Country image building do's & don'ts

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The most interesting meeting I've attended so far in 2007 took place last week. My colleague, Edie Wilson, put it together. She wrote up some of her impressions and has agreed to let me share them here. Edie is a senior communications advisor at the World Bank and spent a decade working at public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. Her words follow:

FIAS invited a dozen of the world's best international public relations agencies in for a closed door chat about what happens when developing countries engage in image making. The communications companies were stunned that the World Bank Group would actually listen to them – "very therapeutic," was one comment. And we got an earful.

It's a peculiar situation actually. Compared to twenty years ago, the public relations industry is far more sophisticated, international in capacity and focus, and diversified – branding, marketing, crisis communications, public affairs, opinion research, you name it, they do it, and many do it very well. But FIAS, looking at many bids for foreign direct investment promotion, noticed that the best firms with international capability weren't showing up. Hence the get-together.

The marketplace has never been more competitive for countries trying to attract investment, tourists, and trade. FutureBrand produces a slick Country Brand Index, and there's the Anholt Nation Brands Index, to further stir competitive juices.

Some countries have turned themselves into expert marketeers – think Ireland, Scotland, South Africa. Others have, in many cases, spent lots of money very badly, or spent very little money on quickie programs thinking this was an easy game to play. (As one of those present said recently to a quite big country - proud to have rounded up $2 million to spend on a one-time country-branding effort, "Well, that's nice, but I can name Caribbean nations that spend $20 million each year. Do you want to get serious?")

Let's cut to the chase. What are the absolute worst things countries can do as they build their image?

  • Have each agency in your government develop its own, conflicting message and campaign. Each claims it has limited resources, but hey, look around and you find that this same country is spending $500,000 on FDI promotion, $3 - 5 million on tourism, $2 million on cultural events and $1,000,000 on trade promotion – every year.
  • Make sure each of these agencies has a separate, not-so-good website.
  • Do research late, and then ignore it. "We know what people think about us."
  • Start a completely new effort after every election, with a different outside agency.
  • Appoint untrained friends and relatives of the powerful to positions of leadership, because of course this public relations stuff is easy and anyone can do it.
  • Blow your budget on a fancy, one-time insert in a big newspaper for $250,000.
  • Treat the overseas missions as junkets, and decide on dates at the last minute.
  • Avoid consensus building - don't talk to the other political parties or stakeholders about what you're doing.
  • Issue requests for proposals (RFPs) that are intensely bureaucratic, outlining the number of press releases desired, etc. "All outputs, no impact."
  • Finally, have a track record of taking months to pay for services rendered, and for creative interpretation of the contract to avoid payment altogether.

In this environment, the best international communications firms often shrug their shoulders and take a pass on country image-building work. [Hint: do the opposite of all the above and you might be a star.]

There was an odd silence at the end of the day, as we contemplated the work to be done. We held the session to update the FDI Toolkit, designed to guide investment promotion agencies around the world. Through the toolkit, we hope that more developing countries will write contracts that attract bids from the best creative minds in the world, and learn to be better partners and clients. Some of the most valuable intellectual property any country has is its reputation. To rephrase an old ad slogan, a good image is a terrible thing to waste.

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