How Morris Grant went from journalist in the UK to PR advisor to the Chinese Government while it staged the biggest sporting event in the world.
The CCP's Beijing newsroom occupied an entire, open-plan floor of the vast 'communications building'. It was divided by country with the English-language team being the largest. Very early every morning the various newsdesks met to thrash-out their own 'news agendas' of the day.
My 'western news values' were somewhat different to those of my colleagues and my view that 'china.org.cn' required to 'lighten-up' a little initially met with some resistance. However, when the rational for making changes was fully explained and justified the communciations management board agreed to 'tweak things'.
Their willingness to be flexible was probably best displayed when I asked at an editorial meeting if Chinese teenagers celebrated St. Valentine's Day. They did but it wasn't encouraged. I explained that people from all around the world had preconceived ideas about the country and would find it interesting that Chinese youngsters bought cards and flowers for each other just like many other countries around the world.
The following day a senior CCP woman I'd not seen before arrived at my desk and explained the 'green light' had been given for the production of a St. Valentine's video! The 'rules of engagement' were that accompanied by a film crew I would chat with English-speaking Chinese in a number of the vast Beijing flower markets and several card shops.
This was very much a case of the CCP recognising the value of advice from 'an outsider' and understanding that although it wasn't perhaps the kind of thing they'd normally consider it had 'value' in displaying to the world that 'our kids are no different to yours'.
From my experiences of Beijing... the figure for the number of journalists registered to attend the Olympics was 6,455 and the number of VIPs 4,750... and how the CCP went about preparing themselves for the event I'd offer a few words of advice to those involved in communications for the London Olympics and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games:
1/ Ensure you're 'first with the news' whether it be positive or negative. You must be regarded as a reliable and trusted source of information by everyone. Don't allow a story to 'get legs' simply because you're presented with something which has the potential to harm the event. Take control. Alert senior people, seek views, give direction on a suggested 'line' and have your response ready before the questions begin. Speed is important and therefore you require to have in place direct lines of communication with those who can agree to/'sign off' such responses. A list of prepared questions and 'standard responses' is essential but it's impossible for such a document to cover everything.
2/ It's unlikely you'll know who you're dealing with. Research is the key. Be aware of who journalists are, the media/political landscape of the countries they come from, the news outlets they're working for and whether there's the potential for them arriving with a 'set agenda'. It's important to meet these people, establish working relationships with them and get a better understanding of what they're really interested in. It may well be just the event. However, there's lot more going on at international sporting events than sport!
3/ Maps and 'fact sheets' translated into all the various languages of visiting journalists which clearly identify stadium locations, media centres, how transport systems operate, restaurant locations, local social habits and the like will all go a long way to ensuring things get-off to a solid start.
4/ For sports fans it was impossible to get lost! People of all ages were recruited to guide, advise and assist visitors on their arrival and as they moved around the city during the Games. With tremendous pride they wore brightly coloured t-shirts which identified them as 'City Volunteers'. They'd committed five weeks of their time to prepare and perform their duties throughout the Olympics. Large numbers are often quoted when it comes to attendances at international sporting events but there's one for Beijing which surely stands out. There were over one million of these highly trained 'City Volunteers' who spoke English well enough to give a helping a hand with just about anything. And they were everywhere wearing board smiles! Simple, effective and surely an example of communication at it's very best... local people helping visitors to understand and get around their city.
5/ Such events provide a once in a lifetime marketing opportunity to expose the world not to just a specific city but an entire country. Long before the 'Opening Ceremony' the Chinese authorities were well aware from ticket sales that many people were interested in specific competitions. These people would have time on their hands between events and it was important that those involved in tourism were kept abreast of the highly significant business opportunities which would be arriving on their doorsteps. Information was shared to ensure appropriate opportunities were in place to allow visitors to experience the likes of the Great Wall and get their feet wet in the rice fields!
6/ Interestingly the obvious level of pride at playing host to the Olympics felt by the citizens of Beijing and the country as a whole was quite incredible. The city was pulsating long before any 'Opening Ceremony'. It was recognised by everyone that this was their chance to show the world what they were really made of. In my opinion they didn't let themselves or their country down.
7/ I asked a tough, male Chinese colleague what he thought about his contribution to the Olympics? Without a blink his response which verged on the emotional was, "Being a competitor must be incredible. But we all have a part to play in ensuring all goes to plan. The world is watching. That is just joyous!"
Perhaps he's right. We can't all be athletes but whether it be the Olympics or Commonwealth Games we do all have the potential to play our part.