Social Capital: Lions International and the Special Olympics #1bigsmile campaign

Lions-with-a-big-smile!The Special Olympics GB National Games brought together over 1,700 athletes with intellectual disabilities in the city of Bath between 28 August and 1 September. I was not familiar with this fabulous initiative until working with Lions International GB & Ireland and looking at the long list of partners it supports in local communities here and globally.

These two organisations are typical of the hundreds that provide the heart of our communities, with those who volunteer to support them providing society’s backbone. Such individuals are actually nothing special – they are, as one of the Lions’ members popular phrases states: Ordinary people doing amazing things. Although that’s not strictly true either – it isn’t the things they do that are amazing, but the results of their small actions that have a pretty impressive impact.

Like me, you may not be familiar with the Special Olympics and you may not have a clear idea about the Lions International service organisation either. Both have an interesting history – starting with the vision of one individual, who enthused others and subsequently left a legacy much bigger than either of these extraordinary people could have imagined.

In the case of Lions, it began in 1917 when a 38-year old Chicago insurance agency owner, Melvin Jones, felt the talents of successful people should be used to improve their communities, rather than promote their own interests. The Lions’ notion of social responsibility proved popular with the resulting organisation expanding into local communities across more than 207 countries and geographic areas. Today it has more volunteers in more places than any other service organisation, with 1.35 million members belonging to 46,000 local community clubs.

The origins of the Special Olympics reflects the vision of a woman, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the fifth of the famous US Kennedy children), who in 1962 introduced a Summer day camp to explore the talents and abilities of young people with intellectual disabilities. In 1968, her initiative grew into the International Special Olympics Games, held in Chicago. Today this global movement involves 4.2 million people in more than 170 countries, with flagship World Winter and Summer Games.

The partnership between the two organisations dates back 14 years and involves a focus on fund-raising, health initiatives, outreach to support local communities and, as in Bath, volunteers who give up their time to make things happen.

From a public relations perspective, there are several interesting dimensions to such organisations. My involvement with Lions International GB and Ireland includes helping them to raise their profile (with key influencers, media and the public) and ensuring that they present a professional image that reflects their commitment and success in raising money and delivering community initiatives.

When you are talking about an organisation where every penny raised through fund-raising goes direct to good causes (i.e. no administrative costs are deducted), any budget for PR and marketing comes from members’ pockets and so has to be cost-effective and easy to execute, whilst delivering noticeable and measurable benefits. The great thing however, is that with 900 Lions clubs throughout Great Britain and Ireland, there is an extensive network of Lions who can deliver communications in their local communities. In turn, their actions provide interesting stories and insight that has national relevance individually and cumulatively.

In one of my first ever blog posts in 2007, I wrote about the thousands of enthusiasts of vintage coaches and buses, noting the potential of social media to enable such communities to engage in conversation. However, I felt their communications tended to look amateur, and that there were opportunities to professionalise these, but without tainting their authenticity.

That challenge is evident with Lions’ communications as six years on, it is ever more essential to reflect a professional approach online. When you have thousands of individuals – volunteers – who are part of your community, being able to harness their enthusiasm and presence in social media is a huge advantage. Ensuring a professional consistency without losing any individuality or passion, positions PR and marketing activities in an expert support role rather than one which seeks to command and control as ‘brand police’.

This is something that I noticed with the Special Olympics GB National Games’ #1bigsmile campaign. The concept which underpinned the creative identity for the Games aimed to capture:

“the feel good nature of the country’s largest sports event for athletes with intellectual disabilities.”

Bath-based brand agency, The House, created a simple logo – which echoes both the iconic Royal Crescent of Bath and the feeling of joy that surrounds the Games. I believe the secret of a good campaign is a creative idea which is able to integrate different elements and also prove inspirational in generating wider application. Here, the ‘smile’ logo was adaptable for the different sports, and various elements of the Games.

The recognisable iconography was matched to a memorable slogan: 1,700 athletes, 12 sports, 5 days, 1 big smile – with #1bigsmile created as a social media hashtag. A really professional approach was evident in the Twitter, Facebook, website and other digital channels being used. Alongside The House, W Communications provided pro bono support to the in-house Special Olympics GB team, which is led by Communications Director, Maeve Chappell, seconded from National Grid, another partner of SOGB.

These professionals developed ideas and channels, but it was the tens of thousands of members of the public, the athletes, their families and the volunteers who were essential in extending the reach of communications and making them come to life.

smileI liked the ‘How to wear the #1BigSmile‘ cut-out-and-wear download idea – which included instructions on posting personal images to the Special Olympics GB Facebook page timeline and using the hashtag and @SOGreatBritain when tweeting photos. “Smiles” were also handed-out on the ground – and recognising that people today love taking ‘selfies‘, they were able to take the central creative idea and run with it – and in turn, generate communications that could be drawn together centrally.

What communications for such organisations achieves is remarkable social capital, which, as Maureen Taylor identified, is found in “relationships and information sharing“. Ironically, Robert Putnam discussed the decline in social capital in his work: Bowling Alone in the late 1990s. He argued that a decline in civic association – including falling membership of volunteer organisations – evidenced a reduction in social capital. A trend towards more superficial engagement with newer organisations, where commitment was little more than “writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter”, was identified as a concern.

Vilma Luoma-aho is among those arguing a key role for public relations is to create and maintain organisational social capital (in her chapter, On Putnam, in Ihlen et al’s book: Public Relations and Social Theory). She argues for the importance of creating a sense of community, and the importance of social capital for the practice of PR (both for the purposes of organisational legitimacy and the prosperity of democratic society).

This would certainly seem true for organisations such as Lions International and the Special Olympics movement – which instead of continuing the decline and social irrelevancy that Puttnam predicted, are being revitalised by a combination of professional public relations and support for genuine community-based public communications.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

One thought on “Social Capital: Lions International and the Special Olympics #1bigsmile campaign”

  1. A really interesting post Heather. Traditional civic association, the sort that Putnam discusses, is very rewarding but you can argue that it has high initial entry costs – you feel as if you have to commit a great deal of time and energy from the start of the association. That can be off-putting. Online engagement has (I think) lower entry costs, allowing you to start your participation at low cost to yourself and under less pressure. How the organisation builds on that, how it encourages you to participate further, and the type of rewards you get from increased participation are all questions PR practitioners sweat over. 1bigsmile seems to have thought it through well and delivered the desired outcome.

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