I recently spoke to an MBA class at Brigham Young University about my experiences working for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002 (SLOC). As I prepared for the speech, I realized there are a lot valuable lessons I learned from being a part of the Games and the talented people I had the privilege of working with.
I worked for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002 (SLOC) for a year as a consultant with Coltrin & Associates and then three years as a full time employee through May 2002 after the Paralympics ended. I came on board shortly after Mitt Romney joined the team as CEO.
Caroline Shaw, the Chief Communications Officer at SLOC, hired me. As I mentioned, originally I was a consultant with SLOC’s PR firm, Coltrin & Associates. I worked as a consultant for about a year when one of the PR staffers decided to accept a job as the Associate Athletic Director at Northern Arizona University. When the position opened I was interested. It was a tough situation because of my position with Coltrin & Associates. However, Carline Shaw took me to lunch one day and asked if I was interested. I told her I was and she said, “Well, in life and business it’s all who you know. You know me. I like you and the work you do. The jobs yours if you want it.”
I told her I wanted the job and she said she would talk to my boss and Coltrin & Associates and make it all work. She did and I immediately became a full time employee at SLOC.
SLOC had 41 functions/departments within the organization and we divided those up amongst our team. I was responsible for the Budget and Finance, Olympic Village, Weather Forecasting and Transportation functions. That meant I went to meetings with these departments and made sure I knew what was going on within each function and then put together a PR strategy for each and executed on that strategy.
With the Sochi Olympics fast approaching, I thought I’d share what I think are the most important business and public relations (PR) lessons I learned while working for the Olympics.
Top 10 list of the things I learned from working on the Olympics:
- You never get a second chance to make a first impression: On the first day as a consultant with SLOC we held a press conference at the E-Center (now called the Maverick Center) in West Valley City. I don’t remember what we announced at the press conference, but it was my first opportunity to interact with the PR team. Two of the media managers were starting to set up for the press conference when I arrived onsite. I walked over, introduced myself and asked if I could help. They looked at me like I was from outer space. I thought I had offended them and explained that I just wanted to help and wasn’t trying to interfere or get in their way. They reluctantly accepted my offer to help. We set up and when the press arrived I walked around and introduced myself to each member of the press. I shook their hands and told them my role and explained that if they needed anything to let me know. After the press conference I offered to help clean things up and again the two media managers looked at me in disbelief. After we cleaned up and headed back to the office I found out why I was getting strange looks from the two media managers. They explained that my consultant colleagues had never offered to help and in fact had taken it upon themselves to boss them around. Needless to say there were some hard feelings and distrust when it came to consultants. They were relieved that I was different and willing to jump in, help and do what needed to be done to accomplish the task at hand. From that point on, I was one of them and enjoyed a good working relationship with both of them. Within weeks I knew every secret and was clued into all the inside jokes. When the time came to hire somebody else to replace one of the media managers, both provided my soon to be boss with endorsements to bring me on and make me part of the team.
- Reputation Matters: Shortly after Mitt Romney joined the team as CEO, the man in charge of securing Olympic sponsors asked Mitt to join him in some sales meetings. The head of sponsors for SLOC had been having a difficult time signing major sponsors and there was concern that if we couldn’t get the sponsors we needed the Games would be run on a bare-bones budget or may not be held at all in Utah. As the head of sponsors related the story, he and Mitt walked into the first meeting with a company the Organizing Committee had met with before but hadn’t had any luck with. Mitt walked into the meeting, shook the CEO’s hand, told him why he should sponsor the Games and the benefits a sponsorship would bring his organization. Within about five minutes the CEO agreed to sponsor the Games. The reason? He knew Mitt Romney and his business savvy. If Mitt said it was good, he believed him and committed right on the spot to sponsor the Games. From there, signing Olympic sponsors became easy, all because of Mitt Romney’s reputation.
- Be honest: One day while working on a press conference, a reporter from one of the local newspapers called me asking for some information for a story she was working on. I told her I could get her that info and asked what her deadline was. She told me, but I didn’t have a piece of paper with me and didn’t write it down. Several days passed and I had forgotten about her request. At our next press conference, my boss came walking up with a woman I didn’t recognize. My boss introduced the woman she was with and said, “She said you promised to do something for her and didn’t.” I recognized the name as soon as my boss said it and knew immediately I hadn’t done what I promised to do. My response? “She’s right. I didn’t do it.” I told her I would do it right then and proceeded to do it. By being honest with my boss and the reporter I defused the situation immediately and got the reporter the information she needed to complete her story. Believe me, that never happened again either.
- Do more than what’s expected: How’s this for a first day on the job. When I arrived I reported to my new boss and she asked if I knew who Mike Eruzione was. I confirmed I did and she said, “Good. Here’s his cell phone number. We need to set up a video shoot with him. Call and set it up.” Does anybody here know who Mike Eruzione is? For those of you who don’t know, Mike was on the 1980 gold medal winning hockey team. He’s best known for his scoring the winning goal in the Miracle on Ice game against the Soviet Union team to which broadcaster Al Michaels famously said, ‘Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” In Disney’s 2004 movie Miracle, Eruzione’s character had a line that became famous, even if it never actually happened. During an exhibition game against the Norwegian National Team in Oslo that ends in a 3–3 tie, Coach Herb Brooks notices the players are distracted by pretty blond girls in the stands and not playing up to their potential. After the game, in a wrenching scene, he makes them run “Herbies” far into the night, asking the team who it was they played for. Exhausted, forward Mike Eruzione finally responds with the answer that Herb had wanted all along, “I play for the United States of America!” and the drills are ended. I set that first meeting up and every other meeting with Mike. I took the time to know what his preferences were and what he liked and didn’t like. Prior to the Olympics starting, the last time I spoke to him, Mike took the time to thank me for everything I did in setting these meetings up for him. He said that he’s been doing these types of things for a long time and that I went out of my way to make it easy for him and really took care of him. I was thrilled that he acknowledged that and that I got the chance to work with him.
- Build good relationships with co-workers, media, customers, clients and partners: In my role in the PR department, I worked with reporters on a daily basis. Over the course of the three-year period that I worked for the games, I became close friends with a number of the local media. When the Games ended, one reporter came to our staff end of Olympics party and cried because he wasn’t going to work with and see me on a daily basis. Another reporter I still work with on a daily basis. In fact, he recently called me asking if I had a source for a story he was working on. This happens on a regular basis with this reporter. Both of these instances happened because of the good relationships created.
- Think outside the box: Mitt Romney was always willing to give of his time if it furthered the Olympic cause. Mitt had a trip to Washington, DC and New York planned over a three-day period. He came to me and said he had a free evening in New York and that if I wanted to book something for him with the media he’d be game. It was right about the time we were getting ready to announce ticket sales for the Games. I checked the Yankees schedule and it turned out they were going to be in town playing the Boston Red Sox that night. I thought it would be cool to have Mitt throw out the first pitch. At the time, all candidates or requests to throw the first pitch out went through and were personally approved by then owner, George Steinbrenner. I made the request and received Mr. Steinbrenner’s approval. You can read the full story here. It was something unique and different but unfortunately never happened as it was scheduled for September 11, 2001.
- Knowledge is Power: The roof of the Olympic Speedskating Oval collapsed during construction. It caused all kinds of concern that it might not be finished in time for test events and that the way it had been designed wasn’t safe. When it collapsed, we held a press conference and basically told the press it had collapsed, but we didn’t know why, which was all true. We also told them we’d get back to them once we had the details to explain why this had happened and how it would be fixed. A few days later we had answers for the press and held another press conference to explain why the roof collapsed and detail how it would be fixed. Mitt isn’t an engineer or an architect, but he had acquired the knowledge to spend nearly an hour explaining these aspects and answering questions from the media about it. During this time he diagrammed specific engineering and architectural concepts on a white board all without the aid of the engineering and architecture professionals in attendance. It was one of the most impressive press conferences I’ve been a part of and it was all due to the knowledge Mitt acquired.
- It’s ok to beat the boss/have fun: After a press event in Park City, Utah, I was driving back with my boss and the media relations team. We pulled off the freeway in Salt Lake City and immediately stopped at a red light. As I pulled up to the light, I noticed Mitt already stopped at the light. He didn’t pay attention as I stopped next to him. I began revving my engine and pretty soon Mitt looked over and saw me and the rest of the PR staff watching him. He caught on quick and began revving his engine. Things got real when the stoplight turned green and we both screeched our tires in an effort to win the drag race. As we were racing, my boss was sitting in the front seat and kept screaming, “Slow down, Jeremy, you can’t be the boss.” We stopped at the next red light, everybody laughing and having fun. When the next light turned green we repeated the process. I eventually slowed down due to a combination of my boss screaming for me to not beat the boss and a fear of getting a costly ticket. Mitt didn’t slow down. When we ran into him at the office later that day, he was laughing about the experience and saying how fun it was. We all had fun too, and enjoyed the race.
- Don’t be afraid of mistakes: Everybody makes mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes you’re probably not working hard enough or extending yourself in a way that’s going to help you grow and further develop your talents. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Learn from them. Embrace them. At SLOC, we made mistakes but we didn’t run from them. In fact, we devoted one press conference to highlighting mistakes we had made. We developed a top ten David Letterman type list of the biggest mistakes we made. We called the mistake out and then discussed what we learned and how we would do it again if we had a do over.
- Honeybadger it: The Honeybadger is the most fearless animal in the animal kingdom. It just takes what it wants. So often you never know what you can get if you don’t ask. Mitt Romney was, and is, a remarkable man and one that everybody wants to know. On my wife’s birthday in 2000 I asked Mitt if he would send an email to my wife wishing her a happy birthday. My boss thought I was crazy and couldn’t believe I asked but he said yes. He sent her a nice e-mail wishing her a happy birthday and telling her how much he enjoyed working with me. My wife’s friends, family and co-workers were all impressed and wondered how it happened. I told my wife I just asked him to do it. It never hurts to ask. What’s the worst that’s going to happen, you get told no? Big deal, I can live with a no.
We used to joke that the experience we gained and earned from being employed with SLOC was a lot like aging in dog years. Things happened so quick and things got busier with each passing day that it required incredible adaptability and flexibility.
The Olympics were an amazing career opportunity for me. Mitt Romney talked about assembling the brightest and best talent as part of our team and, in my opinion, he accomplished that goal. Working with people like Mitt Romney and Fraser Bullock gave me great experience and also provided me with a solid foundation on which to build my career. The things I learned working on the Olympics have shaped my approach to business and PR, and influence the decisions I make on a daily basis.