An Olympic Village...or a Potemkin Village?

The World May Not Buy the Image Of New China Presented At the Games

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Richard Burger
Richard Burger
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Today they will lock down the Olympic Green, which won't open again until September when the Paralympic Games begin. Now that things have begun to quiet down, I've had a chance to reflect on the challenges of handling PR during the games and at how well China has challenged its own PR during the past month.

One thing I've learned about doing Olympic PR is just how top-loaded the 17-day event is. There's an unbelievable amount of effort expended in the days leading up to the opening ceremony and the week following.

After that, the balloon rapidly deflates. You've prepared your materials, held your most important press conferences, run around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to coordinate a seemingly endless stream of interviews with the very highest executives and then.....I don't want to say it dies, but it sure slows down and gets easier.

I went to the Olympic Green recently and it was packed. Visitors are lined up at the partner pavilions in spite of the on-again-off-again rain, gray skies and a sudden drop in temperature. BOCOG finally opened up the green a few days ago after restricting access to non-ticket holders.

Last week, a number of sponsors were wringing their hands. They'd spent millions of marketing dollars building elaborate pavilions, and for the first few days after the opening ceremony, the Olympic Green was practically a ghost town. The sight of televised events in stadiums that were clearly full of empty seats added to a sense of gloom among some sponsors and of mystification among the media in town to cover the games. Every seat was supposed to be sold out.

There's a lot more people now and the stadiums seem fuller, perhaps in part because BOCOG came up with a creative solution to save face. In any case, by last week, things seemed pretty happy on all sides.

I think the lingering question in the weeks and years ahead will be whether China saw a good return on its investment of tens of billions of dollars in perhaps the most ambitious positioning/branding project of all time.

The Olympic Games were always about PR, about China's "coming out" and about presenting a new image of China to the world. Instead of a hopelessly polluted Beijing drowning in its own traffic, newcomers would see a manicured city with relatively clean air and fast-moving highways. They would see cops on every corner, smiling volunteers who speak English, even recycle bins (very conspicuous all over the green) so people can carefully separate plastics and biodegradables -- a very new development in China.

Of course, every once in a while we got "uncomfortable reminders" that perhaps something less delightful lurked behind the carefully constructed montage of happiness and love. But compared to the glitz and the glamour and the gold, these and other inconvenient truths received relatively short shrift.

From the spectacular opening ceremony to the efficient crowd management to the prettying up of the city, I'd give China very high marks.

At the same time, I'm sorry (though not surprised) they didn't seize on this as an opportunity to show the world they had lightened up, that they could extend some magnanimity to protesters, give reporters truly free access to pursue their stories and open up their internet 100%.

Such simple gestures would tell the world that China is truly secure, that it truly believes in itself. When it makes grandiose displays and then tries clumsily to stifle all criticism, it leaves itself open to charges of creating a Potemkin Village and raises questions of whether the smiles and air of celebration is real or mere window dressing, to be taken down shortly after the crowds go home.

Either way, we'll know soon enough. It's easy enough to create a big burst of publicity when you have unlimited resources to create the greatest show on earth. The true PR value can only be measured when we see how sustainable the image of The New China proves to be.

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