Competing for global attention: a case study into how a collective of largely unknown activist groups managed to shift the focus from one of the biggest international events to a minority cause
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This case study retraces the steps of the David vs. Goliath battle between the Beijing Olympic Organising Committee and the Free Tibet Movement, in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While the Chinese government struggled to maintain message control in a bid to secure consistent, positive media coverage, the Free Tibet Movement has provided insight into an alternative approach to communicating with a truly global audience through engagement, participation and the strategic use of new media. This paper is neither anti-Chinese nor pro-Tibetan, however, it highlights that large organisations and governments can learn from activist and pressure groups, which have become increasingly successful in engaging globally dispersed audiences in a cost effective way. The author argues that Olympic programs have focused too much on traditional marketing tools, such as sponsorship and sales, whilst ignoring the importance of strategic public relations programs and audience engagement. Scholarly research into activism spans over more than thirty years and represents one of the largest bodies of knowledge in public relations literature. However, its focus has been largely on damage limitation and issue management. The author calls for greater recognition of activists as public relations professionals in their own right, who are becoming increasingly sophisticated and innovative to maximise their limited funds and resources. The Free Tibet Movement's Olympic Campaign provides an insightful example of how an until recently largely unknown collective of activist groups managed to seriously overshadow the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games, effectively damaging one of the best known global brands. As scholars our focus should arguably not be on how to limit the scope and power of these PR professionals, but on what we can learn from their expertise, experience and knowledge.
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