Alex Aiken: Harnessing the mood of the Olympics

As the credits roll on the Olympic Games on 12 August, the question that all public authorities should ask themselves is: 'Did we make the most of the games? Where are the young sportspeople, where are the facilities, new waves of volunteer coaches and club officials where we can say we 'inspired a generation?''

Alex Aiken
Alex Aiken
Boris Johnson used an eve-of-Olympics speech to speak of a ‘contagion of joy’ engulfing the capital. On the back of Danny Boyle’s extraordinary multi-media opening ceremony, previously cynical newspapers changed tack as they scented a sudden rush of public enthusiasm for the Olympics. It may have been a slow burn, but there is little doubt the 2012 London Olympics did catch fire in the public mind.

As public sector communicators, our job is to ensure the ‘joyous contagion’ of which Boris speaks does not turn into a fizzled out firework when the IOC leaves town.

Despite the evident public enthusiasm, citizens are still sceptical about the long-term benefits of the Olympics in contrast to their immediate enjoyment of the spectacle itself – a trend clearly signalled in a recent London Councils poll. The public may leave the Stratford site armed with soft toy editions of Wenlock and Mandeville, but one Olympic souvenir they don’t want is a capital city left lumbered with significant debts and the prospect of higher taxes.

The Olympics is also the anniversary cue for the August 2011 riots which convulsed towns and cities across the country. Consider the contrast: during the Olympics, we celebrate young people as the hope and promise of a new generation.  Just a year ago, we lamented a lost generation of feral youth whose only social act was using smart phones to coordinate looting.

This is an auspicious time for communicators to recalibrate what young people represent to us. And that is as a reservoir of talent and potential, not the harbingers of a dystopian future culled from the pages of A Clockwork Orange.

How can we harness the upbeat mood of the moment as public sector communicators? I have five thoughts to offer:

•    First, make the most of the sporting summer by promoting sports facilities and encouraging participation as players or organiser.
•    Second, promote positive role models of young people, among peer groups and to older people.  From achievements in sport to volunteering, we need a conveyor belt of case studies which show young people aiming high and succeeding.
•    Maintain the momentum behind the current wave of volunteering. Some were cynical about the Olympics’ organisers call for uniformed volunteers to help the games run smoothly, but this initiative was a runaway success. It shows that Britons will respond to a compelling call to help their community.
•    Ensure that the strong links built between different public and indeed private sector PRs during planning for the games do not fade. In Westminster, our Borough Command Control Centre has worked with retailers, the police, our private sector refuse team and others to ensure a close and coordinate approach. Let’s build on these relationships rather than let them languish until the next major event comes along.
•    When the Olympics are over, we need to manage the message that it is business as usual. The next spending review is on the horizon in December and it will be a tough proposition. The challenge is to graft the best of the Olympic spirit onto our long running campaign work in an era of ever decreasing finance.

What will the public sector legacy of the games be? Quite simply I suggest it demonstrates that people are willing to engage. The same London poll that highlighted concern about the Olympic legacy also said that four in five people would be willing to work with others to improve their local area, demonstrating the strong community spirit which exists in the capital and the rest of the country.

Historically, only around 10 per cent of people regularly volunteer. But when faced with a powerful and well argued appeal, the London games show that the British public does rise to the challenge. To get the public on the starting line with just such a clarion call is our Olympic challenge as communicators.

Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council

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