PR troubles fog up SEA Games 2019 as ‘teething problems’ arise at event

The much-awaited, multi-sport biennial Southeast Asian Games 2019 which is being held in the Philippines has unfortunately gotten off on a rocky start. The sports event which garnered tons of headlines and positive coverage due to its inclusion of rising competitive sports such as esports, is now gaining a little bit of a bad rep over ongoing construction at a part of the venue, delayed transportation issues, alleged dietary snafu and accommodation problems in the hotel. This was then further amplified online by athletes sharing their dissatisfaction on Facebook and Twitter.

In a statement to Marketing, Juliana Seow, Chef de Mission of Team Singapore said athletes and officials did encounter some teething problems, and that the team has been working with local organisers to resolve them.

“Earlier today, the organisers held a chef de mission meeting with all national Olympic committees to hear our issues so that they can resolve them as soon as possible. The catering and accommodation situations have improved today and we have not receive any adverse feedback from our athletes and officials since,” she added. According to Seow, it is natural to have some teething issues at the start of a major Games, and that it is important is to work with the organisers to address and resolve these problems to ensure that athletes and officials can compete in a conducive environment.

“We appreciate the efforts and hospitality of the Philippine organisers and volunteers in taking care of us and doing their best as hosts, and look forward to an exciting 2019 SEA Games,” she said.

However the problems shared online led to the emergence of the hashtag #SEAGamesFail making its rounds on the internet, and local netizens in the Philippines claiming that they were “embarrassed as a Filipino” for the issues surfacing. Many netizens also added that the mistakes at the SEA Games 2019 will be a “permanent stain” on the country’s reputation.

Meanwhile, local politician and house speaker Alan Peter Cayetano was also said to be “downplay[ing] the barrage of criticism” against the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, said local news outlet ABS-CBN. Cayetano currently also holds the position of chairman of the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Committee (PHISGOC).

Here are some of the conversations emerging since then on the Twitterverse:

In a conversation with Marketing, David Lian managing director, Asia, growth and innovation at Zeno said that the first and most crucial step is to fix the infrastructure issues and apologise.

“It isn’t enough to simply put out a statement or apologise. Actions need to be put in place for restitution, all the while ensuring that the organisation remains empathetic to the troubles the sports athletes have had to face,” he explained.

In a quick three step process, he added that the organising body, must first take action; secondly come across as humble and genuine while doing so and understand the plight of the athletes; and thirdly have empathy in everything they address because they need to win back audiences and make a human impact. Lian also added that without having a knee jerk reaction, the body needs to also evaluate what is written about them and determine if there is an opportunity to engage with these parties and possibly, reshape the narrative.

“At the end of the day, the organisers of the SEA Games must also have a strong content pipeline in place to focus the conversations back on its core – which are the games, rather than around infrastructure. They need to get more information nuggets out there around the sports and athletes, so the content engine needs to be up and running. But they must also remember that journalists will ask questions around the teething issues, so they will need to have deliverable actions and outcomes put in place so the narrative can be swerved back on track around the games,” he said.

With all of the negative news surrounding the games right now, Lars Voedisch, founder of boutique firm Precious Communications, said that in this current situation, simply apologising will not be enough and the organising body needs to immediately take some form of corrective action and ensure such problems do not appear again throughout the rest of the games. This corrective measure and actions taken, then needs to be amplified through communication tactics.

He added that at the end of the event, it is the pictures and moments that will stick so the PR team handling the negative association needs to quickly start disseminating positive images and news from the SEA games instead. He also added that the organising body may also consider having representatives from the teams come together for a conference to confirm their needs – to show that they’re genuinely listening.

“By default sponsors wouldn’t be happy about any negative news but at this point, the body also needs to look at the bigger picture and overall outcome,” he added. This year, the official partners for the SEA Games 2019 include brands such as Mastercard, Razer, Coca Cola, FamilyMart, Asics, BMW, to name a few.

The last SEA Games was held in Malaysia two years ago and saw about 404 events hosted across 38 sports categories. While in 2019, there will be 530 events in 54 sports. Some of the new additions into the biennial sports event include esports, chess, jiu-jitsu and underwater hockey among others.

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