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Vero’s Jasani: how to win a campaign for inclusion in the Olympic Games

The campaign of the International Surfing Association for inclusion in the Olympics was led by ISA president, Fernando Aguerre. Vero Communications worked to strengthen the federation's relations with key figures in the Olympic movement. Vero managing director Sujit Jasani tells Frank Dunne what goes into building a successful campaign.

Sujit Jasani, managing director, Vero Communications.

For surfing and rugby, we started campaigning at least three or four years out from IOC decision time. From the beginning, it is important to understand the stakeholder audiences to whom you campaign to seek a positive result. In the centre is the IOC, its president and executive team, and the members, who vote on sports entering Games. They are the ultimate decision-making body. Then there are other organisations that play a role, like GAISF (formerly SportAccord).

To campaign for Olympic inclusion there are all the boxes you have to tick, like having a large enough number of national federations, compliance with WADA’s code, a positive record on gender equality, national federations being recognised by their NOC, autonomy to run the sport, and so on.

Once you have identified the stakeholders involved, it becomes a form of intelligence gathering. You have to understand the direction of travel of the Olympic movement, the IOC and its leadership.

With surfing, there was a sense the IOC wanted to embrace a new audience, a younger audience, an audience that lives and exists online through digital communications and social media. Surfing was in the sweet spot. There was a desire to become more relevant to a younger audience, to appeal to a lifestyle-brand sport. But you need to create a story around it, showing how surfing is embraced by those audiences that the IOC are trying to reach.

You have to get to understand the process for entry, the metrics of how sports are measured by the IOC; and the process for sports being tested and eliminated from the programme. It’s then about creating a compelling narrative as part of your application that goes above and beyond the core details you have to submit.

It is important to create a story which resonates with the Olympic world and that sets you apart. This is critical to winning – developing and expressing powerful messages that resonate with decision-makers to really show your value and benefit to the Olympic movement and the Games. How can you, as a new sport, elevate the Olympic event and brand to new level and help bring new fans and other key stakeholders like sponsors and new host cities to the Olympic party? Part of that is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the other sports that might be looking to apply to be in the Games. Where can you stand out and be different to them? Of course, it means doing that without negatively campaigning.

Once the campaign officially starts, there is a communication, PR and international relations exercise to be implemented. This can involve taking a native story about the sport and placing it in front of Olympic audiences, so they see the value proposition of the sport. For example, if there’s great news announced within the sport, we could help rewrite that as a case study or as a piece of media content for Olympic press, and international journalists that cover the world of the Olympic Games – showing the growth and the positive impact of that sport, highlighting its universality, which is really important. We can highlight the age of the sport’s audience, their tastes, what they’re listening to and viewing, what they’re buying in terms of fashion. It will also be important to promote the sport’s world, continental and national championships. It’s another way to showcase exciting, fun, cool athletes, demonstrate excellent commercial strength through ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcasting, confirm good governance and integrity practices, and boost the overall brand to Olympic audiences.

Another part of creating a compelling case is through voices, ambassadors, influencers in the sports world, that can speak your narrative, that are superstars of their sport, and using them in a powerful way to showcase the value proposition that you have. We can also build PR campaigns around the social media output of the athletes themselves and the power of their digital communications to engage audiences. That’s very compelling for the Olympic world as they as they select new sports.

Then there’s the practical side, like participating in other multi-sports events such as the Pan American Games, whenever possible inviting stakeholders to watch surfing events to increase appeal and boost interest. There are also corporate events, sports business conventions and conferences, like SportAccord. It can mean taking up speaking roles to talk to the stakeholders and business audiences that attend, networking in an impactful way, trying to meet influential sport business media to get interest and traction. That’s where the Olympic decision-makers will read news about your sport. There are also the direct communications such as memos, presentations, other forms of collateral to Olympic leaders and stakeholders.

While the key message is founded on the value proposition the sport offers the IOC, part of the story is showing how the sport will also benefit from inclusion in the Games. Being in the Games has huge benefits, outside the solidarity payments and funding – there is the platform to showcase your sport, to grow your sport and reach new audiences. Only the Olympic Games offers such a great opportunity. Every four years, sports have a platform to reach millions of eyeballs which maybe in their domestic seasons, or world championships or continental championships, they can’t achieve.

There are probably millions of people out there that will be watching surfing on their screens, on their tablets or online in some way for the first time at Tokyo. That’s a huge opportunity for the sport. If it inspires new people to take up the sport because they’ve seen new potential heroes take to the water, and take part in an Olympic surfing competition, that can only help to boost and grow the sport. In whole new areas of the world, it can get people to think about surfing, take an interest in it and maybe even participate. It is also a gender equal competition, so hopefully it will also inspire as many, if not more, girls take up the sport as boys.

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