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An almighty year for British public diplomacy

by on April 2, 2012

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Following the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton last year, the UK is lucky enough to be holding three more major events this year; namely the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Queens Diamond Jubilee. The magnitude of this year is certainly not lost on those in office, who are making concerted efforts to ensure the public diplomacy opportunities offered by the years events are well exploited. To monopolise on this eventful year and guarantee Britain truly basks under the world’s gaze, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport have also launched theImage ‘GREAT campaign’. The GREAT campaign is a public diplomacy strategy designed to promote the UK at home and abroad by encouraging investment and tourism through centering on areas of ‘British excellence’ (FCO), these areas are Technology and Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Creativity, Knowledge, Green, Heritage, Sport, Shopping, Music and Countryside. One aspect of the campaign has seen a young fresh faced Prince Harry trotting off around the globe, in the hope of spreading the message of ‘cool Britannia’ (FCO).

The GREAT campaign is the culmination of a report on the public diplomacy strategy planned for ‘London 2012’ produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in January 2011. The report is based on evidence they had compiled in November of the same year. Both the report and the evidence make interesting reading, particularly for students of public diplomacy. The evidence outlines an ’18-month engagement strategy setting out priority countries and milestones’ (FCO, 2010). Part of the ‘priority country’ strategy is to engage their Diaspora communities in the UK, with four key objectives: National interest, Prosperity, Security and Cross-Government approach (FCO, 2010). Although there are only four objectives, each one taken by itself is pretty huge, and you can’t help but get the feeling the FCO is trying to kill as many birds as possible with one stone/event. However, the reality of being able to achieve all these objectives is questionable. Further, having so many large objectives runs the risk of failing to confer a clear cohesive message.

The evidence goes onto outline the approved FCO strategy:

To use London 2012 as a catalyst for changing perceptions of the UK worldwide.
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.’ (FCO, 2010)

ImageThe core of the public diplomacy strategy is seemingly based upon the theory of nation branding.  Nation branding is a disputed theory with both the term and the theory coined by Simon Anholt. With his theory, Anholt suggests that countries can utilise corporate branding methods in their public diplomacy strategies. Indeed the FCO has used the findings in the 2010 Anholt Nation Brand Index, another brainchild of Simon Anholt, to understand how Britain is perceived internationally. The FCO has used the index’s findings to fine tune their public diplomacy message by attempting to counter the negativeImage perceptions of Britain being ‘arrogant, stuffy, old-fashioned and cold’ (FCO, 2010) , in the hope that such efforts will advance Britain’s ‘prosperity and political influence’ (FCO, 2010). Enter into the arena the ‘GREAT campaign’ and a hip, young, rebel, Prince Harry. Recognising the commercial opportunities London 2012 offers, the FCO has also created partnerships with the likes of Adidas and Stella McCartney. These partnerships reap double benefits for the UK, as they not only add to the message of ‘cool Britannia,’ they also bring in huge cash revenues.

Anholt was a former vice-chair of the FCO public diplomacy advisory board. In 2010 he informed the foreign affairs select committee that “national images are very robust; they really don’t change very much”. With this statement it appears Anholt was attempting to highlight to the committee the uphill battle they faced in trying to change Britain’s national image.  Does this advice mean the UK is wasting their time focusing on objectives which may be near impossible to meet?

Whatever one may think on the FCO’s public diplomacy strategy may not matter, as it looks like all the hard work may be scuppered by the industrial strike action threatened by the workers union Unite. The action threatened is a direct result of government cuts. If the strike does take place it will highlight the current of discontent presently running through British society; and it will shatter any notion of a happy, docile Britain. The action will serve to detract attention away from the ‘official’ FCO message being disseminated during the same period, and could swiftly undo the two years worth of public diplomacy work undertaken thus far. The action could also end up wasting the millions (presumably) of pounds invested in researching public diplomacy strategies for London 2012, and the subsequent campaigns emanating from this research. On the other hand the message of free speech and political dissent along with the freedom of the right to protest could perhaps be a better message to send during such globally politically tempestuous times; with the UK leading by example when offering their advice to ‘politically repressive governments’ such as Syria.

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FCO. The GREAT campaign. http://www.fco.gov.uk. [Online] [Cited: 26 April 2012.] http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/what-we-do/public-diplomacy/great-campaign/.

—. 2010. Written evidence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. http://www.parliament.uk. [Online] 25 November 2010. [Cited: 2012 March 25.] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmfaff/writev/olympics/oly01c.pdf.

Further reading

http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm80/8059/8059.pdf – Second report from the Foreign Affairs Committee session 2010-11; FCO public diplomacy: the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012

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4 Comments
  1. Great blog, some really interesting points…
    First, I was really surprised to find out that Britain is perceived as ‘arrogant, stuffy, old-fashioned and cold’. Personally, I absolutely disagree with this statement. Do you know how FCO has made their research and how it has reached such conclusions?
    Second, although national images are very robust and hard to change I do not think that UK’s public diplomacy campaign is just a waste of time. Olympic Games is a perfect opportunity to send a message and to change world’s attitudes.
    Finally, I found very interesting your thoughts about possible tube strike. Would it ruin the whole public diplomacy campaign or would it be a message of free speech? I do not know. Anyway, I am absolutely sure the industrial strike during the Olympics will not occur. Unions know government officials will never let it happen and push as hard as they can because it is a win-win time for unions now.

  2. thebricsarecoming permalink

    Hi Arjur the ‘arrogant, stuffy, old-fashioned and cold’ was what eminated from the 2010 Anholt Index.

    As for the strike, it is more than just a tube strike, all Unite members would go on strike including, tube, train and bus drivers. This would effectively bring London to a stand still, i really do believe if such action did take place it would send out an entirely different message to the one the FCO is trying give, whether or not it would be a negative message is debatable.

    And yes, i agree with you on your final point, unfortunately i think it is highly unlikely that the Unions would strike over the Olympics. I would be highly impressed if they did though!

  3. Thank you for a very clear, coherent and interesting post. Given that the FCO seems to have put all of its public diplomacy eggs in its Olympic (and monarchy) basket for the time being, it is difficult to see how a coherent strategy can be pursued in this way. What do you think is to be gained from 2012 other than a general bounce in Britain’s positive image around the world?

  4. thebricsarecoming permalink

    Well Steven here is one gain that has already been made, the royals have become ‘cool’. This morning i was watching ‘The Middle’ and American programme and the entire show was based around the wedding of Wills and Kate and this afternoon i came across this article by the guardian:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/apr/11/how-the-royals-became-cool?newsfeed=true

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