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Global Practices

Rio Olympics: Crisis Communications Considerations

by and

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A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post.

With the Olympic Games now in full swing in Rio, it is easy to forget about the extraordinary behind-the-scenes efforts around crisis and security planning. And, in reality, crisis response for an Olympic Games is largely a communications effort. In preparing for Olympic crises, the effort falls into two main camps. Planning for operational crisis, such as the tragic death of the Georgian luger in Vancouver in 2010, falls to Olympic committee organizers. Planning for security crisis, such as the 1996 Atlanta bombing, falls to a broad collective of military and law enforcement officials.

In thinking about crisis communications for the Rio Olympics, it is worth noting that the security team has burgeoned by more than one-third its originally planned size, and now stands at more than 85,000 people somehow involved in the crisis response effort. That’s a staggering number, and it represents the most militarized Olympics in history; but given the world we live in, one shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case. To further complicate matters, Rio’s crisis management officials need to disentangle some very thorny issues:

  • Coordination: The Olympics draws security and communications personnel by the thousands, many of them supported by legions of volunteers. In such a complex setting the coordination of messaging is vital, yet seemingly impossible. Previous Olympic organizing structures have seen the relatively effective use of ‘concentric circles’ of communications, wherein an incident will have a lead agency, affected agencies and notified agencies; all with their own level of authority and responsibility.
  • Control: One of the biggest challenges is determining who actually takes control of communications, and when it is handed over to other authorities. For example, if there were a chemical attack, would enforcement agencies take charge because it’s an attack affecting public security, or would it be led by a health agency because it involves an uncontrolled contaminant that has direct public health implications?
  • Security vs. operations: One of the biggest challenges, which is far more difficult to define from a doctrinal perspective, is getting alignment on the severity of an incident. ‘Security mandated’ officials may take one approach to a threat, whereas ‘event mandated’ officials may plead for more clarity before pulling the alarm on public fear. Police are in the protection business, Olympic organizers are in the marketing business; very different mandates, personalities and viewpoints.
  • Spokespeople: Never as clear as it theoretically should be, the assignment of a spokesperson during an Olympic crisis event can be problematic internally, and confusing externally.  Olympic officials and their government partners work on a transparency communications model (even China learned to do that!), whereas security agencies often revert to an investigative communication model, where less is more.
  • Public communications: Notwithstanding all the good work to define communications processes in advance and to coordinate communications in real-time during an event, the nature of today’s digital dispersion means that messages will quickly get convoluted and be inaccurate. As such, a core pillar of communications — for both Olympic officials and their security partners— will be to speak directly to the public about where to get the most reliable information.

What else will shape the crisis communications landscape? A lot. Threats will be made for the express purpose of activating the Olympic crisis communications network and causing public anxiety. Malicious organizations will be standing by to take credit for the misguided actions of lone wolves. If something does happen, security officials will be limited in what they can communicate. And yes, sadly, political aspirants will likely misappropriate any crisis to further their own ambitions.

John Larsen is an executive vice president in Calgary who has lead crisis communications campaigns for numerous Olympic Games and international leader summits.
Harlan Loeb is global chair of the Crisis & Risk practice.

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