Public Diplomacy and the London Olympics

February 8, 2011

Over the weekend the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee  issued its report on the PD activity around the London Olympics based on evidence it collected in November.  I’d just finished reading the evidence and was a planning a post on that so it’s interesting to see what I’d picked up on versus the Committee.

I’d certainly recommend reading the evidence submitted by the FCO because it does include a lot of what they are trying to do including a Gantt chart for the activity, plus information on the priority countries so for scholars it does provide a baseline to evaluate activities and outcomes against.

The concept is for a large part of the PD activity to be delivered by posts allowing them to develop activities that address the the situation in the host countriy.  Of course the issue is to what extent posts actually do this.

There seem to be a lot of objectives

National interest: To contribute to UK foreign policy goals by using the profile of the Olympics to promote British culture and values at home and abroad. To cement Britain’s reputation as a valuable bilateral partner and a vibrant, open and modern society, a global hub in a networked world.
— Prosperity: To bolster the UK economy, increase commercial opportunities for British business in target countries, and secure high value inward investment.
— Security: To enhance our security by harnessing the global appeal of the Olympics, particularly among the young, to reinforce values of tolerance, moderations and openness.
— Cross-Government approach: To work seamlessly with other Government Departments and partners, mobilising the powerful asset of the FCO’s unique network of Posts to deliver the greatest international impact for our strategy

In reading the FCO evidence I’m not quite clear how the first of these relates to the next two and the fourth is a different type of objective.  The first few pages of the evidence also contain a range of implicit objectives as well as another list

In May 2009, the FCO approved the following objectives for public diplomacy work on London 2012.
— To use London 2012 as a catalyst for changing perceptions of the UK worldwide (see paragraph 20 below)
— To use London 2012 and these new perceptions to increase the UK’s influence, and thus to assist in the delivery of the FCO’s objectives (focussing sharply on the trade and prosperity agendas in line with the new government’s priorities).
— To support Public Diplomacy Partners in the effective achievement of their own strategic objectives
— To energise and excite the FCO network with new ways of working.

I get the impression that because the Olympics is a ‘big’ event there’s a feeling that it needs a ‘big’ set of objectives but having too many objectives leads to lack of clarity about what is important. To be fair the complexity of delivering the event does create a lot of opportunities for instance showing that the UK can get things built in an environmentally friendly way.

I was also interested to notice that there doesn’t seem to be a consistent conceptual language at work in the document eg images, messages, messaging values, soft power, impressions, misconceptions.  While there is some discussion of relations there is a lot of messaging language in the document.

The FCO has been using results from the Anholt GfK Nation Brand Index to establish how we are seen

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.

Well, it might help if the government stopped messing with the student visas because for a lot of people around the world that affects them much more directly than the Olympics. It’s also worth mentioning this survey on British attitudes towards immigration.

There’s also a list of 32 priority countries

These Posts will receive the lion’s share of support. They have been selected based on the following factors:
— UKTI priority markets.
— New FCO priorities (Global Economics Group analyses, Foreign Secretary speeches); top ally / United Nations Security Council member/BRICS.
— Countries that form part of the British Council’s 2012-related International Inspiration programme.
— Low perception of the UK on the Gallup poll and ‘Anholt’ Nation Brand Index.
— Priority country for other FCO campaigns (climate change, Middle East, Prevent/CT).
— Upcoming hosts for major sporting events.
— Top 10 in terms of tourist numbers and inward investment to the UK.

This reinforces the perception that the plan has been developed through adding rather than choosing.  The central unit supporting Olympic PD has three people and its budget was taken away during last Autumn’s spending review.  Given that a lot of PD is going to be post based and use existing budgets then you wonder what being a priority country really means.

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