Skip to content

PR Lessons from the 2016 Summer Olympic Games

Claire Deneen

Claire Deneen

Despite public concerns and skepticism leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the Games came and went without any major hitches. But that’s not to say the Games weren’t filled with plenty of memorable moments. For 16 days, the world was captivated by moments like Simone Biles’ flawless floor routine, the image of injured track runners Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino of the U.S. crossing the finish line together, and Michael Phelps last Olympic race (or so he says).

In many ways, this year’s Olympics were a journey of good and bad PR moments. If PR professionals take a step back, there are quite a few lessons to be learned from the Games. Here are a few key PR takeaways from this summer’s Olympics:

  • Tell the truth. If there’s one less to be learned from the “Lochte-Gate” scandal, it’s don’t lie (especially to mom!). Swimmer Ryan Lochte dug himself into an epic hole by claiming that he and three other U.S. swimmers had been robbed at gunpoint after a night out in Rio. However, within a few days, conflicting reports found that the swimmers had actually vandalized a bathroom and the “armed robbers” were in fact security guards. The incident not only resulted in international embarrassment for Lochte, but it also cost him several major sponsors including Speedo USA.

     Lochte could have avoided the whole fiasco by being more honest from the beginning, instead of lying repeatedly and failing to give an adequate apology. To maintain public trust, brands need to be honest and accept responsibility for their mistakes. If your brand finds itself in the wrong, don’t delay your apology and do your best to make it come across as sincere.

  • Choose your words carefully- since nothing is ever really “off the record.” U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo proved she hadn’t learned from her prior media blunders when she went on a rant about how the Swedish soccer team is “a bunch of cowards.” While it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, if you’re in the media spotlight it’s important to never lose sight of your audience and how your message may be perceived. If you’re message carries even the slightest bit of controversy, it will likely attract negative attention (especially in today’s age of social media). Tread your words carefully and remember the old sang “if you don’t want to see it in print, don’t say it.”
  • Play to your team’s strengths. The “Final Five” US women’s gymnastics team charmed America’s hearts and proved that teamwork really does make the dream work. Simone Biles might have been the star of the show, but each member of the team played an important role in the team’s success. From Madison Kocian’s performance on the highbars to Laurie Hernandez’s beam routine, the team members played to each other’s strengths and encouraged one another along the way. Similarly, on a PR account there’s important work for all members to contribute from pitching efforts and writing to client strategy and industry expertise. A positive team environment that pushes members to work hard is critical to delivering solid client work.
  • Work through adversity. In many ways, tenacity seems be the theme of all Olympic success stories, but there were several notable examples at this year’s games. For example, when Michael Phelps returned to the Olympic Stage, he was determined to beat South Africa’s Chad le Clos in the 200-meter fly. When Phelps talked about his loss to le Clos at the prior Olympics, he said, “What happened four years ago stuck with me, is still with me. It was a frustrating race for me.” Phelps used his loss as a motivator and rewrote the story at this year’s games. Similarly, the U.S. women’s track team won gold in the 4×100-meter relay race, but they nearly didn’t make the final after a missed baton handoff. The American team filed a complaint through the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, and was granted a do-over. Both the women’s track team and Phelps showed how tenacity pays off. In the media relations world, we often hear no from reporters- even those we know our pitches are perfect for. It’s our job as PR professionals to learn from rejection and alter our approach as necessary. By building relations with reporters, actively seeking feedback and pushing your client’s message, PR professionals can create incredible opportunities.

As PR professionals, there’s plenty of lessons we can take away from the Rio Olympics. By learning from these events, you can better advise clients and establish a winning PR strategy.

What was your favorite moment from this year’s Olympic Games? Share with us in the comments!