As the expected half million visitors converge on Beijing to attend the 2008 Olympic Games, they'll be welcomed with an unusual welcome gift: a set of rules about what they may and may not do while a guest in the city.
There'll be no sleeping in parks. No smoking at outdoor events. No shouting of slogans or sentiments that are deemed by the authorities to be harmful to the host country's morals, economy, or culture. No wearing of such slogans on T-shirts, either.
On top of those less-than-diplomatic touches, there's the blanket warning from the Chinese authorities stating that your tickets to any Olympic events don't guarantee your entry to the country at all.
Doesn't sound like a hospitable Olympic-city welcome. I'm sure you're wondering why anyone would bother attending. Sounds like China hasn't changed one bit. But let's put this regulated environment into an international context.
Chewing gum has been banned in Singapore for more than 20 years. Tickets to the US and Australian Olympics in the last decades did not guarantee entry to the country, either. Smoking is banned in public areas in Sweden, too. And you can't drink alcohol in public either.
Announcing the introduction of a joint Austria-Switzerland visa for the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship, the Swiss Government's Federal Department of Justice and Police Web site warns that "the presentation of an admission ticket for a EURO 2008 game does not does not entitle [the holder] automatically to a visa." Being joint hosts of the next world championship event raises its problems: Austria is a member of the European Union and Switzerland is not. Hence the need for special visa provisions.
So, China is not peculiar. Every sovereign territory has its restrictions and regulations, built on a complex combination of culture, history, and international relationships. China has simply ticked all the boxes.
And that's the problem. They've ticked all the boxes. They've dotted the i's. They've crossed the t's. And they've arrive at a $15 billion PR package that... fails every time.
Every time the Beijing organizing committee makes an announcement with the best intentions, or defends itself, public relations plummet. Their reports on progress with their commitment to cleaning up air pollution in time for the Games backfires by underlining how unhealthy the Beijing environment is. PR hits entirely the wrong note by highlighting the admission that the air-clearing has been achieved by closing factories and, in totalitarian style, throwing people out of work. A news story on restricting ticket availability to locals so that tourists are at an advantage reinforces the world's assumption of China's ongoing record of social repression.
There's a lot that China could do better, like every country in the world. But the Beijing Olympics PR machine is failing badly to put a positive spin on anything. So, what are they doing wrong?
It's the ticking of the boxes. The approach is entirely methodical. The step-by-step approach fails to recognize the human context. In this framework, any move by the Beijing Olympic Committee or the Chinese authorities will fail to gain positive attention. Just think about it. When did you last hear a good news story about the Beijing Olympics?
I was in Sydney when the Olympics were staged in 2000. Puzzled Americans happily and freely explored the city streets hoping to find a kangaroo. Japanese tourists followed the opened and upheld umbrellas of their tour leaders, inspecting and appreciating every detail. And everyone found their way: the signage systems were more than four year in preparation and designing. They were branded components that helped spread the message of the Games incidentally, when they were caught in the backgrounds of still and moving film shots. But these well-laid plans, which ticked plenty of boxes, weren't necessarily what made the headlines.
What captured world attention was the personality of the event, and the touches that communicated it. For example, the policemen's caps. Yes, you read it correctly. The cops' caps!
Every police officer kept a map of Sydney under his or her cap, just in case a bewildered tourist needed directions. When this happened, officers would neatly raise their caps and offer a useful city map to the visitor, along with good advice. The thoughtful gesture made headlines in the New York Times, on The Today Show, and in USA Today. Journalists were really struck by the detail that they enjoyed first-hand. And why? Because it was genuine, authentic, and human.
And this is where China misses the boat—and the point. They may have made meticulous plans (painting mountains green, as rumors suggest, to disguise garbage with a "natural" hue; removing clouds so it doesn't rain during the Games), but a machine well-oiled by attention to detail is not necessarily a comfortable or functional one. Nothing in the Beijing PR arsenal has yet evoked the human picture of the host city and country. What it has achieved is international suspicion. And that veneer of international sensibility is splitting, weakened by its lack of human context.
For the Beijing Olympics to recover international goodwill, the committee and the authorities need to grasp and communicate the human dimension. And to communicate the human dimension, they need to tell human stories.
Stories bring concepts to life. China's PR blitz has managed to erect the stage, assemble the props, tune up the orchestra, and gather the actors. But it has failed to unite these essential elements with a manuscript. Beijing's PR badly needs some good storytellers and lots of creative energy to bring life, depth, passion, and authenticity to the world event.
I suppose that everything will be on time, seeing that the schedule box has probably been ticked. But precise scheduling is not the most meaningful measure of success.
Without a rapid injection of genuine, human stories into the Beijing Olympic experience, the Games are likely to show that it's possible for the operation to succeed but for the patient to die.
Take the first step (it's free).
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