Olympic lessons for public relations

As the Paralympic games get underway in London, it is hard not to be inspired by the achievement of athletes who have overcome considerable personal challenges to be the best in their field. This commitment to excellence (something I wrote about recently at PR Conversations), which we also witnessed in the London 2012 Olympics just a few weeks ago, offers a number of lessons for public relations.

Planning – we see the end result of years of planning, along with its limitations, as the games play out. Most of the steps that PR practitioners should apply in their work can be found in sports – setting goals, developing a strategy and detailed tactics, considering available resources and measuring results – on an ongoing basis, but with a clear end achievement in mind.  The limitations of planning (for example of the Team GB mens’ road cycling team) can be seen when flexibility – or a plan B – isn’t present.  As I advocate in The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit, planning needs to allow for changing circumstances, which is often reflected in adaptive athletic performances.

Team work – this is evident not only in sports where players have to work together to achieve the ultimate prize of a medal, but how athletes support each other at a national and a discipline level. The merits of this can raise the performance of the individual to higher levels as they seek to emulate the success that others achieve – and when things don’t go to plan, the team can help provide counsel and motivation to try again. In PR, we often hear people talk about being a team-player, but there seems little focus on how a team spirit is cultivated and how different competencies can work together with the sum of the parts resulting in a better performance.

The appliance of science – the consequences of investing in analysing performance and making improvements on the basis of sound data have been emphasised by a scientific approach to sport. The ‘marginal gains‘ ethos of the Team GB cycling team (also behind the team Sky Tour de France success) emphasises the cumulative effect of making 1% improvements across your entire modus operandi. This links to the Japanese idea of kaizen (continuous improvement) and also demonstrates that there is rarely a single magic solution to improving performance. How many of us working in public relations take a close look at our processes and procedures and eliminate what isn’t efficient? Do we look at where we can make marginal gains? I often ask students who submit planning assignments whether they could achieve the same (or better) results in different ways as it seems in PR we are often guilty of going with a good idea (or sometimes a poor one) without examining in detail alternative approaches, or how a plan could be tweaked to be executed to maximum effect – or improved year on year when an event is repeated for example.

Coaching – most of the athletes who picked up Olympic medals praised their coaches; the people often behind the scenes who focus on supporting and motivating those who physically reach for gold. I’ve rarely met anyone in PR who has a coach in their lives – whether in their organisation or professional network. Why not? We may have mentors or supportive bosses, but what about the role of a coach who is there to challenge and give guidance on training and development in the way we see in sports?

Talent spotting – alongside the coaches – and psychologists, sports scientists and so forth – many sports have invested in talent scouts. This is about identifying those with potential and pro-actively investing in their development. In public relations we have got better at encouraging young people to enter the field – although debates around paying interns and dismissing the value of degree courses continue to reflect barriers to real understanding of talent development in my view. I also think that talent spotting and development is something that should be done at all stages of a career. Let’s champion, mentor and invest in the best talent we can attract and retain to work in public relations – and stop tolerating the mediocre and those who propagate poor practices.

Building a narrative – part of the psychology of sports can be seen in visioning success. This is a mental process of building a story of what winning will be like and recalling the steps that lead to this result from previous experience. It can sound a bit fluffy, but as story-tellers in public relations, we are used to crafting narratives that present a particular position or perspective of information. I’m not advocating self-delusion or minimising the importance of the hard work that is required to reach the end point, but emphasising how there needs to be a strong narrative thread drawing together the dream and the potential outcome.

This last point about the importance of narrative was evident in the Olympic opening ceremony (bonkers and brilliant) crafted by Danny Boyle. He had a vision – which may have been as simple as putting on a performance that his late father would have loved – and carried that through. The narrative was captivating overall (in my view) but of course it took time, money and dedication of a cast of thousands to realise. But the story helped keep all the parts together. In marketing plans this is often viewed as a creative concept, and again, I don’t often see this approach underpinning PR plans, where there is huge potential to go beyond thinking of simple key messages and crafting a compelling narrative.

I am sure these points will be evident as the Paralympics unfold over the next couple of weeks. There will be times when plans go awry, when team support helps athletes cope with success, and failure, when less than 1% will separate the gold from the silver, from the bronze, from the rest, when final words of coaches provide the necessary uplift of confidence and motivation, when talent comes to the fore and when we all discover engaging new stories.

Let the games begin…

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

3 thoughts on “Olympic lessons for public relations”

  1. Football is a genuine team sport; and it is everything many people (just read the media’s scathing comparison between the Olympic spirit and football) currently hate. However, the top Olympic events – the marathon and 100 meters for example – are anything but team focused. The ancient Greeks – the ones who invented the Olympics – didn’t do or believe in or admire team work either. In fact, they sabotaged and despised teams and prized excellence, individualism and winning above everything else (that’s the real Olympic spirit as defined by its founders and the best of the best today). This meant that the ancient Greeks often cheated, and did so blatantly (they even sometimes refused to acknowledge defeat and judges sometimes ruled that winners lost or came second…a bit like boxing today). But nevertheless, the ancient Greeks bowed to each other when the outcome was beyond dispute. I find it tough and near impossible to draw favourable comparisons between sport and PR… because sport is, er, sport and PR is something completely different.

    1. Paul – thank you for your comment. I am surprised that you don’t feel there are comparisons that can be made between sport and PR – both at least are human activities where some lessons can be shared.

      I appreciate you are a football fan, but my view is that it is rarely practised as a “genuine team sport” in terms of elite performance, where in recent years (and for the England team as an example), there most often seem to be 11 individuals focused more on their own priorities rather than a holistic team approach. Indeed, football seems structured these days to put the commercial interests of players and clubs ahead of any national team.

      Regarding the modern Olympics, there are few (if any) individual performers who are not supported by a team, which was the point I was making. That’s as true in the pinnacle running events as in those where more than one athlete aims for a gold as a team.

      Likewise, I agree that the focus is on winning in sport – hence why I advocate having clear goals for PR activities. In pitch processes, for example, PR practitioners are looking to win new business or secure media coverage for example. They certainly need to be as dedicated to win as any modern athlete.

      There are also personal goals which athletes have that can be applied to PR practitioners. Not every athlete is going to have the potential to be the Olympic champion but for them reaching the games can be a real achievement, or setting a personal best record, or beating other athletes at their level. That is in large part what inspiration is about – being able to watch and model others to improve your own performance whether or not you will ever be the world leader in your field.

      Regarding cheating, that is a matter of definition these days. If we are talking about doing whatever is possible – within the rules, or stretching them to the limits – then we should all have that commitment. Indeed, in PR – as in sport – we often challenge the rules (sometimes to the betterment of society). Those athletes competing in the Paralympics are increasingly challenging society’s norms and perceptions of those who do not fit the standard stereotypes of sports people.

      I didn’t mention promotional culture in respect of the Olympics/ Paralympics and sport in this post. Football gives us a model where promotional culture has been detrimental in many ways – and we are seeing brands recognise the promotional benefits of elite performers from the Paralympics now. PR plays a key role in such promotion – so there is another link there. But that’s for another post.

  2. Spain plays as a team like no other other national football team in history has before. But that tells us nothing significant or interesting about the state of the nation (from its poor economy to its glaring lack of national unity) they come from. Instead of looking for wider meaning in sport, I think we should just enjoy such spectacles for what they are: sport. Some sport is in teams, and some not. Some sports possess more magic and potential to inspire us, such as Spain’s national football team and Usain Bolt’s running, than others; such as the farcical but entertaining beach volleyball and synchronised swimming. Some teams, I agree, are dismally frustrating to watch and support, like by beloved England, which is full of wimpish prima donnas who, let’s be honest, are simply not as talented as Spain anyway.

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