London’s hosting of the 2017 World Athletics Championships should have been an opportunity to celebrate sporting excellence. For many of us it is an opportunity to relive the joy of London 2012. Instead the Games has been overshadowed in the British media by a debate about Botswanan sprint medal hopeful, Isaac Makwala. He was initially bared from competing with a suspected case of novovirus. Only those behind the scenes will know the full truth. Viewed from outside it looks like a car wreck due to poor crisis comms.
It is perplexing why the IAAF, which has access to some of the most experienced sporting PR advice in the world, seems to have got this so wrong. My own credentials to comment are that I worked on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. I was one of the senior Government comms managers who worked in the Message Integration Centre (MIG) at games time. MIG was a unique comms command and control centre. It brought the sports, transport, security and government worlds together to manage games related communications. We planned extensively for different scenarios, including public health problems and issues with individual athletes. We were very lucky. The only challenges I had involved the wrong flag being put up and keys to a room at a venue being lost!
Any PR professional knows that managing reputation in the “blame seeking” stage of a crisis is important. It appears that the IAAF initial response was to try to blame someone else, pointing to the hotel where affected athletes were staying and claiming it was a food poisoning incident. Passing on blame rarely works. It did not work here.
Why didn’t the IAAF brief the media and issue public advice on Sunday? They briefed the teams on the public health findings and advice but appear to have tried to keep this quiet. Organisations can be overly anxious about commercial relationships, legal liability or think that saying nothing protects their reputation. Did the IAAF get caught on one of these issues?
Being open about a problem, whilst reassuring people it is being managed, can be an active part of reputation management as well as an important role in its own right. Public health issues can give rise to overstated levels of fear amongst the public. Ensuring clear safety advice to athletes, spectators and the public would have been responsible. As responsible as insisting athletes complied with public health advice, even if that meant them not taking part in events. It would also have avoided awkward questions about athletes who did not start races and the inevitable revelation that there was a health problem.
It is amazing it took until Isaac Makwala’s protesting about his barring for the story to come out. Apparently, the Canadian team briefed the Canadian media on Sunday that there was a norovirus outbreak affecting a number of teams. I have spoken to a volunteer who saw a well known athlete being violently sick before their final. This was never not going to become an issue, so why was it not proactively managed?
The handling of Isaac Makwala’s withdrawal is itself a case study in the challenges of PR at a major sporting event. The Botswanan team officials were able to seek out the BBC live coverage and make a case to the media and public over the heads of the organisers and public health authorities. The IAAF should have realised this could happen. The media had been discussing Makwala’s case for several hours, and it was being discussed on social media. Yet it was only after the BBC interviewed team officials that the IAAF responded with a media statement and by putting up their chief medic, clearly at short notice. They don’t seem to have engaged with social media at all.
On social media there were people defending the IAAF, including clinicians. These supportive voices were not used by the IAAF. Instead, they ended up finding a precedent setting solution with Makwala being able to qualify for the semis via a solo race. That may have made the immediate issue go away, but has now generated a debate about the fairness to other athletes who did follow the public health instructions.
Perhaps there is good reason or the decisions taken, but as a PR professional, sports lover and someone working with clinicians who support elite sportspeople it feels like a pretty poor performance. Proactive communication of the problem, advice and clarity about action being taken might have avoided a lot of negative comments, and a few headaches for the future.