Reputation Management on an Olympian Scale



As one of the largest communications challenges of the decade, the London 2012 Games exemplifies how effective structures, coordinated messaging, thorough testing — and heaps of ambition — come together to deliver extraordinary results.

Dan Timms, former Head of Communications for London 2012, explores how almost ten years of planning ensured the team were well placed to ride out the G4S security storm, while also delivering one of the nation’s most successful brand campaigns.

When the G4S security staffing story broke in the days leading up to London 2012, many must have felt that the doubters had called it right all along.

For years, they had been saying that London was not fit to host this kind of event. The venues would never be built on time. Public transport networks would collapse and the airports would not be able to cope. The government was incapable of overseeing such a complex project.

When you considered the scale of the challenge, it was easy to understand why.

Against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in a generation, and with the Dome and Wembley still fresh in the memory, we needed to deliver Europe’s largest construction project on time and on budget. Then, in one of the world’s busiest economic capitals, we had to stage an event which was equivalent to holding a G20 summit, Wimbledon, and the FA Cup final on the same day, every day for three weeks.

On the one hand, it was a priceless opportunity to showcase the capabilities of UK plc and promote brand Britain to the world. On the other, it was one of the biggest challenges that the country had ever undertaken — a reputational management operation on an Olympian scale.

As the Opening Ceremony approached, with around 40,000 journalists already in town and no sport yet to distract them, it was inevitable that media scrutiny would reach its peak.

Previous hosts had warned that this was the period that could make or break a Games. For Beijing, it was concerns around air pollution and human rights that threatened to overshadow the Olympics. Two years later, stories about crime and security dominated the news agenda in the approach to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

When the G4S story broke, a number of factors proved crucial to our response:

Unity of purpose: Right from the start, all partners involved in delivering the Games — from Government and LOCOG, to the GLA and London’s transport and security chiefs — recognised the importance of working as one. It didn’t matter whether you were building the venues, running the transport, securing the borders, or staging the sport, as far as the outside world was concerned we were all just ‘London 2012′. Any failure would reflect badly on us all, and collective success was the best means of securing individual triumph.

The right structures: Our priority was simple: remove the barriers to effective collective communication. The structure we put in place allowed communications directors from every organisation involved to be on call together at a moment’s notice, meaning a quick and coordinated response to any issue that arose. By the time the athletes were parading through London, more than 120 of these calls had taken place.

A centralised media operation: The Government’s crisis communications model had previously only ever been activated for a few days at a time. Now the challenge was to stand it up for a whole summer. Winning buy-in from ministers, No 10 and communications leads at an early stage allowed us to pool resources across government and bring together press, digital and strategic communications teams in a centralised operation over an 18- week period.

A coordinated message: It was vital that all ministers and spokespeople could speak about London 2012 with a single voice. This meant agreeing clear messages around every aspect of the Games — from construction, transport and security, to sporting benefits, social impact and economic legacy. Each morning we produced a common script, designed to set the tone for communications that day and allow our spokespeople to respond with confidence to the news agenda.

A trusted online presence: When a single tweet about transport problems or airport delays had the potential to trigger an avalanche of criticism, it was vital that we could rely on a strong digital and social media presence. This meant making sure that it was trusted by journalists and the public alike well ahead of the Games. In the end the government’s digital approach brought 4.5 million followers across all its channels.

Testing, Testing, Testing: The year before the Games was dedicated to testing the agreed structures and plans to destruction. By the final, full-scale live exercise in spring 2012, around 5,000 people across the project were taking part. Cabinet ministers tackled scenarios ranging from ash clouds to lost athletes, drawing on the input of everyone from the Met Office to the Metropolitan Police.

I remember Chris Holmes, our most successful Paralympic swimmer, talking about his preparations for the Barcelona Games. He said that knowing he had put in something like 80,000 lengths of training for each individual stroke of his final made him confident that he could cope with whatever the race would bring.

The years we had spent pinpointing potential areas of risk for the project and putting contingency plans in place meant that, when the G4S storm hit, we were well placed to ride it out.

But there was one other element that was essential to overall success: ambition. 

In such a harsh economic climate, it would perhaps have been understandable if our ambition had been reined in. But something that our Sydney counterparts said had always stuck in our minds: “Don’t look back and wish you had done more.”

With eighteen months to go, the government rolled out its biggest ever promotional drive: the ‘GREAT’ campaign. Targeted at growth markets worldwide, it was specifically designed to showcase the UK and boost trade, investment and tourism off the back of the Games. So by the time the Queen was parachuting into the Olympic Stadium, millions of people across the globe had already begun to see Britain in a new light.

Hosting a safe event and emerging with our reputation intact was necessary for success, but it would never fully define it. Instead an ambitious long-term plan helped turn one of the country’s biggest ever challenges into one of its greatest triumphs.