Written evidence from Dr Patrick Spaven
The Summer Olympics focus world public attention
on the host city - and to some extent on the country - more than
any other staged event. The only other event with similar global
potential is the FIFA World Cup. These mega events are opportunities
for communication with billions and for direct engagement with
smaller numbers. There is potential in and around the events for
public diplomacy to reinforce or change perceptions which in turn
can influence attitudes and behaviour.
But the Olympics are a double-edged sword. The focus
can lead to negative change as well as positive. The balance depends
to a large extent on the effectiveness of the management of the
events, infrastructure, security etc. But public diplomacy has
a role to play and the extent to which that role is leveraged
positively depends on the quality of its strategy and how it is
In 2006 I was able to track with statistically reliable
research data the changes to Germany's reputation in around their
hosting of the FIFA World Cup. Germany improved its standing in
the Anholt Nation Brands Index significantly in the six months
leading up to the events and beyond. It maintained this advantage
throughout the following year.
I was not able to identify any other factors that
could have significantly influenced this change. No other country
with a mature reputation improved its status significantly in
the Index from its origins in 2005 until President Obama took
office and dramatically lifted the results for the USA. The other
dramatic changes were all negative.
Germany's public diplomacy effort was researched-informed,
highly coordinated and began long before the event. It involved
detailed segmentation of target audiences. For example, one strand
was aimed at mass younger audience - in particular the breaking
of outdated stereotypes of Germany as a nation of humourless,
conventional people. On its own this might have undermined Germany's
reputation for reliable, high-quality engineered products. But
another part of the strategy aimed to protect this market.
Whether and how reputation change occurs around the
Olympics is principally governed by the interplay between people's
prior perceptions about the city and country, and the impressions
and, for a minority, the direct experiences of the city or country
generated by the Olympics and the media activity around it.
For cities and countries with a relatively simple
story to tell - like Barcelona in 1992, Beijing in 2008 and South
Africa earlier this year - public diplomacy strategy should not
have been difficult to design and implement. In contrast, where
prior perceptions about a place are relatively complex and deep-rooted
- as is likely to be the case with well-known cities like London,
it will be more difficult to bring about positive change through
communications alone. People will take more persuading to change
their views and behaviour.
This shouldn't matter if perceptions are generally
positive. But while complex and deep-rooted perceptions can be
a bulwark against negative change, it is easier for perceptions
to change negatively than positively especially where communications
are the only mediator. Part of any strategy must be about guarding
against reputational damage.
Perception is not monolithic. Research such as the
annual surveys for the Anholt Nation and City Brands Indexes which
I analysed for about three years, shows that there are wide variations
between different aspects of a city or country's identity, such
as its environment, its people or the way it is run. These are
more than nuances and it is in analysis of these layers of the
perception cake that opportunities for influence can be found.
Traction is possible if there are mismatches between
perceptions and reality. One person's reality can of course be
different from another's, and many public diplomacy campaigns
are based on assumptions about a country's assets that do not
stand up to scrutiny. Public diplomacy must be based on realities
that are not just evidenced but also can be demonstrated tangibly.
The UK's standing in Paralympic sport is a good story, but it
must be underpinned with a consistently positive picture of its
approach to disability generally.
These mismatches often are the result of out-of-date
perceptions. It is unlikely that many people still believe London
is susceptible to the smog attacks of the first half of the last
century, but it still has a weak reputation for its environment;
and people think that its climate is much worse than Brussels'
for example. An important question however is how much these mismatches
matter to UK interests.
UK public diplomacy around the Olympics needs to:
1. Be clear about groups of people whose behaviours
matter most to the UK (eg opinion formers, decision-makers, potential
tourists, investors, business partners, inward students, and professional
2. Through research, identify perceptions among
these groups that are negatively out of line with demonstrable
3. Decide whether these mismatches are important
in influencing desirable behaviours.
4. Design strategies to extend impressions and
experiences to these people that stand a reasonable chance of
eliminating these important mismatches in a sustainable way.
5. To gain traction, create relevant storyboards
- relevant both to the Olympics and to the target group in question.
Otherwise they will dissipate in the general media fog.
6. Be coordinated across government.
7. Gather momentum months before the Olympics
Sustainability is a key word in public diplomacy.
There is little or no value in quick, superficial reputational
wins if they are undermined by perceptions and experiences in
the months and years to come. Creating expectations that cannot
be sustained is not just a waste of resources, it erodes trust.
Any promotional activity around the Olympics - such as the "greening
of the games" must stand up to future scrutiny. Legacy is
particularly vulnerable. White elephants make good media content.
The following paragraphs raise or revisit a few issues
that may be relevant to public diplomacy around the London Olympics
Most cities are so closely identified with their
countries that perception changes as a result of the Olympics
will be shared by both. This is likely to have been the case with
Beijing, Athens and Sydney.
There is evidence that London may be different. For
example, factor analysis of the City Brand Index survey results
suggest that London and New York are perceived as "world
cities", somewhat detached from their hinterlands. London's
widely-appreciated openness to international influences and change
are in juxtaposition to persistent popular perceptions of the
UK as having insular and backward-looking tendencies (albeit in
a complex mix with more "modern" identity elements).
In my view it would be wrong to assume that perception
outcomes - particularly positive ones - for London will be directly
transferred to the wider UK. If this is the intention, the relevance
of the messaging about London to the wider UK needs to be explicit
In some domains it may be true that there is no such
thing as bad news. This is generally not so in nation and city
identity. There are cities and countries - such as some in Africa
- that might benefit from neutral or even mildly negative media
exposure. This is because less is known about them among broad
international publics, and they are lumped in with other, more
negatively perceived, cities and countries. Media exposure - such
as that directed at Lagos recently in the UK television - may
help to create more nuanced perceptions rather than a blanket
This is different for London and the UK which are
perceived relatively positively by the world taken as a whole.
More is at stake.
There are the obvious threats such as terrorist incidents,
transport or crowd control problems, the "Heathrow experience",
doping scandals, Games infrastructure shortfalls. The risk of
these types of threats can be reduced if not entirely eliminated.
There is also the less controllable risk of more
dispersed negative phenomena like crime or rudeness to visitors
which elements of the media are fond of highlighting. The captive
presence of the world's media in and around the Olympics is indeed
a double-edged sword. Many of them have time on their hands and
are not averse to making mischief. Effective management of the
media - without the heavy hand which can be destructive - is very
important. Sydney is said to have handled this well in 2000 through
its media strategy.
South Africa probably gained overall from its successful
handling of the FIFA World Cup, simply because it confounded pessimists
by pulling off a relatively incident-free series of events.
Even if incidents take place, the impact on reputation
need not be serious. Effective recovery from a disaster can lead
to reputational success - witness Chile's San Jose mine rescue.
Perhaps the worst that can happen is that the event
undermines recent reputational improvements by nourishing old
stereotypes. India must be grateful that Delhi was hosting the
limited exposure Commonwealth Games and not the Olympics.
Some people see the opening ceremony as the apotheosis
of Olympics public diplomacy. It does of course have a guaranteed
mass audience, and is always assessed in comparison with previous
Olympic ceremonies. Expectations around opening ceremonies have
been progressively raised with successive Olympics. There is a
risk in the ceremony of reputational damage, albeit short term.
Probably the best a new host can hope for is to meet
those expectations, confirming its status as a worthy Olympic
host. Beijing's ceremony had shades of triumphalism which could
have offended and disturbed some audiences. It would be wholly
inappropriate for London to try to emulate Beijing in scale and
expense. London will not make that mistake, but it must guard
against too much self-irony which might appeal to some western
audiences but which could be misinterpreted by others. It must
strike the right balance and tone.
The best public diplomacy consists of ordinary people
engaging with others. Even better if there are millions of them.
It helps if people are positive about the place in which they
live or come from.
I lived in Barcelona for six years which spanned
the 1992 Olympics. I experienced firsthand the delight of so many
of the people of the city and surrounding area in the dramatic
improvements that the Games ushered in. Without a doubt it generated
a higher level of civic pride which in turn encouraged continuing
improvement which has transformed Barcelona's locus in the world.
The Beijing Olympics, accompanied as they were by
a media assault on China over its handling of the disturbances
in Tibet, produced a wave of nationalist feeling. This may have
been comfortable for China's ruling elites, but it worried some
outside observers. It is probably too early to assess the overall
We know that Londoners have mixed feelings about
the Olympics, especially at a time of austerity. This will probably
swing towards a more positive balance as the Games approach. It
will be very important to encourage this momentum not least through
effective management of volunteers.
2 November 2010