Soft power and its audiences: Tweeting the Olympics from London 2012 to Sochi 2014

Burchell, Kenzie; O’ Loughlin, Ben; Gillespie, Marie and Nieto McAvoy, Eva (2015). Soft power and its audiences: Tweeting the Olympics from London 2012 to Sochi 2014. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 12(1) pp. 413–437.



The ‘Tweeting the Olympics’ project (the subject of this special section of Participations) must be understood in the context of efforts by host states, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other actors involved in the Games to cultivate and communicate a set of meanings to audiences about both the Olympics events and the nations taking part. Olympic Games are not only sporting competitions; they are also exercises in the management of relations between states and publics, at home and overseas, in order to augment the attractiveness and influence or the soft power of the states involved. Soft power is most successful when it goes unnoticed according to its chief proponent Joseph Nye. If so, how can we possibly know whether soft power works? This article reviews the state of the field in thinking about public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and soft power in the period of this project (2012-14), focusing particularly on how the audiences of soft power projects, like the London and Sochi Games, were conceived and addressed. One of the key questions this project addresses is whether international broadcasters such as the BBCWS and RT used social media during the Games to promote a cosmopolitan dialogue with global audiences and/or merely to integrate social media so as to project and shape national soft power. We argue first that the contested nature of the Olympic Games calls into question received theories of soft power, public and cultural diplomacy. Second, strategic national narratives during the Olympics faced additional challenges, particularly due to the tensions between the national and the international character of the Games. Third, the new media ecology and shift to a network paradigm further threatens the asymmetric power relations of the broadcasting paradigm forcing broadcasters to reassess their engagement with what was formerly known as ‘the audience’ and the targets of soft power.

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