Olympic Sponsors Should Remind World What Games Are Really All About

For Companies on the Defensive about Darfur, Tibet and Human Rights, Here's Some Suggested Talking Points

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Michael Maslansky
Michael Maslansky
The Olympic torch continues to flee through the streets of the world's major cities, hounded by chants of "Save Darfur" and "Free Tibet." The Chinese government stumbles from one public-relations misstep to the next in its less-than-impressive attempts to put on a happy face for the world party about to show up at its door.

Now, as the protesters begin to train their sights on the major Olympics sponsors, what is a good corporate citizen to do?

Companies today are held to a higher standard than ever before. More and more customers are adding good corporate citizenship to the list of brand attributes they consider before making a purchase. An increasing percentage of consumers (almost 30% in the U.S.) will drive a little farther or pay a little more to patronize a company they respect. There are strong incentives for companies to be careful what they sponsor, where they work and how they operate.

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So is it time to cut and run? Gird for a fight? Prepare for boycotts?

None of the above. It's time for the corporate sponsors to save the Olympics. Yes, I'm talking about the same folks accused every four years of sullying the purity of amateur sports with their advertising and commercialism. Sponsors, your time to shine has come.

For years now, the self-promotional allure of hosting the world's biggest amateur sporting event has led major cities to prostrate themselves before the International Olympic Committee in an attempt to lure the games. The motivation was all about the bid cities and only marginally about the games themselves.

Beijing was a particularly transparent example. Its assessment was that the Olympics would mark China's coming-out party on the world scene. And it may not be entirely wrong (although if recent history holds, it'll more likely find itself having wildly overpaid for a celebration too soon forgotten).

The protesters, for their part, have chosen to battle China on its own terms. If the government wants to make this about Beijing, then let's remind the world what other things Beijing is doing.

Well, we've stood by too long and let both China and the protesters make the Beijing Olympics all about Beijing. It's time for the sponsors to step up and remind the world what the games are really all about -- the Olympics.

Take the lead
If I were advising one of the Olympic sponsors, I would urge it to stop playing defense and take the lead. By championing the original idea of the Olympics -- and taking a real lead in communicating it -- the sponsors truly have an opportunity to save the Beijing Olympic Games from themselves. I would suggest communicating the following:

Michael Maslansky is president of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, Alexandria, Va.
"We recognize there are many people who disapprove of holding the Olympic Games in Beijing. We respect their dedication to human rights and join them in supporting such an important cause. We recognize that as a global company, we have a responsibility to be a good global citizen. And we understand that many view our decision to sponsor the games as inconsistent with that responsibility. We disagree. We are strong supporters of the Olympics and all they stand for. And we believe we can best fulfill our responsibility to our customers and our communities by continuing that support throughout the games. Here's why:

"First, we believe that a successful Olympics is a force for peace and cooperation in this world, and we want to be a part of that. The Olympics are a unique opportunity for the world to share a single stage and a unified audience. The Olympics are a competition, but they represent a set of common values. Despite our differences, we come to the Olympics to compete fairly and peacefully. In every corner of the world, citizens root for their countries, but they often learn about others. We may like globalization or dislike it, but we must certainly agree that the more we hear personal stories about each other's cultures around the world, the less likely we are to demonize them.

"Second, we chose to sponsor the games because we support the world's athletes. These individuals are not politicians. They have dedicated their lives to becoming the best in the world. They are role models who illustrate the values of teamwork, discipline and a commitment to excellence. The world needs opportunities to celebrate these values. We need to show our children what is possible if we only dedicate ourselves to our dreams.

A forum
"And third, we want to encourage countries such as China to be full participants in the global community. We believe that the world gains more by engaging with China and the Chinese than we do by rejecting them. If the protesters are victorious and we boycott these games, what will they have won? In fact, the very act of making Beijing a host country has created an unparalleled forum for discussing important human-rights issues. And the Chinese themselves are taking an active role in voicing their own concerns. If we turn our backs on the Olympics now, what incentive do the Chinese have to address the concerns of the protesters?"

China, the protesters and the Olympic sponsors are all using the games for the same purpose: to further their own agendas. But keeping the focus on the message of the games -- and not on Beijing -- will actually help further the ultimate goals not only of the sponsors but of the protesters as well.

It will also let Beijing decide whether or not it wants to live up to the spirit and ideals of the games. As all three groups can attest, the world will be watching.
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