01/28/2014 12:22 EST | Updated 03/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Putin's Olympics Might Flush Russia's Rep Down the Toilet

They may well be the flushes heard around the world.

The Sochi Olympics are still a couple of weeks away but we already have what could be the enduring symbol of Russia's squandered opportunity to gain international glory -- the now famous image of side-by-side toilets.

Forget the actual sports. The real competition happened years ago when Russia fought for and won the right to host the 2014 Winter Games.

Countless billions of dollars -- $51 billion so far -- were supposed to be a prudent investment in the ultimate public relations event, one that would present the best of Russia to the world.

Beijing 2008 is a case study on how to leverage hosting an Olympics to redefine a nation's image.

China's leadership fully understood the importance of nailing its brand messaging. The government took its communications seriously and recognized some of the country's differences and criticisms could become an asset. Hosting the Games became the perfect opportunity for China to engage in the conversation about human rights that would have been a forbidden topic in the years before.

By all accounts, China earned marketing gold.

Russia would be lucky to finish the race at this point.

From a communications perspective, it seems clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is more interested in using the Sochi games to solidify his brand inside Russia rather than engaging with the world. His politics are all local.

His constant and unbridled attacks against Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender (LBGT) rights are certainly aimed at a Russian audience. So far he is not showing any remorse at alienating himself from the rest of the world, though I suspect reality is starting to set in as more and more world leaders refuse to attend what many are calling the Putin Games.

Tourists are also having a hard time committing, with hundreds of thousands of event tickets still unsold. The challenges of obtaining a visa or even tickets to the events certainly have an impact, but concerns about security are having a huge impact from this perspective and Russia's poor public response to potential suicide bombers and overall security issues is not calming fears.

At least TV audiences will be safe in their homes as they watch the drama of these Olympics unfold from their living rooms on a multitude of screens. Hopefully the true heroism will be in the form of some world-class athletic achievements and not in the streets of Sochi. The good news for the global brands that are spending billions of dollars on advertising and sponsorship is that everyone will be tuning in to see what happens.

Given the vast array of potential issues, you can bet corporate sponsors are busy creating contingency plans. Being part of the Olympics is supposed to be a sure thing for brands. Not so in Sochi. The brands that will stand on the winner's podium will figure out how to remind people about the true spirit of the games and tap into the Olympic spirit which transcends chaos and tragedy.

Just as Canada's hockey team would never use poor ice conditions as an excuse for losing, the smart marketers know they need to stick to the play book and stay out of the penalty box. With President Putin showing no interest in listening to counsel or using the world stage to change history and his country's reputation the Russia's brand and character risks being flushed down the toilet.


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