Before World Cup Games Even Start, Has Brazil Dropped The Ball?

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    Tina the psychic turtle on her way to work in Rio de Janeiro.
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    Woman steps on a soccer ball with Brazil's national colours outside the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
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Less than a week before Brazil hosts the World Cup, the country is juggling a transit strike, stadium construction delays, a drought that could lead to power blackouts and tensions related to upcoming elections. Before opening kickoff, some wonder if the FIFA host country has already dropped the ball.

“What's happened now doesn't look good," Bobby Zafarnia, vice president corporate and public affairs practice at Racepoint Global told International Business Times. “There are cost overruns, incomplete stadiums, and this is clashing with the biggest sporting spectacle in the world.”

All eyes will be on Brazil, the world’s third-largest democracy and seventh-largest economy. While the South American nation has been a democratic “darling,” as Zafarnia put it, for economic commentators of the BRIC nations, it has a host of socio-economic and political ills that may cast the country in a negative light during the month-long soccer tournament. Zafarnia pointed to the country’s rising unemployment rate, increasing inflation and public discontent evident in numerous demonstrations, including one last year in which more than 100,000 people in eight different cities protested high taxes. So many missteps, with more likely to come, could sour both soccer fans and foreign investors.

“It’s not just the sporting event," Zafarnia said. "You have to look at the social, political and economic conditions on the ground ... That’s really the lens of understanding how Brazil’s brand will be perceived.”

Brazil isn’t the first host country to face criticism for its apparent lack of preparedness before it hit the world stage. There were similar concerns ahead of the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece. Though the Games went on without incident, the country later experienced economic turmoil from which it’s still recovering. Greece, Zararnia said, “had larger political issues that probably got sidelined and as a result created that hangover effect that really hit them hard in 2010.”

Brazil is facing similar issues. The question will be whether they can manage them during the World Cup.

“I don’t think anyone is going to pretend that there’s not a huge political element for the Brazilian government to want the World Cup to be a success. We all want that, but I think they almost need it. If it’s not, it's going to be a huge liability for [Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff] going into the elections in October,” Zafarnia said.   

This is where the art of public relations comes into play. Whether it’s spin “reframing the argument,” as Greg Ptacek, a consultant at Arlene Howard PR in Santa Monica, Calif., puts it, the Brazilian government must find a way to address the negative nuggets while reminding the world of the positive ones. That could include anything from generating story ideas that focus on Brazil’s culture, food and architecture to enlisting celebrities to reinforce the country’s image as a beautiful, sexy place.

The effort was not helped when Brazilian soccer legend Pele criticized the country’s spending ahead of the World Cup.

“That’s not the way Brazil is going to want to go if they want to get things fixed,” Zafarnia said of Pele’s recent comments.

For Deirdre Breakenridge, CEO of Pure Performance Communications, it comes down to understanding the expectations of a given audience. “Brands are built on what people expect of you and what you need to deliver,” Breakenridge said. “If you’re a community, that could be everything from safety to how you see your public services, to how people are being treated. If you’re a company, it could be similar. What’s important to keep in mind is, it’s not about you; it’s about the people you serve. It’s a promise and you have to live up to that expectation at every single test point.”

While Brazil’s main goal is most likely to host a successful World Cup, there is an ulterior message in mind.

“Brazil is a huge market,” Zafarnia said, pointing to the country’s large-scale industries like energy, logistics, and telecommunications. “That’s probably the safest bet in terms of what’s being held out there for Brazil’s future and where its potential is going to be. It has to be able to maintain market and investor confidence. That’s the most important thing in play here. What Brazil does not want to happen is to have that become the ball that gets kicked around in the metaphorical field while the actual soccer matches are taking place.”

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