Developing a Campaign Strategy
Case Study: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Campaign
In 2001, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Beijing would host the 2008 Summer Olympics, China had 14 journalists and cyber-dissidents in jail. Despite promises made by Chinese officials that the Olympics would help to improve human rights and that press freedom would be guaranteed, in July 2008 – just a month before the Games – the number of people of imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression rose to nearly 100.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) opposed and actively campaigned against Beijing hosting the Games from the 2001 announcement to the 2008 Olympics and beyond. Along the way, RSF garnered significant international attention to its message: “To denounce the discrepancy between the humanistic values of the Olympic movement and the deplorable situation of freedoms in China, in particular the use of torture and censorship and the situation of Tibet.”
What was RSF's secret to running a successful – and sustained – campaign?
Generating global press coverage using a multi-media platform played a significant role. RSF released a press package and publically lobbied political figures like IOC President Jacques Rogge. The organisation also used the Internet to spread its message quickly, creatively and globally. RSF's virtual “Outside Beijing's Olympic Stadium" demonstration held during the Games' Opening Ceremony attracted more than 18,000 online protesters.
RSF also invested “massively” in making the campaign logo a globally recognisable image, playing off the official symbol of the Games, with handcuffs in the place of Olympic rings.The iconic image cleverly conveyed the campaign message and became associated with all of RSF’s campaign activities - another key success of the initiative.
“As China deployed colossal means that no organisation could match to get its messages out, it was necessary to transmit our message – about the absence of freedom of expression in China – on all possible levels,” said RSF’s Asia bureau director Vincent Brossel.
RSF also arranged several key moments to provoke immediate international attention, such as protests during the Olympic Torch Relay. The relay “made it possible to mobilise citizens internationally around [a] common cause. It was one of the first times that hundreds, even thousands of people, came to demonstrate in the street alongside RSF," said Brossel.
As the torch travelled around the world, public demonstrations swelled in Paris, New York, Montreal, Lausanne, Saigon, Hong Kong and Beijing. International outrage peaked when three RSF members, including then-secretary-general Robert Ménard, were arrested at the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece after they managed to unveil their campaign poster while TV cameras were rolling.
Although RSF generated considerable revenue through T-shirt and merchandise sales, the campaign was financially costly. Especially since the organisation lost financial support from corporate sponsors, who were under intense pressure from the Chinese government not to take up RSF's message. The IOC and foreign governments had similar reactions, and attacks against RSF in the Chinese official press threatened to finish off RSF's work in China completely.
RSF maintains that the challenges were worth the outcome: the “Beijing 2008” campaign ignited an international discussion about free expression in China, and brought the issue to the general public.
“The free expression situation in China was never spoken about as much as it was before and during the Olympic Games,” observed Brossel.
What's more, the unprecedented, widespread international attention garnered by RSF’s campaign, and the many others who took up the cause, forced the Chinese authorities to scale back their attempts to suppress free expression. For example, in August 2008, Beijing decided to unblock access to certain websites, including Radio Free Asia, BBC China and RSF for the duration of the Games.
Post-Games, China announced that the freedoms introduced for the Olympics for foreign reporters would be extended indefinitely, giving them the right to interview Chinese citizens and travel where they wished without first seeking government permission.
“As much as the Chinese government appears to resist outside pressure to improve its record, [this] experience suggests that it does respond to such pressure,” said Brossel.
Even so, the successes remained bittersweet for RSF. “If the entire world had been pressuring China since 2001, even before these Games were assigned to Beijing, the situation might have been different today. And perhaps imprisoned journalists would have been freed before the Opening Ceremony,” said Brossel.
China is still the country which jails the largest number of journalists, cyber-dissidents, Internet-users and freedom of expression campaigners. At the time of writing, there were 78 people jailed in China for exercising their right to free expression.
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of the situation from RSF.