Terrence Burns ©Engine Shop

The number one criticism about the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently is that they cannot seem to get their "message right". 

Some of this criticism is fair, and some of it is not.

Contrary to the general worldview, the IOC is not a global monolith of tightly controlled, well-managed organisations. 

In fact, there are a LOT of people at work in the Olympic world who are actually thinly veiled volunteers at best, trying their best with limited resources.

There is not a global Olympic communications plan floating around out there that includes a set of consistent key messages or clearly assigned roles and procedures for crisis management, let alone proactive communications efforts. 

The reason for this is not incompetence. The reality is that the Olympic   world (the Olympic Movement, which we will discuss in a moment) is not organised or managed as a standard corporate entity.

The truth is, and I know this because I was part of an effort that tried many years ago, is it is hard (but not impossible) to instill a state-of-the-art communications process across the world of Olympic entities.

Globally, these organisations and their partners number into the hundreds with wildly varying degrees of knowledge, skill, and resources. Whatever (often little) financial resources that do exist are dedicated to sport and athletes, not to communications plans.

What is the best definition of the Olympic Movement? ©Getty Images
What is the best definition of the Olympic Movement? ©Getty Images

Where to start? 

First, I think the IOC needs to help people understand that the Olympic Movement is not the IOC.

Here is how the IOC defines the Olympic Movement on its website: "The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism."

I will be honest - that seems difficult for anyone outside the Olympic bubble to understand. 

I suspect it is because it reads as an attempt to define the Movement as a "belief system", rather than a "thing". I believe it must be first described as a "thing"Once the "thing" is clear, it is easy to describe its purpose.

I tested the IOC's definition, very unscientifically, on both sport and non-sport people - but crucially, not "Olympic" people.  No-one understood what the statement was trying to say.

Conversely, when I tested it among "Olympic" people, there was a general - though not definitive - acknowledgment of what the statement was attempting to define.  

So, one can surmise that the statement was either, i) written by committee - which is the death knell for any creative exercise intended to concisely inform, or ii) it was written by insiders who rarely venture outside the Olympic bubble, or iii) it is an English translation of something originally written in French, which may or may not have been confusing, or, iv) it may be written in English by non-native English speakers. Or all of the above.

In any event, it feels as if the authors did not truly understand who the audience is or should be. It feels as if they are writing for themselves. The first question should always be "who is the audience?" In this case, it is the world. Unfortunately, the world does not understand.

Admittedly without a lot of wordsmithing, I offer (and I realise the risk I am taking) a simpler explanation of what the Olympic Movement is, and what it does:

"The Olympic Movement is the global affiliation of sporting entities and personalities required for the Olympic Games, from grassroots athletics to elite sport. This includes entities such as National Olympic Committees, International Sports Federations, National Governing Bodies (or Federations) of Sport, athletes, coaches, and Olympic commercial partners around the world. The greatest manifestation of the Olympic Movement is the Olympic Games.

"The purpose of the Olympic Movement and its members is the global promotion of the Olympic values (called Olympism) in order to place sport at the service of mankind for a better world.

"The Olympic Movement's efforts are overseen by the International Olympic Committee, whose membership of this writing is 96 men and women, all volunteers, from over 80 nations." 

Could IOC President Thomas Bach do a monthly podcast? ©Getty Images
Could IOC President Thomas Bach do a monthly podcast? ©Getty Images

Look, I admit this is not perfect, but I think it makes it clear what the Movement is, and what it does.

Next, there needs to be a clear and highly differentiated set of messages (brand positioning) that clearly and succinctly enunciate i) why the Olympics are unique and ii) why they matter. 

As a member of the IOC marketing team 20 years ago, we undertook a global research initiative to do just that - and we made a lot of progress. 

One word defined as integral to the Olympic brand by consumers (not by us) around the world - 11 countries to be exact - was "hope". 

Here is how we defined "hope" and the Olympics, all those years ago: "The Olympics transcend time and offer hope for a better world using sport competition for all, without discrimination, as an example and lesson for humanity."

Humbly, I still believe that is the most succinct and differentiated definition of what the Olympics are supposed to be. If there is one thing that unites all humanity, in every endeavor, it is the presence and the power of "hope".

But here we are now, not 20 years ago. How should the IOC address its current communications challenges?

Some thoughts in no particular order.

Be Human

More openness, more honesty about real issues and problems; more humility.

Consumers instinctively understand and appreciate the humility of athletes, their genuineness. Humility is innate in sport. It should be innate in the IOC's messaging, and more importantly, in the voice it uses to speak to the world.

Be Open

The world needs to hear an honest discussion about the challenges the Movement faces going forward, how these challenges arose, and what the IOC is doing to change.

I suggest activities designed to bring IOC leadership closer "to the people", such as more informal media round-tables with Olympic leaders, including President Thomas Bach.

I suggest creating "thought-leadership" op-ed pieces and monthly podcasts from President Bach, to educate, illuminate, and never to obfuscate. These efforts should be informative in a positive way and clearly establish the IOC President as the ethical (not just the organisational) leader of the Movement.

Grand words (platforms, reforms, new guidelines) are not enough - real systemic change has to happen, or no-one will listen.

Be Inspiring 

The Olympic Games are the only global event that every leader on the face of the earth - from Kim to Trump to Putin - believe in, participate in, and dedicate to their youth.

This is an incredible message, yet no-one is talking about it in those specific terms. The Games are our best hope to show global cooperation and brotherhood in a time of increasing nationalism and strife.

Volunteers are the
Volunteers are the "unsung heroes" of the Olympic Movement ©Getty Images

Be Clear

I believe the IOC uses too much "Olympic jargon" in its public-facing communications, e.g. "Olympic Solidarity", "Olympic Agenda 2020", "The New Norm", etc, etc.

The IOC needs to simplify its language to make its "mission" clearer, its role in the Games and Movement clearer, and what it is - and is not - responsible for (currently any and everything negative surrounding the Games is the "IOC's fault").

Be Strategic

Look at the entire Olympic ecosystem (current/past/future Organising Committees, Federations, National Olympic Committees, bid cities, sponsors, broadcasters, etc) as an integrated communications platform, allowing each to add to or adapt it to their own audiences. 

Olympians have to be advocates, not detractors. Volunteers are the great unsung heroes of the Games; they have incredible stories of their love for the Games with no strings attached. IOC members. Current and past leaders of previous host nations to explain the power and positive legacy (not infrastructural legacy, but human legacy).

Be Bold

The IOC needs an overarching role that links communications (traditional and digital media), branding and marketing together - or at least act as a bridge.

This role has to help create the new story, the new narrative and ensure that all members of the Movement remain on message with a process to ensure leverage and consistency.

Finally, create a new relationship with the Olympic media; honestly, they do not want the Olympics to fail - think about it, if the Olympics fail, they fail. Help them help you; they can (and must) remain objective.

So, those are my thoughts for what they are worth (they are free, so draw your own conclusions about their value!).

I love the Olympic Games and more importantly, what they stand for. I personally know dozens and dozens of incredible people within the Movement who spend every day trying to make this a better world. I want to see them succeed.