FCO Public Diplomacy: The Olympics

OLY 03

Written evidence from Professor Nick Cull

1. The author of this evidence is Nicholas J. Cull, Professor of Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and director of the Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy. I am a British-born historian who has specialized in the role of communication in international relations. I have been a pioneer of contemporary public diplomacy studies and published widely on public diplomacy including two major monographs. I have worked with a number of government agencies including the FCO and British Council, US Department of Defense, Swiss Foreign Ministry and Netherlands Embassy (Washington DC) and am presently developing training with the governments of India and Mexico.

2. International relations have changed. As Simon Anholt has observed: ‘There is now only one super power on the planet and its name is public opinion.’ This state of affairs places unprecedented emphasis on issues of international communication, reputation management and has transformed public diplomacy – the pursuit of foreign policy by engaging a foreign public – into an essential tool of statecraft.

3. In such a world, mega events such as the Olympic Games have become unique opportunities for host nations to reach out to global audiences. This was done particularly effectively by Spain with the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, Australia with the Sydney Olympics of 2000 and by China with the Beijing Olympics of 2008. In order to make the most from such an opportunity it makes sense to use the tools of public diplomacy to extend and shape the international impact of the mega events. Successful recent examples of this include the German public diplomacy around the FIFA World Cup of 2006.

4. I am impressed by the FCO’s plan though as will be seen I see scope for refinement in a couple of places and have some suggestions for themes related to London’s identity as the only three-time Olympic host.

The FCO’s plan

5. The FCO plan for public diplomacy around the London Olympics strikes me as being well conceived to deliver helpful results towards appropriate policy objectives. The whole of government approach and attention to partnerships are especially welcome.

6. The UK enjoys an enviable reputation around the world but will benefit from being associated with the positive themes inherent to the Olympic movement. Specifically the Olympic movement is associated with ideas of internationalism (symbolized by the ancient concept of the Olympic truce) and a respect for honest competition and fairness. Fairness is a quality already perceived in Britain and will doubtless be evident in the British public and media response to the games with support for under-dogs and appreciation for sportsmanship.

7. I am particularly impressed by the prominence being given to the Paralympics within the 2012 plan (paragraph 32). There are many countries around the world in which differently-abled people do not have the opportunities they enjoy in Britain, and by increasing international exposure to the Paralympics emphasis on what people can do the FCO is performing a significant act of ethical leadership and associating the UK with some truly inspirational people.

8. I think that the strategy of avoiding a ‘one-size fits all’ approach and targeting Olympic Public Diplomacy along bi-lateral lines (paragraph 16) with programs such as the Host2Host work (paragraph 10), and the emphasis on targeting leaders and influentials through visits to the Olympic Park (paragraph 13) and the documentary (paragraph 31) makes sound sense.

9. Of the existing work I am impressed by the See Britain Through My Eyes concept (paragraph 21), and the idea of emphasizing the experience of particular credible individuals with target audiences (paragraph 23). Research is now fairly consistent in showing that the most credible voice to any audience is ‘someone like me’, and often the job of public diplomacy is to seek out such a person and empower them to carry the message to the audience rather than attempting to do so one’s self. This underscores the value of working with the Diaspora communities (paragraph 8) and Britain’s network of friends (paragraph 35).

10. I am impressed with the aspects of the plan which tie the UK to people’s lives around the world in practical ways. International reputations often turn on an individual’s perception of ‘what country X means to me.’ The International Inspirations program was an essential part of the bid and should be emphasized throughout the 2012 plan. It is of value in both practical and symbolic ways, and credit should flow to the UK from this. Perhaps representatives of those involved in that program could be built into 2012 ceremonial in some way.

11. I was genuinely moved to read of the symbolic actions (paragraph 24) and specifically the run in Guangzhou raising enough money to build a facility for children with learning difficulties. As a parent of a son with Down Syndrome, I am only too aware of the international needs in this area and feel that this is exactly this sort of work which will make Britain relevant to people’s lives.


12. I like the idea of seeking out non-traditional partners to amplify the UK’s message (paragraph 27) and welcome the idea of streaming UK sport, the Edinburgh festival and National Theatre to previous Olympic cities like Mexico City and Athens or the future venue, Rio. However, it would be even more impressive to me if these events could be two-way or even multi-lateral, with events from fellow Olympic cities and elsewhere being somehow made available in the UK. The UK’s interest in and commitment to the world is also part of the message, and helping the world to speak to the UK is consistent with Britain’s image of fair play.

13. While it makes sense to take full advantage of the coincidence of the Olympics with the Diamond Jubilee year care should be taken to avoid undercutting the image of British modernity with a heritage and tradition message tied to the jubilee. While this dimension is probably inherent to the jubilee, perhaps planning around that event be mix the message in some way.

14. While I am glad to see the attention to new technology and digital ‘Public Diplomacy 2.0’ within the plan, these aspects seem under developed. I agree that the digital diplomacy offers unique prospects for dialogue and the generation of trust (paragraph 38), but am unclear who will be interacting with the global public in this scenario. FCO personnel? UK citizens? Is there scope for on-line equivalents of the wonderful volunteers who were such a feature of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

15. We may anticipate that much coverage of the 2012 games will be transmitted across peer-to-peer networks. FCO interests would be served by making as much coverage as possible easily pass-able, re-tweetable, and even mash-able into forms that appeal to the local audience. This may be at odds with the needs/rights of official Olympic broadcasters. Perhaps exceptions to rigid image control can be made for the markets which are particular political/security priorities.

16. Media consumption is a behavior strongly influenced by habit, and Olympic coverage provides an opportunity to inspire new habits in the global audience, or rekindle old habits such as attention to the broadcasts and web sites of the BBC World Service. It makes sense to seek out ways to retain that audience after the Olympics have ended. Online plans should look to the long term as well as the immediate Olympic period.

Missing Dimension: Remembering 1908 and 1948?

17. One missing dimension in the plan is the reference to London’s identity as the only city to have hosted the games more than twice, in 1908 and 1948, both times in response to emergency situations (the eruption of Vesuvius in the first instance and the war in the second). The 1948 games were marked by the austerity of the era (with the US government famously having the fly extra food to sustain the athletes). It is possible that both 1908 and 1948 might provide stories that could serve the general and bi-lateral public diplomacy goals of 2012. Looking back to 1908 and 1948 stresses the role of the UK as a nation with a profound commitment to sport and ethics of fair play.

18. Positive stories from the 1908 games include the coining of the phrase: ‘the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.’ The games saw the first gold medal won by an African-American (John Taylor – 800 meter relay) and the famous incident of the marathon winner, Dorando Pietri (Italy), being disqualified because officials helped him across the line and then receiving a special prize from Queen Alexandra.

19. The athletes of 1948 were significantly older than their modern counterparts at the time of the competition and sadly few are still alive to be honored in London in 2012, though such honour would be a valuable counter to the impression that the west is not respectful of its elders. Surviving stars of 1948 whose stories might help include the gold medal weightlifter Rodney Wilkes of Trinidad known as ‘the Mighty Midget’ or the Indian men’s hockey team who won first gold medals since their country’s independence the previous year. It would make sense to honour the survivors of 1948 at receptions at FCO posts with some representation in London also. Given the food problems of 1948 the UK owes them a good dinner at least! Athletes worthy of posthumous honour from 1948 include Fanny Blanker-Koen of the Netherlands who was a pioneer in women’s track and field, winning four gold medals ‘despite’ being a mother.

Final Thoughts

20. Every plan has a risk. 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. The Olympic plan requires that the British public live up to their role as hosts and ‘live the Olympic brand.’ The stars of the Sydney Games of 2000 were the 120,000 local volunteers who did so much to help the games run smoothly. One hopes that London will be able to match this. Partiality and parochialism can strike an unfortunate note at a games as was the case at Atlanta in 1996, conversely the support of local audiences for international athletes has also provided an important boost to the games as was the case in Beijing games. The FCO might wish to endorse and encourage the efforts of the Mayor and LOCOG to prepare the British public for their starring role.

21. In the era of drastic budget cuts I am heartened to see that the Olympics have thus far been spared, though the PD budget has taken a hit (paragraph 46). The public diplomacy campaign is one way of adding a ‘multiplier’ to the Olympic effort and I sincerely hope that the select committee will be able to advocate on behalf of this work in the event of further challenges to the budget.

10 November 2010