First of all one of the reasons why the Chinese government hired a Western public relations firm to work on the 2008 Beijing Olympics is because they need to create a positive country image for the games while reducing the human rights concerns surrounding China’s actions concerning Darfur and Tibet. According to Chalip et al (2003) and Hiller (2000), country image plays an important role in international public relations and marketing. Therefore, the public image of a country has been suggested as one of the key macro-level variables in influencing international consumers’ attitudes and purchase intentions toward a country’s products or brands (Kang & Yang, 2010). Furthermore, hosting an Olympics could elevate a country’s destination image and establish China’s awareness and image, and thereby engender customer-based brand equity. As Grohs & Reisinger, (2005) states, when the image of an event and brand image are a good fit, the effect of sponsorship can be particularly maximized.
However the question is: why the Chinese government hired a Western public relations firm instead of an Asia firm? Basically China’s centralized political system had the challenge to play on the world stage, which today doesn’t just mean understanding how to control the messages that come out of formal government ministries or the messages that are prepared and disseminated to the global news media (CLIFFORD, 2008). There are the blogs, there are Web sites; there’s a whole world of Internet-based communication that western companies were better prepared for than Chinese government to deal with.
Additionally Chinese government acknowledges the fact that United States is the world’s most powerful country brand (Kohut and Wike, 2009). For instance, CocaCola, Pepsi and Nike being from America were fundamental to their success. Therefore, since the Olympic Games are considered to be the biggest sports event in the world, the Chinese government decided to use western international public relations strategies to promote China in a positive way while avoiding political issues.
Mega-events such as the Olympics or World Cup soccer are renowned as global events that transcends politics. Therefore, those events have typically been viewed by protesters as opportunities for call attention of the global audience about their political issues. For instance when the Greeks sponsored Olympic games in approximately 776 B.C (Gill, 2009) politics had no place, during these Olympics there was no war, no executions, and no military action. Although the outlook for such events has not been as promising recently, due increase of different interests, protesters still see megaevents as opportunities to show their problems to the world. As it happened in 1972 the Munich (Germany) a terrorist attack killed 17 people, in 1980 in Moscow the U.S. led a boycott of the games because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in retaliation in 1984 the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles games, and the list goes on and on(Gill, 2009).
During global events such as the Olympics and World Cup soccer, the hosting country receives a large amount of publicity, which the country has little or zero control over. (Keegan & Green, 2011). The lack of control gives to protesters an opportunity to lead the subject to focus on their own issues and therefore pressure the government for change. Even knowing that development in global communications facilitated the international transmission of information about social issues overseas, contributing to increased public awareness, only at big Global events such as the Olympics do protesters have the whole world’s attention. With such large events countries have unique advertising opportunities for global marketers to reach a broader audience than the typical sports event. Protesters also can weave the events into TV news, create buzz around the events, and claim their issues on web sites to surround global audience, regardless of which media they are using. These initiatives are intended to break through the clutter and educate people globally about their problems by linking it to worthwhile events. Protesters hope to benefit from the 'halo effect' when positive feelings for the sports events spill over to their cause and pressure the governments for change.
The protester’s strategy seems to work, at least in the Olympics in 2008 the Chinese government ordered the deployment of “10,000 cadres to the grassroots,” an appeasement policy to respond to the pressure from Western countries. Further, the central government implemented a mild price increase for heating oil in Tibet in contrast to a steep hike elsewhere in the country. The Tibetan autonomous regional government provided more than 4.5 million yuan in subsidies as emergency funds to local Tibetans. Observers consider these moves as efforts to buy peace (Tian, 2008).
Global audience by advertising during the Olympics VS offset the potential for bad publicity.
Any nation branding initiative or campaign is newsworthy in of itself and can be extensively discussed and covered by domestic and international media, who can easily misinterpret or discredit any nation branding campaign (Gyorgy, 2010). However, unaddressed issues can quickly develop into crises when the country is in the spotlight by hosting those mega-events such as Olympics and its reputation is at stake. Those issues or potential points of conflicts between countries and the foreign public according to Gyorgy (2010), can impact negatively upon the nation brand if the country does not have a good strategy to manage the crises and communicate effectively. The potential for sales is enormous during the Olympics, therefore companies are willing to take the risk of advertising during it, as Hosey president of HIGHGEAT stated “Olympics always inspire the consumer at some level influencing the consumer desires to be active, and that spawns opportunity for companies that provide performance products” (SGB Question, 2008). In the Beijing Olympics for instance any affiliation carries the brand value of a government endorsement, which gave an opportunity for multinational companies in China to make themselves known.
Even knowing that leadership and control of publicity are real challenges for any country, the opportunity to reach a global audience by advertising during the Olympics offset the potential for bad publicity. As Matt Beck, Senior Footwear from New Balance said companies had advertised during the Olympic Games and have opportunities for great product placement (SGB Question, 2008). Thus, they can use PR to enhance the relationships by using their unique expertise to produce communal as well as exchange relationships (Gyorgy, 2010). Although the risk for bad publicity still exist with strong and ethical commitment assuming the responsibility on behalf of a nation, they can overcome the risk in rewards for both, the country and the group which generated the bad publicity. For instance in the Beijing Olympics the Chinese central government implemented actions that benefited Tibet and in exchange helped to elevate China’s image (Tian, 2008).
With consumers turning away from marketing and advertising, consciously avoiding any marketing messages, companies and countries should be aware of risk of bad publicity not only in mega-events but any time. Therefore only dynamic brand identities (Gyorgy, 2010), can enable companies and countries to build strong relationship with the market, co-creation of brand identity as well as meanings and values strong enough to support bad publicity.
The U.S. firm Weber Shandwick Worldwide and the United Kingdom (UK) firm Bell Pottinger both provided public relations advice and lobbied the International Olympic Committee on China’s behalf. Those companies turn the protesters issues into a central message promoted in the core of the bid that hosting the Olympics would improve human rights conditions in China. This theme was actually promoted to foreign audiences but not widely disseminated within China itself.
Weber Shandwick for instance conducted extensive research in China about how global business leaders view corporate reputation (Silvia, 2007). The research found that consumer attitudes toward corporate apologies were received with skepticism, while announcing specific actions is more accredited. In 2008 China has certainly taken this route, every recent crisis was followed by swift action, for example the execution of top officials found guilty on corruption charges.
Hill and Knowlton a consulting firm helped China with recommendations and showed how to hold regular Olympics-related press conferences and media trips. Under those recommendations Beijing started to show a welcoming face to the outside world, especially foreign media, in order to fulfill promises it made when bidding for the Olympics. For instance, China even had joined Western nations condemning Burma's crackdown in the U.N. Security Council, it was the first time Beijing has agreed to such a measure (Liu, 2007).
By the recommendation of those PR companies China made its pitch for 2008 and Beijing showed the Olympic Committee that it had learned to use the language that the international community uses. China did not respond directly to the protesters, they actually took actions to assure their position to the world that they are prepared to improve their internal conditions while hosting the Olympics. For example three months before the Olympics an earthquake hit a critical area of China, the government rapidly showed to the world their efforts to help the victims in the same way that endorsed foreign companies as an active participants helping to recover the image of them all.
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THE SGB QUESTION. SGB, 15487407, Aug2008, Vol. 41, Issue 8