. I think we do a pretty good job on communications and I think we do a pretty good job in our legal department but we’re all human. Nobody here is perfect and if there’s something that needs to be corrected, correct it and don’t be embarrassed about doing the right thing.

Now that you’re looking to steer the conversation back to the athletes, is there a challenge in getting back to business as usual?

I don’t think so. I think people are more interested and want to hear more about our athletes than our corporate policy. While this was a big issue for a specific group—and understandably so—most people who follow the Olympics don’t want to know what’s going on with corporate policy and trademarks. They want to know what’s happening with our teams and what’s going to be happening at the Games.

We had to deal with this issue. We couldn’t not deal with it—I don’t think that would have been appropriate. But at this point we have and now it’s just a matter of focusing on the bigger picture of getting ready for London.

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