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Faster, Higher and Stronger With Internal Communications

My earliest recollection of the Olympics is the 1984 Los Angeles Games when my brother and I woke up early morning to catch the opening ceremony. Carl  Lewis became a household name, the Indian hockey team came 5th and P.T. Usha missed a medal by a fraction of a second. We eagerly awaited an update in the papers the following day to stay abreast of the news. Television barely carried a commentary although you were able to follow India’s hockey matches on the radio.

Fast forward to 2012, the London Olympics are on and as an observer I am amazed by how far the games have come and the role of communications in making this global spectacle riveting. I witness staff exchange e-mails about the games, share India’s updates real-time, watch live  coverage of matches, go on You Tube and check status on their mobile devices. For an internal communicator I believe there are numerous take-aways from how these games transpired.

The Games have gone through a transformation from when it started in Olympia in Greece. The Olympics covers over 200 nations and also has the Winter Games, the Paralympics and the Youth Games. A governing body selects the city to host the games and the symbols and rituals associated with the games such as the ‘flame’, the ‘motto’, the ‘flag’, the ‘creed’ and the ‘mascot’ make the games memorable and engaging. The 2012 London Olympics continued with the tradition (the torch relay involved the elderly and the youth alike) and it made the lead-up to the opening a wonderful journey.

Similar to the games, internal communications is meant to be all inclusive, consider audiences’ interests and make the messages enriching and sticky. Symbols can anchor messages well in internal communications.

Over the years the Olympics progressed from celebrating amateurs to allowing participation from professionals. Even though most sports now allow professionals to get involved some like football accept only 3 players above the age of 23 per team.  These games witnessed incredible images that highlighted how inclusive the Olympics have become. Be it Oscar Pistorius (the double amputee, also known as the Blade Runner) or the one-armed Olympics table tennis player Natalia Partyka  this Games celebrated the inspiration, spirit and passion of sports people globally. London is a melting pot of cultures and that got showcased in the way they conducted the event. Lord Sebastian Coe, the Chair of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympics Games rightly summarized this Olympics as the ‘games for and by everyone’.

Internal communications thinking and campaigns need to evolve with the times and stay close to the spirit of the message by involving staff in communication and conversations.

I closely followed the pace and commitment with which the organizers went ahead immediately after winning the right to host the games in 2005. They won it on their third attempt and despite the tragic London bombings which rocked the city the very next day after their bid victory the country went about their business without letting the episode mar progress.  Planning included getting a Minister level person to lead the effort  and having a legendary former British athlete – Lord Coe run the show.

There is nothing more powerful than having leaders sponsor large-scale internal communication rollouts thereby demonstrating the importance of the message. Having credible communicators to pitch messages makes it a lot easier for your campaign. Also, once you set your goals on achieving success there is no looking back.

The lead-up to the Olympics ensured people around the world felt connected and inspired as well as looked ahead to key events on this global arena. The battles such as Phelps vs Lockte, Bolt vs Blake, Australia vs Germany (men’s hockey) or the USA vs Japan (women’s soccer) make for interesting viewing.Many brands in India hopped on to the Olympics bandwagon and showcased their partnership with the Indian contingent. Amul, the sponsor for India’s campaign at the Olympics stood out with its Milk commercial that depicted the essence of the games. Businesses in India have been making the most of the games to engage and capture customers. Likewise sports can be a great tool and teacher to coach managers. Some companies in India have begun getting renowned sports personalities such as Anil Kumble and Martina Navratilova to come in and coach managers on the nuances of engagement, planning and other important topics.

Having an interesting lead-up to your internal communications campaign, sustaining the momentum through storytelling and helping audiences recall key milestones are all great ways to register success.

The London Olympics organizing committee stayed the course despite numerous obstacles – outrage over the sponsor, the inability of the security agency to deliver, controversies surrounding doping, the logo and its creation, the fear of terror attacks, the traffic worries, the negative press about empty seats, the concerns about security cover, separate Olympics VIP driving  lanes and lots more. However, what impressed me is the way organizers stayed focused on their job and continued being sensitive to the feedback they received. For instance, Lord Coe acknowledged the concerns of the Indian contingent who were shocked by the presence of a ‘mystery woman’ and understanding why ‘rules’ prevented Usain Bolt from carrying his skipping rope for training.

Staying centered, acknowledging issues, taking feedback constructively and course correcting helps to get a great internal communications effort over the line.

This games is also going to be remembered as the ‘social media’ Olympics with tweets, Facebook updates, Google+ reports, live streaming and sports personalities sharing perspectives making it all too endearing.  The official website allows for each nation to support their national players or get updates from events. There are clear social media guidelines for participants and accredited people at the games although some felt it didn’t make sense. The social media opportunities also had a fair share of blips. Protecting the brand and sponsors is a great way to keep communication consistent and organized. However, the overzealous ‘brand police’ went overboard trying to quell ambush marketing. I found the Olympic  ring sausage episode amusing.

While brand consistency and staying on messages are crucial for the success of internal communications one needs to balance between battles you need to fight and those that aren’t important.

This isn’t the end of the road for the winners or those who didn’t make it to podium. India got its highest tally of medals and discovered a few more champions in the likes of Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and Vijay Kumar although for a country as large and illustrious as ours we would have loved to fare better! In four years from now many will continue to vie for honors at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The current crop of winners will be inspiration for people in their nations and hopefully the stories of their lives, struggles and triumph will continue to keep the flame alive.

Likewise internal communications is about keeping the connection; reinforcing the messages and helping people find meaning in their world.

Interested to hear what you think about the 2012 London Olympics and which stories struck you as noteworthy. Do post them here.

3 thoughts on “Faster, Higher and Stronger With Internal Communications

  1. Excellent write up indeed with a clear focus on the insight one can get from different episodes. The story very aptly captures the need for communicaton to evolve with time and stay relevant. I, however, feel that the same learnings can also be applied to external communications.

  2. I absolutely love the parallel you’ve drawn between Olympics and Internal Communications! Goes to show that there is something to learn from everything. Given the fast paced times we live in, the idea that communication (and all of us?) needs to evolve and keep up with the times could not be more true. This is going to stay with me for a long time. Great write up.

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