When protecting a brand becomes national security

Whether you see the Olympics as a celebration of sport or an excuse to round up the homeless and steal native land, one thing is certain: the Olympics is, at its core, a brand, pure and simple.   Like most brands, there is the risk of brand damage.   Unlike most brands, it appears protecting this one from damage has become an issue of national security.

Amy Goodman interviewed after being detained at the border (photo CBC)

On Thursday, Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, a well-respected American journalist, was headed to British Columbia to promote her new book Breaking the Sound Barrier.   She was planning on speaking about Canada’s health care system, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global economic meltdown and climate change.

She told all that to the border guards who had pulled her over and grilled her for more than an hour as other guards searched through her two colleagues’ computers.   They didn’t seem to care.   What they really wanted to know, she told CBC news, is whether or not she was going to say something about the Olympics.

She wasn’t planning on it and eventually the guards let her through, but with a document ordering her to leave Canada the next morning.   She was required to present it when she left as proof of her departure.   This seems like quite a bit of trouble to go through for someone who is clearly not a security risk, but rather a journalist who was invited to speak.

While she hadn’t planned on talking about the games (in fact she thought the question the guard posed to her had to do with Barack Obama’s recent attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago), what if she had?   What difference would that make?   Even if she was going to make a statement against the Vancouver games, it is her right to do so as it is anyone’s right to criticize any brand.

Is protecting this brand a matter of national security? Some think so (photo CBC)

You wouldn’t know it, though, by the way authorities have been acting lately in Vancouver.   The annual March for Missing and Murdered Women risks being rerouted to ensure flow of Olympic traffic and police have been accused of intimidating protest groups in advance of the games.

It was revealed that the RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit, which incorporates elements of the local police and even members of the Canadian military, is enforcing a restriction on “illegal signs” within view of Olympic venues.   While the City of Vancouver recently said they would consider altering their bylaw so it clearly states that only commercial signs of non-sponsors would be targeted instead of anti-Olympic messages, it still leaves us with the question of why the RCMP is doing this at all.

Protecting the physical safety of the people attending, participating in, volunteering or working for the games is important and a valid use of the police.   Given the large number or people this event is expected to attract, involving the army, RCMP and even border guards makes sense.

However, protecting the Olympic brand from detractors who seek to discredit it or damage its public reputation, or, to be fair, from opportunistic marketers hoping to bandwagon jump, is not a matter of national, local or even personal security.   It’s a matter of corporate public relations.

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