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PR at the Olympics

I’m definitely not an avid sports fan, and typically during major televised sporting events that I’m forced to watch, you can find me near the snack table with my book. However, I make an exception for the Olympics—the games are usually exciting, they stir up my patriotism, and there’s no shortage of underdog and comeback stories (which, in my opinion, make for the best sportsball watching).

During these 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, I find that I’m not only mesmerized by feats of athleticism. There have been quite a few interesting PR moments from athletes and commentators, too.

Post-competition interviews with athletes are really fascinating. These competitors are coming off of a performance that they haven’t had time to process and have to respond to questions about it. In that moment, they have to be ambassadors of their countries and sports, PR pros, and also humans reacting to something positive or negative on camera in front of millions. It’s a high-stakes, high-emotion environment.

Social media adds an additional element to the spotlight for athletes. Some posts have been endearing, like Chloe Kim tweeting—to talk about food (multiple times), my kind of girl—while competing for (and winning) gold. And there were quite few responses to Lindsey Vonn’s Valentine request on Twitter. Some posts haven’t cast the best of light, like the polarizing Shani Davis’ flag bearer tweet.

There have also been quite a few apologies floating around the games. NPR and The Washington Post have both posted pieces detailing some of the gaffes and missteps that have happened at the PyeongChang Olmpics so far, and the list of apologies from individual athletes, commentators, and national teams and representatives isn’t short.

The inappropriate and insensitive language choices of NBC commentators like Joshua Cooper Ramo and former Olympian Bode Miller, as well as gold medalist Shaun White especially stand out during these games. Ramo’s remarks about the Korea-Japan relationship sparked outrage, and while NBC apologized quickly, Ramo has been slower to say sorry. Miller blamed a female skier’s poor performance on her marriage and has since been apologizing on air and on social media. And White may be a phenomenal snowboarder, but his dismissal of and comments about a past sexual harassment case has overshadowed his achievements right now. He’s spent most of his interview time apologizing for how he handled the questions and characterized the case and his past actions.

Not all apologies have come from an upsetting or disappointing incident or remark, though. Chicago’s ABC affiliate reminded us with its PyeongChang-P.F.Chang mistake that it’s always important to double check for errors if you’re going for gold-level communications.

The pressures facing Olympians are great, since they are charged with representing themselves, their teammates, their sport, and their countries, which make those who handle their interaction with media and the public with professionalism and grace all the more medal-worthy.