McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Samsung and other sponsors paid tens of millions of dollars to link their names with the Beijing Olympics.
Now, they’re trying to mollify activists pressing for change on Tibet, Darfur and other issues, without angering China.
They have expressed concern over Tibet; some even talk privately to Beijing organisers. But sponsors insist they should stay out of politics.
“We all have to be careful about how we talk about this,” said Chris Renner, president for China of sports marketing consulting firm Helios Partners. Its clients include sponsors Volkswagen AG, computer maker Lenovo Group and mining giant BHP Billiton.
Over the years, the Olympics almost always attract activists interested in leveraging the popular event to publicise their causes.
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, sponsors faced boycott calls after a county where the beach volleyball event was to be held, enacted a bigoted measure that targeted a minority group.
In Sydney in 2000, there were protests about the environment and Australian aboriginal rights.
But the Beijing Games have generated more heat, in part because of an array of activist groups long critical of China’s policies – and newer ones focused on its economic and diplomatic clout.
“Everybody knows we’re pretty much on the biggest platform you can pick,” Renner said.
Sponsors were already on the lookout for controversy over Sudan, a diplomatic partner and Chinese oil supplier, as well as press freedom, human rights and Tibet.
After protests last fortnight by Tibetans against Chinese rule – and Beijing’s crackdown – sponsors said they were watching events closely.
A few have turned to public relations specialists for advice, said a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Coca-Cola Company, Lenovo, McDonald’s and others said they plan no changes in strategy for the quadrennial games, one of the most watched events worldwide.
Likely to face immediate pressure could be Lenovo, Coca-Cola and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co, the three sponsors of the Olympic torch relay. The worldwide trek begins this month and will pass through Tibet and up Mount Everest.
Jiang Xiaoyu, executive vice-president of the Beijing Olympics Organising Committee, or BOCOG, vowed that the anti-government riots in Tibet and a subsequent crackdown by authorities would not disrupt plans for the torch relay.
“We know the incidents are the last thing we want to see, but we firmly believe that the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region will be able to ensure the stability of Lhasa and Tibet, and also be able to ensure the smooth going of the torch relay in Tibet,” Jiang said.
Abroad, Tibet activists say they will protest along the torch route in India, Britain and elsewhere to highlight complaints that Beijing is degrading the Himalayan region’s distinctive Buddhist culture.
“We have no plans to change any of our activities related to the torch relay,” said Christine F Lau, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman in Beijing.
Samsung said in a statement: “We believe the Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations and we hope that all people attending the Games recognise the importance of this.”
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said the body was “very concerned” about Tibet. But the IOC insists it is unwilling to pressure China on political matters.
The sponsors are counting on the Olympics to raise their profile in China, increase their market share in the country and attract local partners, and they want to avoid jeopardising access by doing anything that might upset communist officials. Licensing in China is highly subjective, and Beijing has retaliated in the past for unwanted foreign actions by cancelling contracts or restricting market access.
Sponsor payments and other marketing revenues are expected to cover the Games’ operating costs, expected to be in the region of $2.1 billion (Dh7.7b) – a figure that does not include spending on venues and public facilities.
Until last week, the sponsors’ biggest concern was pressure over Darfur.
Fronted by actress Mia Farrow and employing disciplined public relations strategies, Darfur activists have been prodding sponsors to lobby Beijing to help pressure Sudan to end the conflict.
Director Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser to the Games after pressure from Farrow, chairwoman of Dream for Darfur, which wants companies to lobby Beijing. It has warned China that it risks having its Games remembered as the “genocide Olympics” and is rating sponsors on their Darfur policies.
Dream for Darfur issued a “report card” in June on sponsors and plans to issue an update this month.
“The companies that get a C, D or F on this next report card will be the focus of our intensive activism between now and the Games,” said Jill Savitt, Dream for Darfur’s executive director. She said the group will picket their headquarters and appeal to TV viewers to turn off their commercials during the Games.
General Electric scored highest at a C-plus in the first report, in part for donating medical equipment and aid to Unicef, while Savitt said 13 companies got failing grades.
“The violence and brutality committed against the people in the Darfur region is appalling,” said Deirdre Latour, a GE spokeswoman, in an e-mail. Still, she said:“It is not GE’s role to use the Games to influence government policy.”
In the top tier of sponsors are 12 companies that reportedly paid at least $100 million (Dh367m) each to become Worldwide Olympic Partners.
Lenovo, the only Chinese company among the 12, took into account possible activism when it made its plans, said Robert J Page, the company’s Olympics public relations manager.
“All of these potential considerations are taken into the planning process,” Page said. He declined to comment on violent scenarios, but said: “The potential for people to express their opinions is certainly something we have taken into consideration.”
Lenovo hopes to use the Olympics to establish itself as a global brand following its 2005 acquisition of IBM Corp’s personal computer unit. Asked whether the company worries about damage to its image, Page said: “That’s not a concern at this point. There is no question that the Olympic Games are a powerful force for peace. We believe that the Games will focus on all the good that is being brought to China, and we are proud to support that.”
Coca-Cola, Adidas AG and Omega, a unit of Switzerland’s Swatch Group, say they have talked privately to Beijing Olympics organisers.
They declined to give details, but a BOCOG employee said sponsors have asked for information on China’s position on Darfur and other sensitive issues.
“They have held private discussions with our sponsorship department to better understand the issues and how it may affect them,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified further because she was not authorised to talk to reporters.
“It’s obviously a fine balancing act that every single Olympics encounters,” said Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing director who now works as a consultant.
“The PR departments of each of the sponsors have got to be sensible in how they respond.” (AP)
Sponsors face heat in Beijing