Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Olympic security – time to up the communications game

With the Olympics only months away, those faced with ensuring the games pass without incident are now faced with the enormity of a task which seemed so far off when London was awarded the games six years ago.
The Olympic Park
Inevitably costs have ballooned as the games have loomed closer. Two years ago the public purse was expecting to cough up around £280m to cover security costs; last year that had risen to £475m which is the current estimate of costs of police security outside of the venues (against a £600m ”cost envelope”).  A further £282m has been allocated to pay for security arrangements inside the venues. Earlier this year, the company with the contract to handle internal security said it would need to double the number of civilian security staff needed to screen visitors and train volunteers from ten to twenty thousand!

So by the time the games have finished it is likely that the total security costs for the 2012 Olympics will be around a cool £1bn. If these figures appear eye watering then it is worth remembering that no one will argue for security of this kind to be trimmed. Even the most ardent opponent of overbearing “elf and safety” rules will simply shrug and look for easier targets to criticise. And it’s not just us. Athens was awarded their games prior to 9/11. That fateful day in New York led to security costs for the 2004 games increasing from an estimated $122m to an actual outlay of $1.8bn – more than ten times the initial assumption.

Olympic security doesn’t just evolve around Stratford. It is estimated some 350,000 foreign visitors will attend the games each day. This will place unprecedented pressure on the UK Borders Agency, airlines and airport operators and the public transport infrastructure.

The communications challenge

So in an era of fiscal restraint and accountability how should the private security industry, airport operators’ and others communicate what they are doing with this public money? Certainly it is worth those security businesses explaining how they are ensuring the games can pass off peacefully and how value for money is being achieved.

Evidently politicians, media and the public are different audiences. With politicians it is possible to establish a clear narrative and a hierarchy of messaging on the most important facts. Ministers and others will want to be assured that the risk of an attack on the games – and other “lesser” acts of criminality such as illegal immigration – are minimal. Equally the politicians will want to know that taxpayer’s money is being spent efficiently (even if not parsimoniously).  Communicating direct with Members of Parliament and other political stakeholders on this should now be a priority.

Reassuring the public that everything is going to be ok is a different matter. The security industry is reliant upon the media to act as an intermediary to communicate key messages. Planning and timing is extremely important. It would be counterproductive to discuss security issues too far ahead of the games as this might suggest there is a reason to be concerned. Instead it is important to start to introduce the media to the issues so that at the right time those key messages on security are relayed loud and clear.

Finally there is the power of advertising.  Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent on Olympics related advertising. Brands will use the Olympics formally as an official sponsor or in other creative ways to identify their product or service with the games. The security sector should consider itself very much part of that commercial process and use advertising to show how efficient it is at what it does.

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