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How Rio Officials Feed the Olympics Turmoil

Jul 13, 2016
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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Rio de Janeiro’s acting governor Francisco Dornelles recently warned that the Rio Olympic Games are headed to a “big failure.” He also called his state’s health care system “calamitous” and said his government’s policy of paying workers’ salaries in installments “is a form of slave labor.” These messages became a backdrop for the “Welcome to Hell” airport banners posted by local police. “When you think of the nature of government and having members of your police force acting like this on the world stage, it’s shocking,” says marketing professor Hank Boyd at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Crisis Communication Lesson

Boyd says the above examples represent bad crisis communication by a government responding to media-fanned fears expressed by athletes, sponsors and tourists concerning the viability of the Aug. 5-21 games. "Instead of spreading fear-inducing warnings, officials need to be transparently educating the public, and in the most positive light,” he says. “They need to base their messaging from: ‘Here’s the situation. Take these steps. Take these precautions. And you’ll be OK.’”

Along the way, crisis communication managers can’t come off sounding defensive. A good example of how not to do it, Boyd says, is Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes giving interviews for damage control purposes, but suggesting that you’re safer in Rio from the Zika virus than in Florida, and shifting blame onto Dornelles and the state government for doing a terrible job. “There’s just so much negative information out there,” Boyd says. “It’s going to be a Herculean task for Brazil to right the ship to convince the world that all’s OK.”

Leadership Void

The problems start at the top, says Smith School marketing professor Roland Rust. “Brazil is essentially leaderless right now with President Dilma Roussef in limbo," Rust says. "The nation is overwhelmed by the Zika threat and environmental issues, none of which can be fixed any time soon.” Since Brazil can't quickly fix the negatives, Rust says the country should accentuate the positives — the excitement of the Olympic Games and the pride of bringing the Olympics to South America.

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Boyd says Beijing “set the gold standard” in 2008 for a government instilling national pride as an anchor to staging the games. “They not only built the infrastructure, they unified and prepared the citizenry — including through basic language lessons to assist non-Mandarin speaking visitors — for being in the world’s spotlight.”

Boyd says he experienced similar phenomena when attending the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “It meant everything to that nation and the continent,” he says. “Talking to people in the streets, they were excited about the event, the matches. It did a lot for the tourism industry and for helping the country further heal from the stigma of its Apartheid past.” 

Silver Lining?

Comparatively, where does Brazil stand? “Right now it’s a tourism disaster,” Rust says. “Any quick PR happy talk downplaying the severity of the negatives will be seen as obvious whitewash, which means there is no quick fix for Brazil's PR nightmare.” There is a silver lining, though. “Brazil officials can only be happy that NBC, in its own interest, will want to focus only on the games and downplay the negative aspects,” Rust says. “This, more than anything, will help Brazil's PR issues in the United States.”

But the AP recently reported on the unfiltered reality for locals, showing Brazil’s Olympics-driven $10 billion to $12 billion in urban transportation spending has generated civic pride (predominately among upperclass locals) along with suspicion and anger, generally among the low-income and working class. Plus Olympic gold-medalist Wolfgang Maennig, who studies the economics of the games at a German university, said the Olympics usually produce a ‘feel-good factor’ when they get going. But he was “unsure” about Rio. 

Too Big to Fail

In the midst of "welcome to hell" signs and scorn upon Rio’s sewage-contaminated water venues, the World Health Organization recently rejected a petition signed by more than 200 health experts and scientists  demanding that the WHO call for the games to be moved or postponed because of the Zika threat. That move, Rust says, is one indicator that “the Olympics are way too big to call off.”

“The Brazilians, who are not particularly wealthy, have spent billions to put on the games, and there is no way the International Olympic Committee can simply cancel the games, without incurring the wrath of the entire developing world, as well as the entire international sports community,” Rust says. “Plus, given Brazil is currently a basket case politically, the whole country might descend into chaos if the Olympics were canceled."

The last time an Olympics was cancelled was the 1940 Summer Games, scheduled for Tokyo. “It took World War II to cancel that," Rust says.

Likewise the United States Olympic Committee is in no position to cancel U.S. participation. “Again, it would be snubbing Latin America, as well as the entire developing world,” Rust says. “There is too much for the USOC to lose in terms of U.S. reputation in those countries. When Jimmy Carter canceled U.S. participation in the 1980 Summer Olympics, to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, many people saw the move as ineffectual and self-harming.”

Ultimately, “Rio, and Brazil, is engulfed in a perfect storm of public health and environmental crises, along with political and economic turmoil,” Boyd says. “But it can emerge perhaps with positive momentum for its tourism industry if it can stage the games minus any calamity.”

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