To earn host country status, Qatar went up against countries like the U.S. and worked on its proposal for nearly two years. A country of about 1.5 million people, summertime temperatures can climb over 100 degrees, a concern for FIFA. And there has been controversy over the role of Qatar’s oil wealth, and whether the FIFA organization’s possible ulterior motives and personal problems came up during the deliberations.
After the jump, read the Q&A we conducted with Mike Holtzman, partner at Brown Lloyd James, fresh off a plane from Zurich. The firm served as the international PR representative for Qatar’s World Cup bid committee working in Doha, London, and New York. The firm has experience in this area – it also worked on the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics bid and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics bid.
How did you and the firm first become involved with these international sporting bids?
We’ve been in Qatar for about 10 years and we represent a number of interests in Qatar. In terms of how we got into this line of business, it was purely by accident.
The firm specializes in what we call public diplomacy, which is introducing one country or culture to another culture using strategic communications. We had first done work like this on behalf of the Chinese for their Olympics bid, which was as much a political campaign as it was trying to get votes to support China for the Olympics. It was talking about China, opening up China should they win the Games, talking about China’s culture, the benefits of engaging China through the Olympics. So these [bids] take on an almost political, cultural dimension as much as they are about understanding sport and the Olympic movement.
The World Cup was done more for our love for Qatar in the sense that we see this as such a dynamic and fascinating and fast-moving country with such a great story to tell. And that provides a window into the Arab world and the Muslim world, a positive image of the Middle East. To us, it was really an unmissable opportunity to work on this campaign.
What were some of the other messaging points that you were using here?
The Qataris have a very strong sense of message. They understood that the World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world in terms of viewers, participation, [and] duration. And they knew to have the World Cup come to the Middle East for the first time would give the world its first real opportunity to have a very close look at the modern Middle East; maybe dispel some myths about the Middle East, maybe establish some new dialogue through sport that you couldn’t have in the political sphere. And the Qataris have always been very sensitive to that.
The other messages were about legacy. When you host the World Cup you’re supposed to leave something behind. And that can be something like touching the young people of the Middle East with the World Cup and imbuing them with the values of sport. It can also be something physical. In this case, the Qataris were going to build these brilliant air-cooled stadiums that allowed the games to be held in the heat. Then when the Cup is over they’re going to dismantle many of these stadiums and give the technology and the modular stadiums to the developing world. So there’s a physical legacy and an enormous political legacy to having the World Cup come to the Middle East for the first time.
How is it that the political aspects of these sporting events have come to be so important to the pitches?
When Beijing won, they were against cities like Paris, which technically are superior cities – they’re beautiful, more iconic, people want to shop there and spend money there and party there. But they couldn’t make the same argument that the Chinese could make that this could drive large-scale change. That was what the Qataris did. They were able to elevate their pitch to a level that nobody else could, which is “This will change our region;” “This will create East-West dialogue;” “This will put a window on to the Middle East that shows a positive image.” These are messages that really can’t be matched by the more abstract concepts that some of the other rivals were presenting.
So when you can elevate it [you don’t] necessarily deliberately make it political, but it’s one of the values that these voting bodies are thinking about. They’re thinking about a real legacy of sport.
From a PR standpoint, what practice area does this fall under? Is it a public affairs issue? Is it sports?
It really allows you to fire on all cylinders. I think there are some elements of crisis communications, there are moments of great stress and tension. During this campaign, there were lots of allegations flying back and forth.
There’s a technical and science element. The Qataris basically had to identify technologies that could cool open-air stadiums that hold tens of thousands of people when it’s 100 degrees out. One of the big concerns about Qatar was the heat. So the Qataris identified state-of-the-art solar-powered technology that could cool the stadiums.
You have regional public relations involved because you wanted to demonstrate that the entire Middle East was behind this bid. So you had a grassroots campaign-like element. There was a corporate social responsibility element that they were introducing legacy elements all across the Middle East.
What’s next for your relationship with Qatar?
It’s such a close relationship now and we have such a wonderful set of clients in the country that for us it was an honor to work on this and it’s not so much a business development enterprise. We’re happy to have been a part of this. It’s really historic.