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Gladwell's Line- 2012 Olympic Review - The Media - Friend or Foe?

by Richard Gladwell on 10 Sep 2012
49er Gold medalists, Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen (right) milking the Mixed Zone, while their two minders (in sunglasses) from Yachting Australia positively purr in the background. Each out stretched microphone probably represents on average, a hundred thousand readers. © Richard Gladwell www.richardgladwell.com

The Olympics are a unique occasion. Once every four years Sailing gets to be seen alongside other sports, at the same time, and in the same frame.

As well as being covered by regular Sailing media, who report and shoot images of the sport on a near-daily basis, Sailing comes under the purview of many general sporting journalists (and their editors), many of whom are getting their first exposure to a new sport.

The way it works is that the sailing media will turn up from the get-go of the Olympic regatta, in reality two days before the first race. The general media turn up in the final week - to cover the Finals, and Medals. They move in, having covered the Rowing and other sports that complete their competition in the first week.

For the Olympic sailors, and their handlers, it is an opportunity they can run two ways.

They can either take the media along for the ride through the highs and lows of the final week of competition, or they can shut them out for the duration, focus on the winning medals and then share the good news at the end. Their hope is the neglected media are still hanging around, and/or that their interest will last more than just the rest of the evening of the Medal win.

Where the daily interactions take place is in the Mixed Zone (where the sailors mix with the media) - before the racing, and mostly afterwards.

The sailors generally walk through a roped lane, and if they wish, give short interviews with media who are arranged in a priority line - with TV at the head through to the sailing media such as websites, with radio, newspaper and higher priority news outlets in between . Some newspapers and print journalists move around behind the sailing media to get a second round of quotes and comment, and can lean on the technical knowledge of the sailing specialists.

To be honest, we didn't frequent the Mixed Zone too much. We've seen the racing close up on the water for the past five hours, and could write on that basis. Where it useful is if a competitor has some mishap, for a reason which is not apparent and needs an explanation that only they can give.

In many ways the competitors run a media gauntlet, and the stop at each point is usually a couple of minutes or so, unless they really want to milk the media and lift the exposure for themselves and their sport.

Other than maybe the TV stops, the gig is not compulsory. However you skip it at your peril.

Yachting NZ cop a caning from NZ media

Very simply, you can either embrace the media or keep it at arms length.

Yachting New Zealand took the latter approach and has been widely castigated in media reviews of the Olympics, with at least three major NZ news outlets commenting on their distant approach, and with one suggesting that the team management should 'walk the plank' (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=10826638!Click_here and scroll down to Sailing.)

The issue came to a head on the final day of fleet racing for the Womens 470, when the NZ competitors would not stop for at least two members of the NZ media who were waiting for comment on their 18th place in the final race - which had turned the Gold Medal into a match race.

Sailing media cover the event in two ways - either by going on the water - which means for photographers we are on the water from about 11.00am to 4.00pm or later - those with earlier deadlines come ashore earlier but may have only covered one course instead of three. English newspapers have deadlines of around 6.00pm - and time is very tight indeed.

Print and radio media either go on the water - sometimes for the same duration. Others again with tight deadlines stay ashore, watch the live broadcast, maybe get some pre-race comment from the mixed zone, and certainly get post race comment - work that into a race report and they are done - and hit their early deadlines.

Often for print and radio media to miss getting any post race comment means effectively that there is no story - save for a brief comment on the facts of the race. What is too often forgotten is that a single journalist, asking some very basic and tedious and basic questions in a Mixed Zone interview often represents an audience of hundreds of thousands of readers, and often numbered in the millions.

On the right hand side of our table in the media centre sat Bernie Wilson from the US based media conglomerate Associated Press, representing 1,700 newspapers and 5,000 TV and radio stations in 120 countries. What is the size of that audience? Bernie was in Weymouth for the duration, read his portfolio of stories by http://summergames.ap.org/person/bernie-wilson!clicking_here

Walking past people like Bernie Wilson, is an opportunity lost, that can never be recovered.

Yachting Australia's new best friend

Other national authorities have the opposite approach, working their sailors for all they are worth in the Mixed Zone.

It was easy to recognise the Australian sailors in the zone - they usually had media several rows deep around them - and they would talk seemingly forever to an adoring Australian and international media. The imposition, if that's what it is, didn't seem to cost them much on the medal table. The relationship grew stronger as the regatta progressed, and was orgasmic when the medals were won. Why - because they had embraced their media and taken them for the ride - win or lose.

Behind us in the media centre, sat Murray Olds, a drive time host from top Sydney station 2UE. A Kiwi, he left NZ 30 years ago, and has covered 10 Olympic and Commonwealth Games. This was his first time ever at an Olympic Sailing regatta. Murray came down on the train from London ostensibly to cover the first Australian Gold Medal in the sailing - Tom Slingsby, and was due to go back on the train that night.

The way Olds tells it, after talking with Slingsby, he went from pub to pub in Weymouth, until he found a room to let, and stayed for another five days.

Olds was pumping audio clips back to his audience in Sydney, enthusiastically introducing them to his new favorite sport of sailing – using interviews he picked up in the Mixed Zone each day.

Olds was amongst the last people in the media centre most nights, and on the final day he was still going strong after 9.00pm – and hour after it had officially closed. But hey, Australia had just won a Silver medal, and he had to let his audience and the sailing fans know about it.

Hopefully the Australian sailors went home to enjoy the results of the media and PR spadework that had been done for them, by the journalists who had made the trip to Weymouth – not a cheap exercise with rooms in an average pub costing up to UKP200 per night.

That spadework in the Mixed Zone should pay a handsome dividend for the sailors over the next four years, with their existing and new fans, with their sponsors. Yachting Australia will also be milking their new profile for all it is worth, with their funders and sponsors – all because for five days they embraced their media and fans, and took them along for the ride and shared the Olympic sailing experience.

And of course, when Olds talks to the Olympic class sailors back home – it will be like a friendship renewed – building on the relationship started and built in Weymouth.

http://www.2ue.com.au/blogs/2ue-blog/second-gold-for-australia-in-london/20120807-23r0g.html!2UEs_Murray_Olds_made_his_way_to_a_pub_in_Weymouth (second audio from the top - an add-on may be required)

But miss the opportunity afforded by Weymouth, and it is four years before the Olympics will come around again. General media, and often sailing specific media, can’t cost justify the expense of traveling to a sailing location to provide coverage - and it happens remotely, using stock images and organiser supplied reports - and certainly there are no crowds of waiting media in the mixed zone.

It is trite to claim that sailors need to concentrate on winning medals, and the media is a distraction to that focus.

Look at the way Ben Ainslie worked with his media and home team fans during the build up to the Olympic regatta and the event itself. Same with the rest of the stars in the British team, who built on relationships they had built going back to 2000 Olympics. The Australians, and many others did the same.

Similarly with the New Zealand Rowers – and the profile they have built, massaged and now enjoy.

The end point is that sailors, and their handlers need to ask themselves whether they regard the Media as a Friend or a Foe. In New Zealand it seems to be the latter, in Australia and UK definitely the former.

Next up we will take a look at how television does/doesn't work with the other media.

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