Caroline AndrewCaroline Andrew

Having been fortunate enough to work on seven Olympic Games — through brands, athletes and organizations — it’s exciting to see how communication strategies and methods have evolved over the past 15-plus years, and, conversely, what’s remained status quo for athletes and brands.

Let’s start with the best part: What’s new and notable. As social media’s prominence continues to snowball, there’s been a drastic shift in athletes’ ability to create their own brands and tell their own stories. Gone are the days of relying solely on a sport’s organization or sponsors to do the work for them. After all, they’re building their own brands and connecting with fans (and hopefully future fans) year-round.

We’re eager to see whose personal marketing efforts will pay off in Korea, and already have our eyes on what some of the expected stand-out surfers and skaters are lining up leading into Tokyo.

O'Dwyer's Dec. '17 Entertainment & Sports PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Dec. '17 Entertainment & Sports PR Magazine

The flipside of every personality having a platform is that the fight for attention is fiercer than ever. This rings true with how many athletes the sporting organizations and brands are focusing on as well. The trend we’re seeing is that more marketing dollars are going to support fewer athletes, in the hopes that a deeper investment will pay off with more eyeballs seeing their stars (hopefully on top of the podium).

Naturally, competition is also fierce when it comes to pitching; there are only so many stories that can be told and media are being pitched by brands, agents and publicists. Figure out your hook and how it relates to the reader. And get it in there early.

For PR pros crafting their strategies, it’s important to keep in mind that training regimes and athlete schedules have become more intense throughout the past decade, which makes it harder to find time to line up interviews. Tip: plan out each week of the next two months and block their calendars for interviews.

Be sure to take advantage of technology! Skype or FaceTime is a great way to set up interviews and allow media to really feel what the athlete is going through. They can give some behind-the-scenes intel and make the reporter feel extra special by taking the interview in the gym or at the top of the hill. Tech is great way to maximize time when athletes aren’t in the US; they can still take over Instagram accounts, do Facebook Lives and more.

Capitalize on celebrities and influencers to drive social buzz during the hype of the Games without a hefty price tag. Celebs/influencers are so excited to have the chance to meet/swim/ski/ride/skate with an Olympian and share that key moment in time holding the medal.

What’s remained constant?

Looking back to Park City in the early 2000s, most athletes didn’t have publicists, Instagram didn’t exist and print was still alive and well (hard to remember those days!). Athletes, agents and brands have had to adapt quickly, but when you’re dealing with major corporate sponsors, global campaigns and lots of red tape, change hasn’t moved as quickly as some industries.

Rule 40 must be kept top of mind (“no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games”). Throughout the past decade this has often been an obstacle for athletes and companies that invest in them, but not the hefty price tag that comes with the ‘Olympic sponsor’ designation.

Many athletes have one — maybe two — games to maximize endorsement opportunities and not all athletes can (or want to) be sponsored by the short list of official sponsors, making the traditional enforcement of Rule 40 quite prohibitive. Tip: The Rule 40 period for the PyeongChang Games is February 1-28, 2018.

The positive side of this for our industry is that PR has remained a critical driver for storytelling when it comes to the Olympics. Freedom of press allows for stories to hit pre, during and post Games without having to worry about Rule 40 and a pesky Black Out Period. 

Another key to successful campaigns that has remained consistent is storytelling, i.e., finding the emotional connections that tie an athlete to a sport, brand or organization. The Olympics brings an opportunity to target outlets that don’t typically cover sports to highlight the lifestyle around these incredible athletes. This can include their workout routines, what they eat, how they train, what music they listen to, what they pack, their favorite destinations and more. You can get creative and have a lot of fun with their stories, how they relate to a brand you represent and drive awareness among a much larger audience that any non-Olympic year would present.

Prepping for the post-games haze

A critical time to plan for is the post-Olympic window, which really begins the moment the first medal is awarded and national anthem plays. As soon as new media stars emerge, the clock is ticking on Olympic fatigue, so you need to carve out space for your stories to be told.

Winning athletes are bound to head out on Victory Tours that will span major national media and regional opportunities. The “stardom” phase for most Olympians is short lived, so you want to maximize time. A strategy needs to be set up before an athlete even wins or you will too late. Think about the little things — what is the earliest possible time she can land back in the US? Who is in charge of keeping track of the medal that Jimmy Fallon is going to want to hold?

And, finally, the most important thing that has gone unchanged is the excitement around the Games! The pride that is evoked with these young, passionate athletes seeing their dreams fulfilled is unmatched. And, we consider ourselves lucky to be able to tell their stories!

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Caroline Andrew is Senior Vice President of Mfa, Ltd. Marketing and PR.