- Tokyo 2020 key messages include resilience, recovery, hope for the future
- Takaya argues Tokyo cost-cutting highlights secondary innovation message
- Logo plagiarism accusations changed organisational approach
In 2006, Masa Takaya applied to study for a masters degree in public relations at Syracuse University in upstate New York. He was attempting to fulfil a long-held ambition, and shift careers from advertising to sport. On the application form, he wrote that his dream job was to work for the organising committee for an Olympic Games in Japan.
Today, Takaya is the spokesperson and communications team leader for Tokyo 2020, and the end line of his career ambition is already in sight.
“It’s been a long journey, but I am very excited about welcoming the Games next year,” he tells SportBusiness at the headquarters of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
His journey took in roles as an intern at the organising committee for the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Osaka, as manager of communications for the failed Tokyo bid to host the 2016 Olympics, as media manager at the International Triathlon Union, and as communications director of the successful Tokyo 2020 bid.
For a PR professional and a sports fan, jobs don’t come any bigger than his current role.
Tokyo 2020 is one of Japan’s biggest opportunities in decades for a good news story. Since the 1990s, the country’s national story has been one of decline, dominated by economic stagnation and ageing population. In 2011 there was the overwhelming tragedy of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Tokyo 2020 has been charged with conveying hugely significant messages to the world, and to Japan’s own people, about resilience, recovery, hope for the future, and sport’s role in these.
Takaya says: “The bid started soon after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Japan’s sports communities and athletes visited the affected areas, by themselves, trying to be part of the reconstruction efforts. The athletes and Japan’s sports community were able to rediscover the value of sports – how [they] can play an important role in our societies. With Tokyo 2020, we’d like to convey such values…in this way, we’ll be able to raise the profile of sports and athletes for the next generations. These are really important messages.”
This year’s Rugby World Cup carried similar messages, with success. A new stadium in Kamaishi, one of the areas affected by the earthquake, hosted games, and the tournament generated interest and excitement across the country.
“We saw great excitement there [in Kamaishi],” Takaya says. “People came together from different countries and different languages, and there was a sense of unity…we are very keen to keep conveying the same messages through Tokyo 2020.”
Alongside recovery, another major theme for Tokyo 2020 is innovation, the business buzzword of the decade, as Japan seeks to recapture some of its once world-leading reputation for technology and industry. The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) even has its own Innovation Bureau.
Takaya says: “We want to bring about the most innovative games in history. Innovation can be interpreted in many ways – cutting-edge technology, as well as approaches to organising the event.”
Takaya points to the organising committee’s 2014 cost-cutting review of its venues, that shaved $2.2bn (€2bn) off the Games’ cost, as one of its key innovations. While this perhaps stretches the meaning of the phrase, Tokyo’s realistic and assertive approach to venue cost-cutting is a welcome one for the Olympic movement, in an era of concern about hosting costs.
Takaya says: “We will be able to showcase a future games model, which must be truly sustainable given the challenges the international sports community is facing right now.”
In a more traditional interpretation of ‘innovation’, some of Japan’s renowned technology firms will show off their robotics engineering prowess during the games. Toyota and Panasonic will be among those showcasing products including robotic mascots to welcome guests, robots to help older or physically disabled people experience the games, and an autonomous ‘field support robot’ to retrieve javelins and perform other tasks during field athletics.*
Communicating Tokyo 2020’s big themes is one half of the communication team’s job; managing the event’s reputation is the other. The typical trajectory of media coverage of an Olympic Games starts with energy and positivity when they are first awarded to the host, followed by a deepening trough of negative stories as preparations drag on longer and cost more than expected, rising again to a positive crescendo during the Games – especially if the home team delivers medals.
Advice from former Olympics communications teams has helped Takaya prepare for the ups and downs.
“Even before we entered into the organising committee phase, I was able to establish good relationships with comms people from past organising committees…learnings from these excellent people have been always a great asset. I always sort of knew what will happen in this seven-year games cycle…I always knew what kind of things we may face.”
Among the biggest challenges the team faced was the row that erupted in 2015 around the design of the Tokyo 2020 logo. TOCOG withdrew its original design after an accusation of plagiarism. A legal claim against the IOC by the accusing designer was eventually dropped.
“From a communications perspective, it was the biggest exposure we observed,” Takaya says. “When the incident was developing, we received a massive number of queries, every day, morning until night, even on weekends. It was a very tough time for the communications team.”
The episode prompted a change of attitude by TOCOG, towards more involvement of the public in some important design decisions.
“That whole incident became an opportunity for Tokyo 2020 to consider how the organising committee needs to engage the general public,” Takaya says. “Our organisational approaches, [to] different, important engagement items was changed.”
The story is astutely-chosen by the PR pro – it has a happy ending. Tears of joy, in fact.
TOCOG threw open the redesign of the logo to Japanese residents, allowing anyone to enter a design. It received 15,000 applications. This response led the committee to use the same process for the design of the Games mascots. This time, after narrowing the shortlist to three, elementary school students across Japan voted for their favourite, and the winners became the official mascots. At the mascot unveiling at an elementary school, the children’s exuberant reaction reduced a communications team member to tears.
“It was a really moving moment,” Takaya says.
TOCOG has a communications team around 50 strong – out of a total workforce of around 3,000, that will rise to 8,000 next year during the games including volunteers. The communications team, says Takaya, is the most varied he’s worked for in terms of the working backgrounds they hail from – including communications teams at international federations, national federations, National Olympic Committees, the Tokyo municipal government, and media.
“It is a really good composition; we have the best possible capacity to deal with different types of media,” he says.
Close relationships with other delivery partners’ communications teams have been critical to the effective operation of the Tokyo team, he adds. The relationships have been forged via monthly meetings with counterparts at the national government, the Tokyo municipal government, the Japan Sports Council, and the Japanese Olympic and Paralympic Committees, and an email list that allows the different teams to circulate thoughts and ideas.
The two big communications projects in the lead-up to the games are the torch relay and the Tokyo 2020 Nippon festival. After an initial, customary relay in Greece, the torch touches down in Japan on March 20, after which it will visit 857 municipalities, in all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, including the earthquake-affected regions. The Nippon Festival is an arts and culture extravaganza that will also take place throughout the country, beginning in April and with events through to the start of the Paralympic Games in August.
Then, it’s into the games themselves, with the Olympics starting on July 24 and the Paralympics on August 25.
And with that, Takaya’s job will be done, his career ambition achieved. He’s not looking beyond that for now, he says – all focus is on the job at hand. What will the job well done look like?
“Through the entire games life cycle, we are making our best effort to tell our stories – how the sports and athletes are playing important roles in society, in communities. Particularly in the stories from the earthquake-affected regions. We want to tell these stories across the country and also to worldwide audiences. In this way, we want to see raised profiles for athletes and sports…
“We want to see that values of sports, the power of sports, remain in the public mind. That’s something we want to see at the very end of this journey.”