I’ve been on the road most of the past week in  the US and UK and have watched with fascination as the Beijing Olympic Torch relay unfolds. Though the coverage across the various global media channels varied – I got info from everything from the BBC to USA Today to Le Monde – the story was fairly consistent. China’s attempt to burnish it’s reputation as a country and global leader through the Olympics is in shambles – at least so far. By any measure – save perhaps the assessment by the Chinese government officials – the relay has turned into a PR fiasco of historic proportions. After the carefully planned relay devolved into brawling and demonstrations – all captured by the global media TV cameras – Chinese officials tried to control the message by staging surreal non-events – such as the relay in India which banned any spectators and involved the runners going around an enclosed stadium dozens of times. They also added about 15,000 police for good measure. Subsequent stops were similar – heavy-handed security, private events and stitled celebrations with forced smiles all around. Beyond the politics of this development, what are the lessons here for communication professionals? Here are a few suggestions:

  • In the digital era where global media -and citizen journalists – provide 24-day massive coverage of most events instantly, the stage-managed style of PR favored by countries like China is becoming more disingenuous and less effective. The only place where China can successfully control their message is in China, due to draconian censorship and state controlled media. China is learning that their propaganda productions don’t work so well in the real world. Welcome to the Web 2.0 world!
  • There’s probably a lesson here how powerful the Internet has become as a news source and force for social movement and debate. Based on what I saw the Web served as an important platform in the planning, promotion, discussion and coverage of the torch demonstrations. Conversely, China seems able to control much of the internal national discussion through their tight censorship of the Web – though they are happy to loosen the reins when their citizens jump with nationalist frenzy with cries to boycott Carrefour stores.
  • If anybody needed another reminder, companies that align their marketing with famous stars or countries with dubious track records do so at their own peril. Just yesterday Coca-Cola announced it was “adjusting” its marketing plans for the remainder of the torch relay. Whether any of the countries can benefit from the Olympic Games themselves probably depends on whether China can turn the PR tides and stem the loud global criticism and avoid major boycotts. Either way, I suspect Lenovo will come out as the biggest loser. As a Chinese company, this is their global coming out party. Bad timing.
  • Issues blend and overlap into a messy public relations morass where the public dictates the communication agenda, not corporations or governments. China clearly thought it could segment (or ignore) geo-political issues like Darfur, Tibet, tainted medicine and food and the environment and keep these distasteful issues from the Olympic Games. No such luck. Many saw the Games as precisely the right time to lump all these together into a loud proclamation for change by China. It will be interesting  to see whether China will try to defuse any of these issues (probably behind the scenes) or just continue to plow forward.
  • Finally, I note that China’s main crisis-management strategy seems to be to paint demonstrators – and the Dalai Lama – as dangerous malcontents with a nefarious agenda. (Strange how Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe did the same thing this week, accusing critics of trying to re-colonialize his country.) In other words, when in trouble go on the attack. The track record of this tactic seems to be very bad, and I doubt it will work this time.

This is PR on a broad world stage. Let’s watch and see what happens. It’s shaping up to be an interesting summer.

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