Global PR: National branding - Reputation of a nation

Countries are turning to PR to revive their global reputations. Arun Sudhaman and Kate Magee ask comms experts about the challenges faced by six 'nation brands'.

Global PR: National branding - Reputation of a nation
Global PR: National branding - Reputation of a nation

A country's reputation is intrinsically linked to its economic fortunes and international standing. In order to revive flagging or damaged images, national bodies are increasingly turning to high-level comms counsel. But can a PR agency really rescue a country from global condemnation or obscurity?

The value of a country's reputation is not hard to understand. It can attract people and money through foreign investment, trade, tourism and immigration, as well as provide 'soft power' in the shape of political, diplomatic and cultural leverage.

Argentina handed a near seven-figure account to Bell Pottinger in March to improve its reputation in Europe and the US. Russia is using Ketchum to challenge its reputation of secrecy and Dubai is using a range of agencies to help repair its battered financial reputation.

In the run-up to last year's Olympics, China began an ultimately fruitless search for PR counsel that would help revive a faltering international image. Similar concerns may have prompted South Africa to appoint MS&L and Dow Jones Insight to its global comms effort as the 2010 World Cup approaches.

All of these countries are following a template that was, for many, only formalised in 1990. It was Hill & Knowlton to which Kuwait turned when it was invaded by Iraq. The agency was asked to create international sympathy and Western military support for what was essentially an oil-rich undemocratic regime in the Middle East. It worked.

A PR agency can bring value by distilling the complexity of a country into a compelling story, and building bridges with the international community.

'If there is a master marketing discipline for countries then it is certainly PR,' says Simon Anholt, an expert in the field of national identity who coined the phrase 'nation brand' in 1996. 'Paid-for advertising by a country is redundant, because people recognise it as propaganda.'

But changing global perceptions is a difficult challenge. Stereotypes and beliefs about countries are often emotional and deeply held. Both the PR agency and client have very little control over the 'product', and people judge countries as one unit.

'Nation brands, unlike consumer products or even tourist destinations, are an amalgam of age-old cliches - think Scottish whisky and golf - and themed media reporting driving stereotypes, such as Fortune magazine's recent cover story "China Buys the World",' says Ogilvy PR global CEO Chris Graves.

Graves adds that consumer product reputation, such as 'precision, high-performance German-made cars', as well as heritage and culture, military might and pop culture - 'Korean soap operas' - must also be added into the mix.

But the power of comms to change perceptions is ultimately limited by a country's behaviour. As Bob Pickard, former Edelman president for North Asia, argues: 'PR cannot create an image that doesn't correspond with reality. It can make the best of a country's capabilities and attractions but cannot invent what's not there.'

Take Libya, for example, which spent more than 15 years working closely with Harvard Business School to improve its international standing, but arguably threw it all away in a matter of weeks during the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

'It's the CSR argument applied to countries,' says Anholt. 'A country is judged by what it does, so it usually deserves its reputation. PR is a useful implementation tool, but can't drive the process. Only statecraft can.'

USA - Marian Salzman, President, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR

- Back story

In my mind, 2 October was the day the world realised the United States was no longer the dominant power. When Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics, it was a reality check and a reflection of larger issues. It made me wonder, what will this mean for American bravado? Well, American bravado is one reason for the image problems we have today. Global confidence in our country has been climbing since President Obama took office, but so far we only seem to have elected a new account manager for Brand USA.

- PR challenges

The main ones are unwelcome involvement in the Middle East, faltering financial markets and slow movement on climate change. We'd need to juggle a mind-boggling abundance of topics in devising a strategic PR plan for Brand USA. The first phase must be about diplomacy and governmental communications, both internal and external. And Americans need to invest more in the global community. Worldwide confidence in Brand USA must continue to rise.

- Suggested strategy

Government 'The President should call on private-sector talent to develop a campaign strategy for public diplomacy,' Keith Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action and chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide, suggested to me. Start a national tourism board to draw foreigners to the 'real' US, not just major attractions. Explain climate justice. Offer transparent messaging - beginning locally, with sensitivity training by expats - to Americans about attainable dreams, so we Yankees can understand why we're considered insensitive.

People Through an integrated public/private programme, launch a social media and school-based campaign to show Americans what the rest of the world thinks is a solid meal, a nice home, a fun weekend - and the meaning of justice. Called 'Make an Acquaintance,' it should teach us to put ourselves in other people's shoes. The American way isn't the Western way, let alone the global way. Once we learn more, we'll likely use our wealth and know-how to be a force for doing good.

To measure our success, various polls will show how we're doing. There's also the age-old anecdotal survey of momentum: Do more people want their children to marry Americans? It would be the true measure of our worth.

INDIA - Ashwani Singla, Chief Executive Officer, Genesis Burson-Marsteller

- Back story

Since 2003, India has been a resurgent economy. A number of acquisitions of international brands - such as Tetley, Corus and Jaguar - have happened since then. Before that, the country was insular, and poverty was the predominant perception. Prior to 'Resurgent India', there were two phases of the brand's evolution: 'Colonial India', which remained the land of the snake charmer, and 'Independent India' - agrarian, austere and largely socialist.

- PR challenges

The natural reaction to a growing economic power is fear and scepticism. Suddenly there is a perception of arrogance, and a backlash against outsourcing services. There is coherence in terms of the overall brand goals, but perhaps the government does not do an effective job of communicating that.

- Suggested strategy

Brand India should strive to be a 'soft power' with a focus on equitable and measured growth and diversity. It must balance economic power with deft yet firm geopolitics. It needs more co-ordinated action in terms of public diplomacy. We are a large investment market - when you look at trade as an instrument of policy, there is an opportunity. We need to upgrade the tourism infrastructure and the facilities. If we do that, we can create a vibrant tourism market.

The international diaspora also has a tremendous role to play in advocating the brand and attracting investment.

Ideally, the country needs to emulate its key role model, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, by being confident of its expertise, fiercely competitive, yet a picture of dignity and humility. Displays of arrogance will invite suspicion.

The country's cultural strengths should also be leveraged, particularly given the way they have been adopted into international fashion and cinema. Slumdog Millionaire should not be taken as a representation of India - but it is a story of triumph.

The real measure of success for brand 'Incredible India' would be how Indians in general are 'valued and welcomed' around the world while India takes its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

CHINA - Christoper Graves, CEO, Ogilvy PR & Scott Kronick, President, Ogilvy PR China

- Back story

Many saw the 2008 Olympics as 'China's coming out party'. Viewers marvelled at the precision and co-ordination on a massive scale. And while that mass precision and physical prowess of Chinese medal winners may have played into the stereotype of a faceless, disciplined China, the creativity of the opening and closing ceremonies and of the edgy, playful architecture of the 'Bird's Nest' and 'Water Cube' were the game changers.

- PR challenges

Nation brands struggle with overturning outdated, negative images, or reputations created through fear and ignorance. China suffers from both in parts of the West in particular, where it is often seen as a threat to economic security and Western power, an irresponsible, polluting, grow-at-any-cost emerging superpower sucking up the planet's resources.

- Suggested strategy

First, foster and promote soft power engagement, export and exchange of contemporary art and architecture. At times satirical, humorous or haunting, Chinese contemporary art is stealing the limelight at auctions around the world.

Second, reduce demonization of a faceless country by fostering warmth and understanding via exchanges of students, thinkers and artists. Personal experience is the best remedy for overturning unfair stereotyping. Create friendly 'faces of China' ambassadors to appear regularly in Western media. Measure success by media appearances and perception research.

Third, for foreign direct investment and portfolio investment, craft a narrative of a land that is forging world-changing technologies through leap-frogging and not copying. China, according to author Tom Friedman, will lead in cleantech and climate-friendly advances. Surprising? Surely. Believable? No - not without proof-point stories, which do exist - from the BYD electric auto to the Broad Air Conditioning breakthrough that reduces energy consumption by two-thirds. Measure success by increased investment flows.

Fourth, for tourism branding, China must avoid equating development with uniformity. Tourists will cherish the differences between Yunnan and Pudong. Measure success by tourist arrivals and by positive word-of-mouth and social media mentions.

UK - MATT NEALE, CO-MD EUROPE, GOLIN HARRIS

- Back story

One could write an essay here so let's just focus on two metrics; political power and cultural clout. When I started as a graduate trainee at Shandwick in 1997, Vanity Fair proclaimed London to be the hippest place on the planet. Cool Britannia reigned on a wave of patriotic enlightenment. Noel's Union Jack guitar adorned magazine covers around the world and Blair had put Britain back on the political map. Despite Iraq, we persuaded the world to bring the Olympics to Britain, causing the French to ask: 'Why doesn't the world like us?'

Fast-forward to 2009: the Gallaghers have split up and Gordon Brown finds securing a meeting with Obama harder than an 8pm table at The Ivy. Has anything gone wrong?

- PR challenges

After emailing my fellow MDs around the world, consulting with FutureBrand and even poking around on Radian 6, two key insights keep showing up. Firstly that we are politically seen as followers, not leaders, and secondly that our creative industries define our national brand.

The two biggest stories that have dominated foreign media this year are Susan Boyle and MPs' expenses. Culturally, we can still occasionally capture the world's imagination. Politically we have some work to do. We also need to move out of America's shadow.

The brand goal for Britain is to be the number one country known for independent thought, international power and creative excellence.

- Suggested strategy

Focus on three things and communicate them relentlessly: the British sense of fair play, a strong international power and reinforcing our reputation as a cultural world leader.

To do this, we should use the Olympics as a single platform to re-enforce our brand, much as Germany did with the World Cup in 2006. Ask Britain's Got Talent to choose the line-up for the opening of the Games, with The Rolling Stones headlining. Hold a young persons' peace summit in London before the Games begin.

This activity would be measured by:

- Moving one place up the most visited country index, from sixth to fifth

- Securing more inward investment growth in 2010 than our European neighbours

- Tony Blair becoming president of Europe

- Britain winning the 2018 World Cup bid.

SOUTH AFRICA - Lucien Vallun, MD, Fleishman-Hillard London

- Back story

It is inevitable that countries that have transformed on the scale South Africa has over the past two decades will have undergone reputational stress. Change is stressful and seldom uneventful. Issues such as the high incidence of crime and the errant behaviour of its neighbour Zimbabwe have tarnished the reputation of the region. However, as the host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup next June, this is the country's best opportunity yet to raise its profile to new heights by encouraging as many foreign tourists as possible to visit its shores. A carefully crafted and well resourced global initiative to achieve this needs to be launched as a matter of urgency and the South African government needs to take the lead.

- PR challenges

I am concerned at the apparent absence of an integrated, strategically driven national communications initiative that addresses the above question credibly and convincingly. The vast scale of this initiative demands input from both the public and private sectors, but it is the government that must act as the catalyst in mobilising a public/private partnership to achieve this. The unity and sense of purpose that would be reflected would be essential to ensuring all South Africans act as ambassadors for their country and that overwhelmingly good news emanates from within its borders.

- Suggested strategy

The campaign should focus on two of South Africa's greatest assets: its natural beauty and the warmth and hospitality of its people. Few visitors return unimpressed by these virtues and most extol them far and wide.

The campaign also needs to reassure the world that South Africa will be ready for the tournament, and publicise the enormous infrastructural development taking place.

Success will be easily measurable in terms of packed football stadiums, crowded hotels, tourist resorts and public transport, and the boost to the domestic economy. Most of all, it will be reflected in the positive reputational equity generated by staging a successful global event.

The time to act is now.

DUBAI - Dave Robinson, CEO Middle East, Turkey & Africa, Hill & Knowlton

- Back story

A year ago Dubai was at the centre of the shifting global economy. A year on and this Gulf emirate has been battered by the tsunami of the downturn with a real estate crash, large-scale debt and negative coverage across the front pages. Nemesis for the hubris of years gone by, perhaps, but Dubai's reputation was built through great PR and it will be rebuilt through great PR again.

- PR challenges

Restoring trust, re-establishing credibility and building on the learnings from the global crisis are imperative in the reconstruction of Dubai's reputation. While it would be naive to say PR alone will see Dubai's phoenix rise from the flames of the crisis - and it will rise - it will certainly contribute a great deal to the speed of Dubai's return to greatness.

The newly created Dubai Media Affairs Office now sits at the heart of the city's administration and co-ordinates messaging, media response and media outreach. This will be a key step forward in re-engaging audiences internationally, as well as supporting other entities to do the same.

Dubai's engagement with audiences will need to move on from a tendency towards a transactional approach to relationship-based engagement that will build knowledge, understanding and support.

- Suggested strategy

International media outreach needs to be balanced with discreet campaigns to key stakeholders for Dubai in the financial, political and business communities.

Geographically the focus should be on key European markets, the US, the Sub-Continent to a degree, and key markets in Asia.

In terms of support, Dubai already has a roster of international PR agencies working for both the Dubai Media Affairs Office and other Dubai government entities charged with representing the emirate.

Success should be measured through media sentiment and opinion-former tracking, as well as tracking campaigns alongside indices such as FDI inflows, bank lending, tourism inflow and so on.

And in the face of some of the juvenile 'Dubai bashing' in the UK media in particular, just some old-fashioned good coverage would be welcome.

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