Postcard from Colombia: A land on the edge of reform

Colombia is overcoming its PR problems to embrace the opportunities offered by a likely peace deal, says David Ross, vice-president - Andean region at Speyside Corporate Relations

Postcard from Colombia: A land on the edge of reform

You might say Colombia itself has something of a PR problem. Despite being the continent’s oldest, most stable democracy and Latin America’s fourth largest economy, it remains a 1980s caricature of violence, drugs and corruption in the minds of many.

However, Colombia’s PR ‘moment’ may  be about to arrive in more ways than one. An increasingly probable peace deal to end the 50-year conflict with main guerrilla group the FARC is a golden opportunity. Global dignitaries showering plaudits, post-conflict support from the World Bank, and associated boosts to President Santos’ ambition of joining the OECD and playing a more influential geopolitical role, would all be important steps on the road to redemption.

But it is what lies behind the surface of this ‘moment’ that would mean bigger developments for business and comms. Although parts of major cities Bogotá and Medellin, and sectors such as IT and financial services, are highly advanced and region-leading, many remain underdeveloped. Much farming is inefficient, with more than 40 per cent of land ownership informal. Despite gold reserves in the top 10 worldwide, only 20 per cent of gold mining is legal.

Weak infrastructure means getting a container from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast to Bogotá costs three times more than getting it to Cartagena from Shanghai. Tourism may be up 290 per cent in a decade, but still many fewer people visit Colombia than neighbour Peru. 

Major reforms as part of thepeace deal, an improved security situation and  government freedom to concentrate on socioeconomic reform mean peace promises to be the catalyst that drags the whole of Colombia into the 21st century.

Consequently, complex, multi-faceted comms challenges and opportunities will emerge, most significantly with increasingly activist and digitally connected Col­ombian communities internally, and with international investors externally. And the comms industry is gearing up to face them. Although many of the big international networks have had a presence in Colombia for decades, most are strengthening their offers, and the ones that haven’t are buying local players. There has also been a proliferation of smaller local agencies.

However, few agencies offer the sophistication clients can expect in London or New York. Archaic and simplistic contacts and family connection-led attempted ‘fixing’ with ministers and editors is still widespread. Equally, many clients undervalue corporate affairs, with many in-house comms professionals lacking clout to convince management of their key strategic role.

Nevertheless, Colombia’s geographical position at the heart of Latin America, and its highly educated multilingual urban centres, mean many multinationals already have Andean or Spanish-speaking regional headquarters here.

Despite a challenging economic outlook, the prognosis for Colombian comms is healthy. Major reforms, a refreshed global image and a more outward-looking country will mean our role becomes ever more relevant for business and government alike.

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