Was @sochiproblems Really A Problem?

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Before the 2014 Sochi Olympics even started, the social media world was abuzz about the poor preparation by the Russian Government for the XXII Winter Olympic Games.  This social media firestorm appeared to be generated primarily by reporters who showed up to cover the Games only to find their hotel accommodations not finished and poor infrastructure such as peach water coming from the spigots.  Social media was soon full of photos of these conditions and Russia was held up to ridicule.  After all, they spent $51B to put on this national showcase to promote the “new Russia” and you couldn’t even flush toilet paper down the toilet!  What happened to the narrative that the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) undoubtedly wanted, and how their response could have been better to avert such a “PR disaster?”  What are the lessons for reputation managers?

First, how bad was the PR?  The metric that I have found seems to focus on the number of followers on a Twitter account @SochiProblems.  At its apex, there were a reported 340,000 followers, and much was made about this exceeding the number of followers on the official site (although if you added up the English and Russian versions of the official site, those totals exceeded the @SochiProblems account).  And, of course, there were the retweets that made the rounds in the U.S. and probably the world that made it appear that the ROC had managed themselves into a PR “disaster.”

I’m not convinced that this was a PR disaster, or that it has greatly damaged the reputation of the Russian brand.  Yes, Russia has a different approach to PR that I don’t agree with, and the photos and posts coming out of Russia in the early days did show unfinished accommodations and a lacking, even poor, infrastructure.  But closer inspection also showed that many of these posts smacked of elitism (there were no coat racks in my room – horror of horrors!).  In fact, it is not uncommon in certain places in the world – such as Latin America and Europe – for the plumbing to be questionable and toilet paper is not flushed down the toilet.  This reporting reflects a naiveté, if not a mean spirit, by the complaining reporters.  Here’s a revealing analysis of the problems posted on The Wire that I think helps put them in perspective:  http://www.thewire.com/politics/2014/02/sochi-journalist-complaints-real-problems-or-first-world-problems/357760/.

Most importantly, this was Russia.  Even Russian President Vladimir Putin himself admitted that he has brown water coming out of his own spigot, and most Russians live in the same conditions.  Russia was presenting their brand authentically with no sugarcoating, and that is always good reputation management.  In fact, Russians were quite surprised of the criticism they received. They named it:  “zloradstvo,” or “malicious glee.”

They did try to do some damage control but were clearly not adept at this.  Their initial response to the complaints of poor conditions was that they had been monitoring the hotels through video surveillance — even the bathroom showers – and were not finding the criticism to be true.  They later had to double back on the watching the showers defense. Lesson:  get the first response correct, and then be consistent thereafter.

They also could have done better in the blogosphere and twittersphere; it appears that they did not use social media much at all to respond to the negative posts and when they did they were less than sympathetic.  (Again, they have a different perspective on PR.) 

The ROC had some friends come to their defense, which is always a good crisis communications tactic.  Some media reported on the beautiful conditions in Sochi. Here is one link:  http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/olympic-hotel-horrors-have-been-blown-a-little-out-of-proportion-sochi-is-beautiful-201462.  These countered the negative stories and could have been posted on the official sites as a crisis communications tactic!

Others took the complaining reporters task:  “It does seem like the Western press is on the hunt for evidence of how inept and hilarious the Russians are,” The New Republic‘s Julia Ioffe wrote: “There does seem to be something mean-spirited in all of this, as if the Western press came hoping to encounter pillow shortages and rusty water.”  She also wrote:  “As faves and retweets on @SochiProblems explode, it’s clear that the meme is based on cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance: The posts reflect actual issues that directly impact the quality of life of Russia’s 143 million people.”

It was also reported that, after the Games actually got underway, these criticisms, for the most part, subsided, and the Games were eventually deemed successful.  The International Olympic Committee’s president Thomas Bach said the Sochi Games had “proven critics wrong” and praised the Russian president’s handling of the event. “We saw excellent Games and what counts most is the opinions of the athletes, and they were enormously satisfied,” he said.

This doesn’t mean that all was well that ended well; the Sochi Games involved much corruption and many snafus. But the product of the brand in the end was received favorably by the athletes and spectators, and even some reporters (.http://www.smh.com.au/sport/winter-olympics/despite-the-knockers-sochi-2014-was-a-success-20140222-338wg.html).  So there is another crisis communication tip:  change the narrative by doing good

Finally, while in no way could the Russian Olympic Committee’s PR managing of @SochiProblems be considered a best practices case, I am especially sympathetic to what happened to the Russians as the Olympic spotlight was turned on them, because  In 1996 I was working with Matlock in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics (the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee was a client).  I’ve experienced first-hand the media criticism when, in the early days of the Games, bus drivers got lost taking athletes to the venues and some computers issues in results reporting (not to mention the later tragedy of the Olympic Park bombing).  I saw how the media skewered Atlanta and our preparations in hosting the Games.  And to think what would have happened if social media had existed then; horror of horrors!

What are your thoughts on the way “Sochi Problems” were handled?

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