FCO Public Diplomacy: The Olympics

The London Olympics and Public Diplomacy – Some Concepts

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 implemented.

Germany 2006

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 For example, one strand was aimed at mass younger audience - in particular the breaking of outdated stereotypes of Germany as a nation of humourless, conventional people.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.

Strategy

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 (e.g. opinion formers, decision-makers, potential tourists, investors, business partners, inward students, and professional immigrants).

2. Through research, identify perceptions among these groups that are negatively out of line with demonstrable realities.

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 begin.

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

London’s games or the UK’s?

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 and demonstrable.

Focus is a double-edged sword

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 rejection.

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.

The opening ceremony

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 home market effect.

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 6 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 balance.

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.

Patrick Spaven

2.11.10