The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi are filled with timeless lessons about marketing and communications — from the individual athletes, the host country and brand sponsors. This bi-annual global display of athleticism provides a unique platform for storytelling that supports a broader communications campaign theme. The host country can suspend the politics of the moment and position itself as an arbiter of peace, hope and young athletes’ dreams.

What can we learn from the host country’s communications campaign that we can apply to another organization experiencing a milestone event?

Communications executives may watch these types of mega events with a critical eye and notice that storytelling stands out as the key strategy for creating an effective campaign. In order to take advantage of such a captive audience, what should be highlighted? And what surprises may be lurking? The best stories that focus on the overall campaign tend to become the most visible and effective, all while respecting other stakeholders for whom those stories may not be terribly relevant.

The Russian Olympic committee was not necessarily focused on or worried about the dialogue around the country’s anti-gay policies. And even AT&T’s move – the first Olympic brand to condemn the anti-gay policies – did not dampen the Olympic spirit or alter Russia’s key message. As this New York Times article gushed after the opening ceremony, “Russia is back” followed by a parenthetical about where the country is headed, “a question for another day.”

The overarching Olympic theme plays out in all advertising and promotion of the games via press materials, advertisements, athletes, music and, most relevant to this post, storytelling. We often counsel our clients to develop a theme for a survey or media campaign – what is that one message or theme that can apply to all pieces of the program or campaign? And how do you tell the right stories that support that overarching theme?

The Olympic machine is a complex, political beast, much like a global company. A strong, established brand in name does not mean it is immune from unanticipated communications issues. And storytelling appears to be a common denominator for the Olympics and for global corporations.

While all stories from Russia during the days leading up to the Games have not been pretty – from journalists tweeting photos of horrific hotel conditions to people discussing the country’s history filled with war and destruction — the country was guaranteed a reprieve. This reprieve came in the form of inspiring stories about the athletes and control over the opening ceremonies, which were, again citing the New York Times article from Feb. 7, a platform for “a toast to reinvention.”

What can we take away from the storytelling tradition of the Olympics?

  • Discern (a nod to Greentarget’s 7D process) the environment in which you plan to enter with an IPO, merger, new product announcement, succession, etc. The anti-gay rights policy in Russia has nothing to do with the Winter Olympics – right? Wrong. After becoming a centerpiece of discussion for these hallowed Games for a few weeks, the speeches during the opening ceremonies acknowledged that these Olympics are meant to be held in a peaceful, tolerant environment. Russia’s policies take a back seat to the stories of the Games.
  • We tell our clients who have a significant market presence that they have a responsibility to formulate and disseminate content that helps move their entire industry forward. By virtue of carving a path, you are a thought leader, risk taker, Sherpa, and ultimately increase your chances of winning a positive share of voice — just like an Olympic host country.
  • Don’t try to be all things to all people. Focus all eyes on what you are good at, but demonstrate respect for all of your stakeholders. The country hosting the Olympics has an exciting opportunity to show the world its stuff. Its dirty laundry is exposed too. This dynamic exists in every corporation and organization. An opportunity to communicate externally always comes with some exposure.
  • Finally, tell the stories that powerfully demonstrate the overarching theme of your campaign, event or program. Through this process, you will not only uncover important elements of your organization, but you will also capture characters in those stories and weave them into the fabric of your organization’s culture and history. This makes for a strong foundation that can weather the inevitable negative news that may shake, but not break, the organization that communicates its stories in strategic, consistent and compelling manner.