The 2014 Winter Olympics are underway in Sochi – and without incident so far, thankfully. The watching world has been able to focus instead on a stunning opening ceremony full of special effects wizardry and historical drama. The spectacle had all the grandiosity and melancholy one would expect from such a storied, troubled country.
As the ceremony began, a camera hovered on President Vladimir Putin. He fidgeted and almost seemed nervous. It struck me then how deeply important these Olympics are to him – and Russia. The stakes are very high.
With this backdrop, I have three observations that public relations practitioners may find thought-provoking.
1. Sochi is a large-scale attempt at perception management. In the United States, we have stories: that regular people can achieve and rise through hard work; that our Greatest Generation saved the world from tyranny during World War II; and that we’re not perfect, but pretty good at recognizing our mistakes and correcting them. These stories tell us not only from where we’ve come, but also help define our aspirations. They’re not just important; they’re utterly indispensable for national cohesion.
I think Russia is trying to find a story. There’s so much in Russian history that is best forgotten – from the czars to Stalin and gulags – and the Olympics provide the ideal venue to encourage a tired country to come alive again.
It’s as if Putin is saying, “Hold your head up, you’ve done great things. We can do those things again.”
2. Effective perception management has to solidify the base. Many in the media are saying that the Sochi games are Russia’s chance to showcase its accomplishments to the world; that they are speaking to you and me in Atlanta, Paris, London and Berlin – centers of international influence.
But I’m inclined to disagree. The most important audience for the Olympics is Russia itself. Russia seems to be looking for purpose and meaning; trying to square its economic resurgence with the highest underage suicide rate in Europe, among many other troubling problems. The opening ceremony in Sochi pointed to the past, highlighting reasons for Russia to be proud and achieve again. Putin knows that stories are important and who needs to hear them.
3. Glitz wears off. Without substance it’s back to reality. Accusations are swirling that Russian officials used the Sochi games to pad their wallets. Dissidents continue to languish in jails for speaking out against the Kremlin. In 2000, Russia lost 5 million people to alcohol-related incidents. A Russian hockey win at the Sochi games will never fix these problems.
At the end of the day, people have to believe the Russian story every day when they wake up and trudge off to work. Can we be great again? That question will be subconsciously asked and answered millions of times across Russia each day.
If the graft, nepotism and judicial corruption persist, no stunning multimedia display will ever be able to change how the Russians view their own country. Unfortunately, the hope and pride on display in Sochi will be a lesson in failed perception management if nothing else changes.
As for you and me, let’s tell great stories; ones that are believable and true.