Rebranding a Country: Superficial Prettification or Structural Changes?
Tuesday, 10 August 2010
Rwanda is fastidious in its country PR work, but a recent PR event resulted not just in tourism stories on gorillas, but also triggered some unintended discussion of the ethics and credibility of country rebranding. Andrea Bohnstedt speaks to Tim Pendry, a reputation management consultant, about how countries can credibly rebrand themselves.

As Rwanda’s elections approached, a string of bad news sullied the carefully tended image of central Africa’s safe and neat star business reformer: several newspapers suspended, a journalist shot, an opposition politician found with his head nearly cut off, an assassination attempt on a dissident general in exile. The Rwandan government reacted angrily to the suggestion that it might in any way have been involved in the journalist’s, politician’s and general’s mishaps - also announced that it would set up a task force to counter any negative news within 24hrs.

Understandably, Rwanda’s government has been keen to erase the immediate association of the genocide with any mention of Rwanda and draw attention to the fact that the country pursues an ambitious economic development strategy, has interesting tourism sites, and generally offers far more than the tragedy of 1994. But apart from broadening the perception of Rwanda– and the poverty alleviation efforts and genocide memorials have almost created a cottage tourism industry in itself -, Rwanda’s government is very sensitive to any negative mention of Rwanda, in particular with regard to governance issues. Notoriously PR conscious, it is quick to react to negative news: A denial of unwelcome stories is swiftly delivered through the government-owned New Times newspaper, in the process often deliberately discrediting the source.

Recently, the country’s PR firm arranged a function for journalists in Rwanda’s High Commission in London, decorated with a fake village and numerous of gorilla pictures to draw attention to ‘mountains, gorillas, crops’, according to the PR staff involved. Journalists were then offered press trips to Rwanda to take a closer look. This got Rwanda some coverage of the kind it had been looking for, but wasn’t an unmitigated success: At least one Guardian journalist was not just underwhelmed, but also questioned the ethics of PR firms papering over a country’s more problematic issues. Another Guardian journalist – who had taken the PR firm up on the offer of a free press trip – defended herself for doing so, and the subsequent discussion shows how much readers then questioned her neutrality.

So can a country with a few niggling issues in human rights, governance and environmental protection be rebranded? Or is it bound to end in some ridicule?

A Country is not an Airline

It’s entirely feasible, but with a proviso: The government needs to make some credible changes, otherwise it will indeed just look like whitewash, says Tim Pendry, who heads TPPR, a reputation management consultancy, and reputational marketing agency Pendry White. First of all, it is necessary to understand the complexity of the ‘product’: Pendry is not convinced that countries can simply rebrand themselves like airlines, especially not if they hire ‘makeover artists’ who used to do just that, brand airlines, and only have superficial political understanding of the country they are dealing with:

“The consultant may put a bunch of eager youngsters into the capital on full expenses, answerable to some busy and distracted Head of Office for the President, who typically has neither time nor understanding to question critically what is being done nor whether it is cost-effective,” Pendry says.

“Part of this has to do with the fact that often the client country’s administration has little understanding of, modern PR methods. The internal bureaucracy is confused because it has no experience of such methods and the 'image' activity is not integrated properly with political decision-making. It is not efficient and is filled with internal contradictions. The more dictatorial the regime, the easier it might appear to be for consultants but the consultants are less likely to be able to persuade civil servants who operate in a climate of fear to take the necessary highly calculated risks and they can do damage to themselves by being linked to the failure to make even small practical reforms.

I am sure there are many exceptions: The cleverest may let some small PR operation take the flack while it continues to advise behind the scenes. And this is not really the fault of the consultants who are often faced with impenetrable and fearful bureaucracies who conduct their business in a foreign language and who have limited understanding of the limitations as well as uses of marketing.”

Don’t Get Caught

There is a place for rethinking national image overseas, especially where it matters to a small country in terms of aid and tourism, and reverse stereotyping, Pendry argues: But to do so, a government needs to consider at least moderate internal reforms to deal with the issues that cause problems to countries that it wishes to address.

To be successful, such initiatives need to make technical improvements to internal and external government communications, build relations with friendly editors through more effective diplomatic channels and promoting friendship networks. Finally, messages have to be integrated so that tourist messages are linked with safety and security clarifications and eco-messages. But this must be based on genuine research into attitudes.

The best teams for this task are those that have solid analytical skills in politics and who can work with lawyers who understand process. Marketing people can then be used for the impelementation, Pendry suggests. Such teams can” contribute a higher level of in-depth political analysis - and they are also often less excitable and usefully cynical about what can be achieved.”

Pendry’s suggestion? It doesn’t have to be complicated - if you’re willing to make some substantial changes: “My own advice to a sovereign is not to treat the matter as 'reputation branding' but to undertake an internal review of training in communications, set up the national ability to integrate communications with political decision-making, undertake some in-depth analysis of the structures of power and decision-making overseas - basically integrate and improve the intelligence services -, and then consider low political cost reforms (do you really need to have quite so many people languishing in prison because they upset the Trade Minister's mistress?). With this information, you can set up a fairly conventional communications structure operating out of the existing, now-trained up service, transferring technology to the nationals of the country concerned as much as possible.

That is not as flash, but it has the virtue of creating a cadre of trained professionals who act as a modernising force within the administration and who end up doing more for internal reform than all the noisy activists outside. This is possibly more boring, but change is based often on internal process rather than external hissy-fitting and armchair outrage which merely entrenches conservative opinion."

And, importantly, it will prevent you from getting caught out: If this gets noticed as a PR effort done by ‘imported foreigners’ who do a half-baked white-washing job, it is failing because it makes a country look weak and shallow. Results: see the article in the Guardian.

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