FCO Public Diplomacy: The Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

2  Public diplomacy and the UK

Public diplomacy and 'soft power'

4.  The concepts of 'public diplomacy' and 'soft power' have developed over the past fifty years. Public diplomacy has been defined as:

the transparent means by which a sovereign country communicates with publics in other countries aimed at informing and influencing audiences overseas for the purpose of promoting the national interest and advancing its foreign policy goals. [It] includes such activities as educational exchange programs for scholars and students; visitor programs; language training; cultural events and exchanges; and radio and television broadcasting. Such activities usually focused on improving the "sending" country's image or reputation as a way to shape the wider policy environment in the "receiving" country.[1]

5.  The concept of public diplomacy was developed in the 1960s "partly to distance overseas governmental information activities from the term propaganda, which had acquired pejorative connotations".[2] More recently, the term 'soft power' has been widely used to describe governments' ability "to get what [they] want through attraction rather than coercion or payments". Soft power "arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. When [its] policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, [its] soft power is enhanced."[3]

6.  In the past 10 years the FCO has held two major reviews of its public diplomacy work: the 'Wilton review' of 2003, which concluded that the Government's work in this field was unco-ordinated and ineffectively evaluated, and the subsequent review by Lord Carter of Coles, which reported in 2005. Lord Carter recommended the establishment of a Public Diplomacy Board to develop and monitor implementation of a new strategy. He offered a redefinition of British public diplomacy as:

work aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas, in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals.[4]

The then Government accepted Lord Carter's recommendations, and the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last Parliament reported on the FCO's progress in implementing them.[5] In 2008 the FCO published a collection of essays under the title, Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World. In an introduction, then FCO Minister of State Jim Murphy MP commented that in the new context of globalisation and technological change, "public diplomacy must become an integral part of policy-making and delivery".[6]

7.  In October 2009, our predecessor Committee was informed by the FCO that the Public Diplomacy Board was being replaced by a new Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy Forum, chaired by the Foreign Secretary. The new body would meet twice a year. It would be supported by a Public Diplomacy Partners Group which would meet at a lower level, under FCO chairmanship, roughly every six weeks, to focus on cross-cutting themes and events. The FCO Minister with responsibility for public diplomacy would henceforth "focus on providing specific ministerial supervision of the relationship between the FCO and its directly funded partners", primarily the British Council and BBC World Service. Our predecessors concluded that "the new arrangements for the governance of the FCO's public diplomacy work, with the relevant highest-level body now chaired by the Foreign Secretary rather than a more junior Minister, appear to be in accord with the more central place that public diplomacy is taking in the FCO's work".[7]

8.  The Coalition Government which came to power in May 2010 has not yet made a formal declaration of its policy in relation to public diplomacy. The new Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon William Hague MP, referred to the concept of public diplomacy (though he did not use the phrase itself) in the first of his recent policy speeches, delivered at the FCO on 1 July 2010:

if the increasingly multipolar world already means that we have more governments to influence and that we must become more active, the ever accelerating development of human networks means that we have to use many more channels to do so, seeking to carry our arguments in courts of public opinion around the world as well as around international negotiating tables. [...] In my mind, such communication will become all the more important over time and as we conduct our diplomacy across the world we overlook international opinion at our peril, and while we cannot possibly hope to dominate the global airwaves we must try ever harder to get our message across.

'Nation branding'

9.  In the collection of essays on public diplomacy published by the FCO in 2008, Simon Anholt wrote:

When I started writing about an idea I called 'nation brand' more than twelve years ago, my observation was a simple one: that the reputations of countries are analogous to the brand images of companies and products, and are equally critical to the progress and prosperity of those countries because of their influence on the opinions and behaviours of each country's 'target audiences': foreign investors, tourists, consumers, students, entrepreneurs, trading partners, the media, other governments, donors, multilateral agencies, and so on. [...]

Countries, cities and regions that are lucky or virtuous enough to have acquired a positive reputation find that everything they or their citizens wish to do on the global stage is easier: their brand goes before them like a calling card that opens doors, creates trust and respect, and raises the expectation of quality, competence and integrity. Places with a reputation—no matter how ill-deserved—for being poor, uncultured, backward, dangerous or corrupt will find that everything they or their citizens try to achieve outside their own neighbourhood is harder, and the onus is always on them to prove that they don't conform to the national stereotype.[8]

10.  Mr Anholt draws attention to the difficulty of changing a nation's "brand":

there is little or no evidence to suggest that private-sector marketing techniques can change national images. It is remarkable how many governments are prepared to spend large amounts of taxpayers' and donors' money on such campaigns without the support of any proper case-studies [...] and often without even the most rudimentary success criteria or mechanisms for performance measurement.[9]

11.  Mr Anholt argues that "in reality, the images of places appear to be remarkably stable, and highly resilient in the face of any kind of deliberate manipulation". He notes that the Anholt Nation Brands Index (NBI), a survey he has run since 2005 to track and analyse the global images of 40 countries using a panel of nearly 30,000 respondents in 35 countries, shows that almost no country's image changed by more than 1 or 2 percentage points over the period 2005 to 2008.[10]

12.  A change in a country's image, Mr Anholt argues, usually takes place over decades not years, and is dependent on objective changes within that country or in its behaviour. Mr Anholt cites the slow improvement in the international reputation of Germany and Japan since 1945, to the point at which in 2008 they ranked first and eighth overall in the Nation Brands Index. In these cases, an "improved reality" led in due course to an "improved image", but over a very lengthy period.[11]

The UK's international reputation

13.  Research shows that the overall perception of the UK overseas is a positive one. The FCO told us that:

In 2009, the FCO's Public Diplomacy Group reviewed all available research into the UK's reputation amongst international audiences. We concluded that the UK's overall reputation worldwide was strong—ranking 4th out of 50 in countries in the 2010 Anholt Nation Brand Index. The UK was seen as fair, innovative, diverse, confident and stylish. However, negative images still persisted which painted Britain as arrogant, stuffy, old-fashioned and cold. We used these findings to identify the key themes about modern Britain we wanted to project overseas in order to overcome false impressions that acted upon our prosperity and political influence. We want to showcase modern Britain as the open (welcoming, diverse, tolerant), connected (through our involvement in the UN and G20, politically, geographically, in terms of trade and travel), creative and dynamic place it really is.[12]

14.  Simon Anholt noted that the UK's reputation was very firmly established:

When you are talking about a country like the UK, which has been internationally prominent for centuries, I think you will find that the roots run very deep indeed. One of the reasons why the UK, to use that horrible phrase, punches above its weight in reputational terms, is because we have been at it for so long. We have so much influence and so much engagement with other people in other countries, and that's one of the things that makes our reputation so good, because generally […] the more you know about a country, the more you approve of it.[13]

15.  However, Mr Anholt also drew attention to the UK's perceived weaknesses, which were that its people are seen as being—

A little bit arrogant. A little bit overbearing. A little bit cold. London, for example, in my City Brands Index is regarded to be an unwelcoming, expensive place. None of this is terribly bad, by the way, because it's quite difficult to admire somebody and find them cuddly at the same time. Our reputation is the kind of reputation that nine out of 10 countries would give their right hands for.[14]

The reputational impact of major sporting events: lessons from other countries

16.  In assessing the FCO's public diplomacy strategy for the 2012 Olympics, what lessons can be learnt from other countries' experience of hosting major international sporting events? The four most recent comparable examples are those of the FIFA World Cup held in Germany in 2006, the Olympics held in China in 2008, the World Cup held in South Africa in June/July 2010 and the Commonwealth Games held in India in October 2010. All four countries used their hosting of these events for the purposes of public diplomacy, with the intention of improving their international reputations. The results were mixed: from a public diplomacy perspective, the German World Cup can be regarded as an unqualified success and the Beijing Olympics as a qualified one, while the extent to which the South African World Cup and the Indian Commonwealth Games enhanced those countries' reputations is rather more open to question. In addition, there are at least two cases in the more distant past—Barcelona in 1992 and Sydney in 2000—where the Games undoubtedly uplifted their host countries' reputation. We briefly consider all six of these cases in the paragraphs that follow.

SPAIN 1992

17.  Dr Patrick Spaven told us that the 1992 Games gave added momentum to the regeneration of Barcelona, not only raising the city's profile abroad but enhancing its own citizens' self-esteem. He added that the positive media coverage had also benefited Spain as a whole. He commented:

Barcelona […] was a declining industrial city until it started to transform itself. It started to do that before the Olympics, and would have carried on even if there hadn't been Olympics. However, it got an enormous boost from the Olympics—from potential markets, because people were looking at it, but the bigger factor was the internal market. […] one million to 2 million people […] became really proud of their city and went out to become public diplomats. There is no more effective public diplomacy than individuals talking to other individuals.[15]


18.  The Sydney Olympics in 2000 are also widely believed to have had a long-term beneficial effect on the reputation of Australia. Simon Anholt told us that:

What the Australians succeeded in doing with the Sydney Olympics was telling one very simple, very compelling story about the kind of country that it was, and people bought it and loved it. That is a country with a previously somewhat weak but generally positive reputation; there was nothing negative in there. In a situation such as that, an Olympics can have a strong long-term effect. It simply raised its game by a notch or two and it has benefited from it ever since. It has maintained the momentum.[16]


19.  Dr Spaven summarised the impact that Germany's hosting of the 2006 World Cup had on that country's image:

I was able to track with statistically reliable research data the changes to Germany's reputation in and 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.[17]

20.  Dr Spaven noted that "Germany's public diplomacy effort was research-informed, highly co-ordinated and begun long before the event". It was specifically targeted at particular audiences. For instance, a strand aimed at breaking outdated stereotypes of Germany as a nation of humourless, conventional people was directly focussed at a mass youth audience. However, to avoid this message on its own undermining Germany's reputation for reliable, high-quality engineered products, another part of the strategy aimed to protect that market.[18]

21.  Simon Anholt was less persuaded that the 2006 World Cup had led to a long-term enhancement of Germany's reputation. He commented that although there was "a measurable up-tick in other people's perceptions of Germany […] it didn't last for long. It went back down again after a year." However, he considered that the World Cup was of real value in changing Germans' self-perception:

We could see on television ordinary middle-class Germans gathering together and singing their national anthem without irony or aggression, and remembering the words. That was a really significant moment in Germany's post-war history, because they suddenly discovered what it was like to be, say, Italian, and just to be ordinarily proud of the country you come from.[19]

CHINA 2008

22.  A recent academic analysis of China's use of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in its public diplomacy work, by Meg Young of the USC Institute of Public Diplomacy, concludes that:

The 2008 Olympics offered the People's Republic of China an unparalleled stage to demonstrate past achievements and future potential to a global audience. They also demonstrated intriguing lessons for public diplomacy practitioners. It is easy to say the Olympics were a success, and by most measures they were: China won the most gold medals (51), the games brought in the most television viewers ever (4.7 billion), they generated incredible press coverage and introduced Beijing as a world class city on par with Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Certainly the global public received greater exposure to China, its people, and culture in 2008 than in any year prior. However, public diplomacy isn't just about exposure; it has many facets. During the 2008 Games two of these facets came into interesting tension: image creation and credibility. In the world of public diplomacy, any image that is created or promoted to a foreign public must be able to stand up under scrutiny in order to become truly credible. Some of the images that China sought to create were supported and even enhanced by the greater scrutiny brought by the international press during the Games. Other images were destroyed and harmed the credibility of the state. [...]

China's Government, accustomed to choreographing and managing images, spared no expense in putting on the best Olympic Games possible, and was able to create a spectacular image of modern China. However, the international press was always on the lookout for cracks in the perfect veneer, and when they found them it was worldwide news. For every story of the Beijing's improved air quality during the games, there were at least two detailing China's environmental profligacy. For every story mentioning China's efforts to create a more open environment for the press, there were many more describing the limits imposed on reporters. For every feel-good cultural piece about ethnic minorities there were dozens of articles and exposés about separatist efforts in Xinjiang and Tibet.[20]


23.  Early findings as to the impact of the football World Cup held in South Africa in summer 2010 suggest that, although the tournament was organisationally a success, its impact on South Africa's international reputation may have actually been negative. Simon Anholt told us that:

It was widely believed that South Africa's World Cup had improved the image of South Africa but my study has shown that it is nowhere near as clear-cut as that. In the minds of many people in the study, South Africa's image actually deteriorated after the World Cup. That was perhaps as a result of the fact that many people overseas didn't really know what South Africa looked like; all they'd seen was tourism promotion and they thought that it was a first-world country through and through. They then saw it on the television and realised that in many respects it's still a third-world country, and the image was therefore corrected downwards.[21]

24.  Dr Patrick Spaven gave a more upbeat assessment:

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.[22]

INDIA 2010

25.  India hosted the Commonwealth Games at New Delhi in October 2010. The opening ceremony was widely praised, and the Games themselves ran relatively smoothly. However, world media coverage of the run-up to the Games was dominated by stories relating to delays, corruption, insanitary conditions in the athletes' accommodation, and use of child labour in construction work. Simon Anholt commented that:

A lot of people have been hearing nothing but stories of India's meteoric rise in commerce and economics and so on, and then they see what Delhi actually looks like. If you come from Toronto or London that might shock you. Therefore there will probably be a bit of a downward correction, but they will pick up again afterwards, and one might say that that is a necessary correction because the perception has been restored to something closer to reality.[23]

Likewise, Professor Nick Cull noted that:

Just as hosting the Olympics can deliver a dividend to the host's international image so there is a risk that a problem with the games could reflect negatively on the host. The negative press associated with India's hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games is an example of what can go wrong.[24]

1   University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, "What is public diplomacy?" (uscpublicdiplomacy.org) Back

2   Ibid. Back

3   The quotations are from the coiner of the term 'soft power', Joseph Nye, Professor of International Relations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, from the preface to his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004) Back

4   Lord Carter of Coles, Public Diplomacy Review (December 2006), p 72 Back

5   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2005-06, Public Diplomacy, HC 903; and the Government's reply, Cm 6840 Back

6   FCO, Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World, ed. Jolyon Welsh and Daniel Fearn (2008), p 5 Back

7   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2008-09, HC 145, paras 285, 287 Back

8   Simon Anholt, 'The Importance of National Reputation', in Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World (FCO, 2008), pp 31-32 Back

9   Ibid., p 33 Back

10   Ibid., p 34 Back

11   Ibid., p 34 Back

12   Ev 20 Back

13   Q 5 Back

14   Q 7 Back

15   Q 24 Back

16   Q 24 Back

17   Ev 34 Back

18   Ev 34 Back

19   Q 25 Back

20   Meg Young, "Choreographing the Image: What China Wanted the World to See", in Public Diplomacy Magazine (Winter 2009) Back

21   Q 33 Back

22   Ev 35 Back

23   Q 33 Back

24   Ev 38 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 6 February 2011