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Shirley Leung

Olympics bid needs a world-class PR save

Doug Rubin had a hand in wins by Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren, and Marty Walsh not that long ago.Northwind Strategies

In all the hand-wringing over the mess that is Boston’s Olympics bid, Doug Rubin has managed to escape scrutiny.

Until now.

Boston 2024 is awash in problems — and none bigger is the group’s ability to get its message across that the Games can make Boston a better version of itself. The Olympics are supposed to be a feel-good event, but not here. Instead, the Games are toxic, as if organizers are proposing to build a nuclear waste dump on the Greenway.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, from Boston 2024 chairman John Fish to our naysaying selves. But Rubin and his firm Northwind Strategies are most responsible for making sure the public understands why hosting the Summer Games could be good for Boston.


It has been nothing but an #epicfail.

“I understand the situation we’re in, and I’m not going to make any excuses for it,” Rubin said.

Heard this before? Yes, it has become, sadly, a familiar refrain from members of Boston 2024 ,who are on a self-imposed Apology Tour.

Not that long ago, Rubin seemed to have the golden touch. He helped to propel political neophyte Deval Patrick into the governor’s office and engineered Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren’s victory over US Senator Scott Brown. After the mayoral primary, Rubin jumped on the Marty Walsh bandwagon to help in the home stretch of the race.

But then came last year’s string of high-profile losses: Warren Tolman’s lopsided defeat to Maura Healey for attorney general, the front-runner Martha Coakley bested by Charlie Baker, and the hometown favorite Suffolk Downs outbid by Vegas mogul Steve Wynn for the Boston-area casino.

Rubin is not ready to concede his Olympics campaign. Far from it. In his mind, Boston 2024 can still win over the locals with a grass-roots approach.


“This has nothing to do with PR,” Rubin said. “It’s not about trying to convince or sell. It’s about working with these communities and building a bid that works for everybody.”

That sounds a lot like PR spin.

Even so, Boston 2024 needs more help beyond the $44,000 a month they are paying to communications consultants, including $15,000 each to Rubin’s shop and Keyser Public Strategies, whose president, Will Keyser, was a key strategist in Baker’s winning gubernatorial campaign.

The buzz is that Micho Spring and Weber Shandwick may be brought in to burnish the image of the Boston bid, globally and locally. Weber, which has offices around the world, has two decades of experience managing the message of the five-ring circus.

The firm oversaw the communications strategy for the bid committee for 2020 Tokyo, which eventually got the nod to host the Games. Weber also worked on Sochi 2014 and Beijing 2008, among others.

Spring, ever accessible, was not ready to gab.

As much fun as it is for the PR types in this town to do a post-mortem on Rubin’s Olympic-size fiasco, everyone admits this was a tough assignment.

The privately funded Boston 2024 group, playing by the rules set by the US Olympic Committee, had to submit a secret bid. Boston was picked in January to represent the United States in bidding to host the Games, and Boston 2024 now has to come up with a proposal that satisfies both the USOC and locals, and ultimately win over the International Olympic Committee. The IOC will be choosing the host city in 2017.


To borrow a political analogy, Boston 2024 is running a campaign without a base or a known opponent. All the while the organization has had to woo wildly different sets of constituents to make the case that Boston should host an Olympics.

Try getting a consensus from the residents of Jamaica Plain, the USOC officials in Colorado, and IOC honchos in Switzerland.

And the message Boston 2024 sends to one group may not sit well with another. Case in point: the referendum.

Last week, Fish said his group would sponsor a statewide vote on their Olympic plans, to regain the public trust over concerns that the Games would use taxpayer funds. Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh welcomed the move, but it probably worried the USOC and IOC that a no vote could knock Boston out of the race.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.