Nick Butler

Sitting with a group of consultants at last month's SportAccord Convention in Aarhus, we began to play a fun little game. "How about we swap roles," said someone. "We will ask difficult questions and you try and respond as if you were us."

Clearly, like most journalists, I have always considered "comms" a bit of a doddle and fancied my chances, so I launched in with a spontaneous Los Angeles 2024 response to that day's National Hockey League (NHL) decision not to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Predictably, I found it much harder than anticipated and was soon tangling myself in knots.

It got me thinking, though, about what tactics I would pursue if I was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and responsible for remedying current opposition to the Olympic bidding process.

The IOC's new communications director Rebecca Lowell Edwards is starting on June 1. It will be interesting to see if she introduces a noticeable shift in approach. Our understanding is that Mark Adams is still going to be the main spokesperson accompanying IOC President Thomas Bach. Edwards, an American who joins from GE Oil and Gas, will seemingly play a broader role in heading their department and overseeing fundamental strategy rather than the specific crises which seem to erupt so often these days.

There is a lot of room for improvement with their broad approach.

This is not, to be clear, meant as a criticism of current individuals within the IOC communications department, many of whom are very good, but more the general culture. It is also worth pointing out that the IOC are much easier to deal with than those at several International Federations - cough, aquatics and gymnastics, cough - but that they must be judged by higher standards due to the greater attention they receive.

From a media relations perspective, the two grievances we invariably face are the speed and quality of answers.

At the moment, the IOC almost always react to a story rather than preempt it and set the agenda. Take the criticism surrounding Rio de Janeiro's Olympic legacy in January and February. For weeks, media around the world beamed images of empty and dilapidated venues alongside comments about broken promises and white elephants. The IOC eventually fought fire with fire by countering during their March Executive Board meeting in Pyeongchang, but this was a month too late. By then the agenda had been set and the building had already burned down.

The participation of NHL players at Pyeongchang 2018 has been an ongoing media issue ©Getty Images
The participation of NHL players at Pyeongchang 2018 has been an ongoing media issue ©Getty Images

The NHL dispute provides another good example. For months, we knew what the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) were thinking because they were constantly speaking publicly. The IOC were getting slated for their decision to cut transportation and insurance costs but were steadfastly refusing to defend themselves.

Of course, you can be too quick. During a morning press briefing in Rio, Adams was asked about a rumour concerning American swimmer Ryan Lochte being mugged on a night out. He immediately texted a United States Olympic Committee official and was told that it was not true. This was swiftly announced to the assembled press and beamed across the world before it became apparent he had been misinformed.

But I would argue that it is almost better to occasionally get it wrong than to constantly be lagging behind. And Lochte-gate was slightly different anyway as it did not directly concern an IOC decision.

My colleague Michael Pavitt wrote an excellent piece yesterday about the platitudes so common in sport. We hear over and over again about "Agenda 2020", "unity in solidarity", "good governance" or "change or be changed", but I still do not really understand what they mean. Yes, from "Take Back Control" to "Make America Great Again", the past year has shown how soundbites can be effective. But the IOC are not facing the repetition of a political campaign but a one-off chance to capture public imagination.

I waited over a day for an answer to a question a few weeks ago which, when it came, was simply: "We will communicate in due course."

I know it is not just media who grow frustrated with this sort of response. Even IOC members have told us how they have requested information about work being done before speaking at events in their own countries, only to receive woefully inadequate assistance.

Imagine if you are a reporter at a local newspaper who rarely covers the Olympic world but is doing so because your city is mooting a bid. These sorts of responses would put you off the IOC straight away.

A classic example of the wrong strategy was provided over the weekend in the form of a website article trumpeting Bach's meeting with new United Nations secretary general António Guterres. Beneath a photo of the two men is a brief spiel on a "streamlined approach" which "will avoid parallel work" and is "fully in line with the UN resolution". There was nothing explaining what actual achievements this partnership has produced, however. A brief Google search consequently only found one article, on Xinhua, following up on this "story". 

This all appeared more an attempt for Bach to justify his importance to IOC colleagues - possibly, some even speculate, with an eye to serving in the UN secretary general post himself in the dim and distant future - than to appeal to the sceptical public.

Thomas Bach, left, meeting the new United Nations secretary general António Guterres ©IOC
Thomas Bach, left, meeting the new United Nations secretary general António Guterres ©IOC

So what would work better?

As soon as a bid is mooted they should go on the offensive in that city to preempt IOC criticism. I was listening to BBC Radio One a few weeks ago, the main station aimed at young people in Britain, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made a surprise appearance to talk about their campaign to raise awareness about mental health. They also spoke about their taste in television, takeaways and the Royal Family WhatsApp group in what was an absolute masterclass in appearing down to earth and normal.

This is what the IOC should do. Go on local radio, write editorials in local newspapers. Make clear that, yes, if city "x" would like to build a new airport as part of its Olympic bid then that is great, but it is absolutely not a requirement and would not count in the Games budget. Talk about what the IOC money is spent on and how it is spent around the world. Pick apart the arguments of the anti-Olympic groups one by one before they are even made. And do it in simple everyday language, not in meaningless clichés.

"The IOC could and should do more to explain their investment in the cities it chooses," one former Bidding Committee official told me today. "This is the most fundamental misunderstanding. 

"London's bid team and [Mayor] Ken Livingstone talked a lot about the IOC and sponsor investment into London. Money they would not get if they didn't host the Games. The initial IOC investment was half LOCOG's budget but it, and the UK Government's investment into the Olympic Park, unlocked a huge amount of other money before, during and after."

Bach, at the end of the day, is an establishment politician who does not always find it easy appealing to the "common man". But why does it always need to be him? 

insidethegames editor Duncan Mackay's idea is that the IOC should get athlete ambassadors - Michael Phelps, for instance - to go and explain concepts to a city like how a Games-lane benefits him personally during an Olympics. This is something that always provokes criticism but is rarely explained.

I think a problem with the IOC is that they are so engrained with one way of thinking that they do not embrace left-field ideas, and this needs to change.

Of course, an even better solution would be to have good enough relations with a Bid Committee and both City and National Governments in order to draw-up a structured communications plan in which all promises are well presented and maintained. 

But, when this is not possible, the IOC must step-up their approach.

Could athletes such as Michael Phelps serve as ambassadors to get key messages across? ©Getty Images
Could athletes such as Michael Phelps serve as ambassadors to get key messages across? ©Getty Images

Bid Committees, for right or wrong, are invariably led by members of the elite city establishment and, in our modern age, are not always best positioned to do this well. Rather than rely on them before blaming these bodies when things go wrong, like Bach did after Boston withdrew in 2015, shouldn't they do more of the work themselves? It is their brand after all...

It can certainly be argued that the biggest problem for the IOC during the Bach era has not necessarily been the basic decisions themselves, but the way in which they were presented.

This was the case with Russian doping, where the IOC gave little impression that they truly cared about the allegations/evidence, and offered no olive branch to satisfy their critics, such as allowing whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova to participate neutrally. 

A similar point could be made in recent weeks with regard to the possible 2024 and 2028 joint awarding plans, where Bach is making the situation seem worse than it actually is by continually talking in riddles about how there are "too many losers".

Better communication would therefore make a big difference.

Not all of these ideas are perfect, and there is probably a lot of context here that I do not understand. 

But I hope the new communications director is at least given the freedom to shake things up a bit as this would help solve a lot of their problems.

They must take their own advice and either "change or be changed".