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Operation Beijing: What PR Is Doing Wrong

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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.


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Martin Lindstrom (www.martinlindstrom.com) is the author of Brand Child, BRAND sense, and Buyology (October 2008).

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  • by KW Tue Aug 5, 2008 via web

    If the author has been to Beijing lately, perhaps he would have written a completely different article. For someone who has lived half of her life in China and the other half in the U.S., I can see and feel the positive changes that are happening in China today in relation to all of those things the author has talked about in the article. Instead of commenting on the obvious, some recommendations on a better PR program would be much more appreciated.

  • by Katie Tue Aug 5, 2008 via web

    A big part of the problem is that the little human events we do hear about reflect negatively on China. A family restaurant (and livelyhood) suffering because China deemed their neighborhood too unsightly for the Olympics - and erected a wall around the neighborhood, etc, etc. With the amount of money they're spending, couldn't they have improved the neighborhood?

    There are just no small touches of kindness from China, so of course we view them as a machine!

  • by Sophie Wed Aug 6, 2008 via web

    For the first time to sponser Olympic games in such a big country, please don't push too much. Beijing and China try their best to make it better. Before blams something, please give BJ and China a chance first. Not any countries or areas can make everything perfect...

  • by KDO Wed Aug 6, 2008 via web

    Do Jimei and Martin share the same copy editor?

  • by Rotnad Wed Aug 6, 2008 via web


    Looking at news reports, I think the Chinese are doing pretty well, cleaning up Beijing air; removing dogs from the menu!! Most news reports are positive; though there were pictures of American athletes arriving with High tech masks !!!
    The article looks at the PR effort from the point of view of Europeans and Americans; time you realized the world is made up of many cultures, many views

  • by Lieca Wed Aug 6, 2008 via web

    Maybe this is an uneducated observation, but I find this article very redundant because it’s pointing out the obvious. I really don't think a communist and totalitarian country would be too experienced in the little things that make the country seem thoughtful...of course they don't have stellar PR that would require a recognition of what appeals to people...something I don't believe they know much about

  • by Neil Wed Aug 6, 2008 via web

    I am an optimist by nature and think that through sport international dialogue can rise to a higher level, especially if we are not to critical of the Olympics. No, it will not be perfect but they are trying.

    If they come out of this feeling pride, this is an opening for better relations with the West. If they feel they are insulted at every turn, it may have the opposite effect.

    Only good can come, for both China and the world, by a successful Olympics and opening of the country. This will lead, probably slowly, to better and better relations with the West. Let us all hope for a successful Olympics!

  • by Neil Wed Aug 6, 2008 via web

    I wrote the above very, very fast and meant "too" critical not "to" critical. I need to learn to slow down my writing!

  • by Rich Thu Aug 7, 2008 via web

    I think this is a view very much based on the outside perspective. What about being INSIDE before raising them? The observations seem to just be an oversight of what is being seen and heard of in the news and not being hands-on with the matter.

  • by Neil Thu Aug 7, 2008 via web

    I think the author was just observing, rightly, that the Chinese could have done a much, much better job of PR in the run up to the games. She is absolutely right.

    Since very few people get to be insiders, the only choice is to make observations. Hers were insightful observations.

  • by Neil Thu Aug 7, 2008 via web

    Here is another example. We never found out what happened to the workers who are idled during the games.

    It would have been a fairly easy move to pay them while their factory is closed and announce that to the world. Human touches are what is missing. I still wonder what happens to all these people who are tossed from their jobs to clean the air?

    To me, it is PR death by a million little cuts. At every move, they could have put a human face and element to it as the author suggests. This would have been a great opportunity to show the human side of the Chinese people, not just the wheels of their state apparatus turning, turning, turning.

    That said, I hope the games get a chance to see the human face of the Chinese. It is probably stressful to host games and once they get started maybe we will see a human side.

    Again, I wish them and the world the best for the Olympics. I want to see a proud China come out of the games wanting to talk to the West and not view us as a threat.

  • by Geoff Smith Thu Aug 7, 2008 via web

    I thought the article carefully avoided cultural critical comments and just painted a picturethatof despite best intentions and efforts of those organising the Beijing Olympics, outside of China it just hasn't resonated positively in a PR sense. To make the point, comparisons were made of similar restrictions and issues elsewhere in the world at international events.

    The purpose of PR is surely to provide heaps of useful information and create a positive feeling towards the event. Well, that can't be done mechanically in much of the western world. No doubt many employers would find it easier to operate their business and manage their staff by a mechanical tick box process. It just doesn't work! As the writer noted, there needs to be human aspects to the PR - stories and anecdotes which cause people to feel the warm dimension to the structure and the mechanics. Perhaps the Chinese PR people organised their PR as they would for any significant event in China. Unfortunately the rest of the world was the target audience. Perhaps they made the fatal mistake of not thinking this through from the perspective of the target audience?

  • by Felix Fri Aug 8, 2008 via web

    PR is all about leaving a good and lasting impression in the eyes of external audiences. There's no better way to do this than by appealing to our emotions. That China has spent billions in her PR efforts is no doubt. But the brains tasked to run the PR campaigns should know the fundermentals of PR regardless of culture or government. The writer is right. Sometimes we think so big we forget the obvious.

  • by Neil Fri Aug 8, 2008 via web


    And there are some things that are beyond PR. For example, Tibet. There is just no way to spin that in a way that makes the PRC look good.

  • by S. Neil Vineberg Fri Aug 8, 2008 via web

    I've posted extensively on my blog to raise awareness of China related to their horrible record of human rights in Tibet and their poor food processing industry oversight especially related to Apple Juice concentrate.

    With regard to the Olympic PR effort, my feeling is their PR effort is not as bad as you think. They're first playing to the local, hometown audience, and Chinese born citizens living in the US and elsewhere. Next, they are playing to the rest of the world doing business with them, including world and business leaders. Finally, they are playing to citizens the world over.

    Just about everything in my home seems to be made in China. So no matter what we feel about China and despite their poor human rights record, we're still buying Chinese manufactured goods, and President Bush is attending the opening ceremony. That says something. It says we don't care enough about what's going on to stop buying Chinese made goods.

    When I was growing up, I was told by my government to believe the Russians were bad. After Gorbachev opened things up, I met many Soviets and they're the greatest people in the world. Just like us. Something tells me it's the same with the Chinese.

    The credit we need to give the Chinese is this...they had the smarts to get their people working and build out an incredible manufacturing economy right from after Chairman Mao. Think start-up economy. They did pretty well even while retaining a form of hybrid democratic/communistic society. And don't think American businesses did not help them figure out a model that would suit us first. We helped create a huge windfall of cash for China by positioning our manufacturing operations next to cheap labor.

    If we evaluate the success of the PR effort and their strategic objectives in this order (local audience, business audience, citizens), they're probably doing pretty well. And if they end this with incredibly high local pride, they'll feel that's a win win.

  • by Raina Thu Aug 14, 2008 via web

    Bad mouthing a culture, or stating your personal political view, is not appropriate in this marketing professional community.

    Unfortunately this article posting disappoints me greatly...

  • by Marian Sat Aug 23, 2008 via web

    This article is nothing but a reflection of either 2 things:

    1. Other nations are so green with envy at China that they try to find the littlest mistake.
    2. They haven´t gone over the fact that the world is made up of various cultures and it is about time they stop imposing on their one-sided standards.

    China tried, and did it so well, why can´t some people just accept it.

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