Were the Sochi Olympics a PR disaster?

The 2014 Winter Games came to a close Sunday night after a rather bumpy road, PR-wise. But were they really that much worse than previous Olympiads?

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are one for the record books, at least in terms of the endless string of memorable PR moments.

Even before the four Olympic rings were unveiled (remember that the fifth ring malfunctioned during the opening ceremonies), there were some PR doozies.

In the weeks leading up to the Games, there was a steady stream of reports about the massive cost overruns—we’re talking billions of dollars—alleged corruption, and questions about whether facilities would be ready in time, not to mention a veil of anti-gay sentiment.

And let’s not forget the packs of dogs wandering the Olympic Village.

After the Olympic flame was lit, more PR wonderment was on deck. We had the latest, greatest American speed skating suits that may not have been very speedy (or an excuse for those wearing them), NBC’s cringe-worthy reporting, half-finished hotel rooms, funky drinking water, athlete finger-pointing, and weather more suitable for a Michigan spring.

Through all the distractions, Sochi avoided what everyone feared the most and would have truly marred the games—an act of terrorism. Russia deserves a medal for keeping athletes and visitors safe during a two-week long event ripe for terrorism.

Put in perspective, the Games did bring the world together like no other event can. Nothing kills an Olympics like terrorism, a boycott, or cheating.

There was also something refreshing about the Russian attitude and responses to the negative issues. With the world media trying its best to poke holes in the Games, Russia’s honesty was refreshing. President Vladimir Putin didn’t downplay the cost overruns, and he seemed just as miffed about them as the rest of us.

Yes, hotel rooms weren’t quite ready, the Russians admitted, but they asked for patience and pointed out that the only ones who were overly inconvenienced were the media, given that the Games were just getting started and most of the public hadn’t arrived yet. Journalists love to complain, Russia asserted.

Russia defended itself and offered proof that its double-toilet bathrooms weren’t substandard. Yes, the proof brought up questions about surreptitious restroom surveillance. But remember, this is Russia—they invented surveillance. (And do Americans have room to complain about government surveillance these days?)

Don’t the Olympics, regardless of the host country, bring on controversy as a matter of course? Remember the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding drama in 1994? Or when the leaders of the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee spent million on gifts, trips, and plastic surgery for International Olympic Committee members in trying to win the bid? When is there not a judging dispute over figure skating?

We can even almost forgive NBC’s salacious interview of a clearly distraught Bode Miller about his dead brother because we felt bad that Bob Costas was inflicted with pink-eye, an infection most common with the elementary school set.

From an athlete perspective, the games had a motivating, lighthearted approach, all played out on social media. When U.S. bobsledder Johnny Quinn got stuck in a bathroom, he broke down the door and shared the experience with the world. Quinn hadn’t even participated in his event, and he was famous. Who needs another Shaun White gold medal when you have a guy putting his fist through a door?

And those poor abandoned dogs turned into social media puppy love. Millions checked out Olympic silver medalist Gus Kenworthy’s Tweet about coming home with a Sochi puppy. It was so much sweeter than seeing him pose with a medal around his neck.

Gil Rudawsky heads the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.

(Image via, via & via)

Topics: PR


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