Chinese Olympic Media Relations Gaffes

Bennett Baumer Apr 11, 2008

Olympic fever appears to be sweeping the world from the scenes at the ceremonial torch relays. Diving and gymnastics fans are so excited about this year’s summer games they are somersaulting and catapulting themselves upon the actual torch. Even the Paris police force is getting into the spirit by wearing rollerblades while accompanying the torch runners.

Of course anyone following the torch relays knows the fever pitch has more to do with human rights than judges’ points on the dismount. Protests over China’s human rights abuses have disrupted the torch relay in Paris and altered its route in San Francisco. What the Chinese government had hoped would be a public relations gold metal has turned into a distant fourth as the world’s attention turned to the violent repression of Tibetan independence protests.

(From the New York Times)

The torch ceremonies have focused attention on causes that have languished on the world’s back burner for decades. At the International Campaign for Tibet, telephones have rung continually with calls from news media outlets, politicians and people wanting to sign petitions and hold events, said Jan Willem den Besten, the Dutch campaign coordinator.

“What is most dramatic is to see how broad and deep the support has become,” Mr. den Besten said. “You almost have to feel sorry for the Chinese because it’s turned completely against the public image they wanted to present.”

While I’m sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, I’m struck by how little Chinese officials understand Western public and media relations. As a media consumer I’m used to hearing the Bush administration spin the “progress” in Iraq or the presidential candidates offering empty statements about free trade to steelworkers in Pennsylvania and laid off factory workers in Michigan. Unfortunately, the corporate Western press rarely dissects such statements, preferring to be stenographers to power, but in China most media is state controlled thus cutting out the middlemen of public and media relations specialists.

None the less, reading Chinese officials’ quotes in Western newspapers reveals the absence of the polished and vetted spin from Beijing’s Western counterparts at 10 Downing Street or the White House.

(From the Washington Post)

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) seemed to encourage demonstrators in San Francisco, for instance, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, accused her of lacking “morality and conscience.” Jiang added, “It is clear that kind of person has ulterior motives to disturb and sabotage the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco and elsewhere over and over.”

Chinese officials often use the term “sabotage” and many times subtly allude to Western machinations to “disturb” their moment in the sun.

(From the New York Times)

“No force can stop the torch relay of the Olympic Games,” Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee, said in Beijing, The Associated Press reported. “We are confident the torch relay of the Beijing Olympic Games will succeed.”

This quote by a Beijing organizing committee spokesman could have been lost in translation, but sounded odd to me. “No force can stop the torch relay.” That’s some statement and includes everything from Charlie horses and torch extinguishing Pro-Tibet protestors to the mortgage crisis and Hurricane force winds.

The UK Guardian got a similar quote from the French relay:

“The smooth progress of the torch relay cannot be stopped and will definitely be a big success,” she added.

The flame was more heavily guarded than it had been in London. It was barely visible inside a 200-metre cordon shielding it from protests as it left the Eiffel Tower, flanked by riot officers and other police on inline skates.

As have Western Olympic officials, Chinese officials have used the tired line that sports and politics don’t mix – an obvious contradiction every 7 inning at Yankee Stadium when we all stand to sing “God Bless America.”

(From the New York Times)

There, and elsewhere where knots of Chinese supporters had gathered, there were chants of “one world, one dream,” the motto of the Beijing Games. A Chinese spokesman, Qu Yingpu, said Chinese officials were grateful to the police “for their efforts to keep order.” He added: “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.”

Obviously the Pro-Tibet protestors will protest, so Chinese Olympic officials gave their best swing at Western style media management by attacking the speaker and not the content of the speech.

(From the International Herald Tribune)

In Beijing on Monday, a spokeswoman for the Olympic organizing committee – speaking before the disruptions in France – vowed that the relay would continue on its international route. “The torch represents the Olympic spirit and people welcome the torch,” said Wang Hui, the spokeswoman. “The general public is very angry at this sabotage by a few separatists.”.”

I’m sure Chinese Olympic officials are exacerbated at this point and would love some free advice from a Western public and media relations specialist. Maybe the Yankees could recommend their flack, Howard Rubenstein. In this interesting piece in the Toronto Star, Rubenstein would tell the Chinese government to consider that if you can’t beat them, well, take your ball and go home.

Because backroom politicking is its own Olympic sport, Rubenstein says IOC president Jacques Rogge, a doctor from Belgium thrust into what’s fast becoming a political mine field, should quietly consider the prospect of postponing the Games.

“But I’d hold off on that right now,” says Rubenstein, described in a New Yorker profile last year as someone who helps New York‘s upper crust “control the damage and put the best gloss on their disasters.”

“That’s a drastic step and you have to do this a little at a time,” Rubenstein says. “Fact is, violence and conflict and killings are not something the Olympics want to be associated with.

Then Rubenstein, perhaps contemptuous of China’s inability to comprehend Western media and public relations, turns on the Chinese government and brings out the big gun – compare your opponent to Hitler!

“When Adolf Hitler was in power, the (1936) Olympics were in Germany and he used the Games as a tribute to himself and the Nazi party.”

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