Arun Sudhaman

Working the angles around media, comms and marketing.

Can a country launch a charm offensive?

with 16 comments

Surely some enterprising soul should have set up a country branding practice by now and describe it as the future of integrated marketing in the 21st century?

I ask because, in short order, an array of countries have called in comms counsel to try and repair reputations that have frayed badly. Iceland has picked FD, South Africa has enlisted Dow Jones Insight, and MS&L. And Dubai can’t seem to get too much agency advice, perhaps unsurprising when you read some of the articles that take delight in skewering the Emirate, like this one.

Then there is China which, one year after seeking comms counsel to deal with its PR in the run-up to the Olympics, has decided to go ahead with a much-delayed advertising drive that will try to convince overseas audiences its products are safe. China has been particularly active; it is also looking to expand some its domestic news channels to try and present a different image of the country overseas.

All of these countries, undoubtedly, have different requirements. But the one thing they have in common is the overriding theme of improving reputation in the eyes of tourists, investors, businesses and foreign governments.

I would like to see an example of this kind of initiative that has worked. It’s not that I think it can’t; it is more that any attempts like these are dependent on so many factors. You can’t, for example, impact the influence a country’s overseas diaspora can have on its overseas reputation. And how does a government department, and even the smartest agency, determine the effect that a country’s soft power can wield overseas? If China had a film industry that travelled well, do you think it would be subject to such a high level of misperception in Western countries?

Lots of questions, and I would like to hear some answers as it is an area that needs exploring. Country advertising campaigns are nothing new, but they tend to be limited in scope and, increasingly, effect. A joined up approach that includes PR, lobbying, social media…that’s the kind of recipe that might stand a chance. And all across global borders. Now doesn’t that sound suspiciously like the kind of thing any enterprising agency would jump all over to claim expertise in?


Written by Arun Sudhaman

July 25, 2009 at 10:20 pm

16 Responses

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  1. Arun,

    The branding of a country cannot go against reality, but it certainly can help broaden the perspective that people take on a country.

    Take Tourism Australia, where they started bringing in bloggers who have nothing at all to do with Australia, on the surface.

    The Sartorialist, for example, came to Australia and wrote about his passion, street style. This will give people a more rounded view of what Australia offers.

    Tourism Australia also supported the film “Australia” financially, since the beautiful images alone would promote people’s perception of Australia.

    I am so familiar with this example because I met with Tourism Australia and did a blog posting:

    (Disclosure: Tourism Australia is a client of Ogilvy.)

    Thomas Crampton

    July 26, 2009 at 4:17 am

    • Interesting point. Especially using Australia – do you think the negative reviews for the Australia movie, for example, had an similar impact on the country’s reputation – given that they based a whole brand campaign around it.

      The Tourism Queensland ‘best job in the world’ campaign – brilliant idea and executed across all the right channels. But a state tourism board came up with that one. Does it fit in with the country’s overall approach? Was this even a consideration?

      Arun Sudhaman

      July 26, 2009 at 7:15 pm

  2. Yes, I asked the same question. The tourism officials said they were happy because the cinematography made Australia itself look great, regardless of the plot.

    I don’t know how much coordination there was between Queensland and the central government’s campaign, but the “Best Job in the World” was an incredibly effective campaign.

    On Google, the Queensland now owns the phrase “best job in the world”. The impact of that online campaign went well beyond the Internet, however, showing how online can sometimes punch well above its weight.

    An interesting aspect of the Queensland campaign: Even if the selected blogger does nothing, the whole structure of the campaign to find the blogger was a total succes.

    Thomas Crampton

    July 26, 2009 at 11:29 pm

  3. In the case of repairing reputations, I believe it is much more important that any country is seen to be addressing the underlying issues. Obama’s government is attempting to rebuild the reputation of the US – but this cannot be done by comms alone, it will take solid policies, diplomacy and “walking the talk”.

    Comms campaigns can draw attention to aspects of a country and help position it, but there needs to be something genuine underpinning the comms – “Cool Britannia” springs to mind.

    A couple of other relevant PR aspects – arguably a lot of the heritage of UK PR derives from the work done at the British Empire Board early last century. Which leads me on to think that surely the antecedents of any country PR campaign lie in the role of Embassies and Ambassadors. One of their roles has always been to build local relationships and promote the national country.

    Much harder for them to fulfil this role today when there is global (inc online) communications and many more opportunities for encounters with representatives.

    So final thought – if any good corporate PR reputational campaign needs to engage internal publics, perhaps that’s where more of these external efforts need to start – does good country PR need to begin at home first?

    Heather Yaxley

    July 27, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  4. @Heather: Yes! Hear, hear. Fix things first and then talk about them.

    As for the role of Ambassadors, I think they are less and less relevant. Back in the day, when it took 6 months to get a letter from London to Siam, I think they served a role in setting policy. Now they are more intelligence gatherers (at best). In the case of some countries, it can be a sinecure for cronies.

    Thomas Crampton

    July 27, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    • Part of fixing the issue, in many cases, is a solid diplomatic policy, which I view as one comms solution. If countries do strike out on a unilateral policy, for example, communicating that decision in the best way possible can make a substantial difference to its perception in other parts of the world. The Obama approach is not too far away from this, particularly in the Middle East.

      Agree with Tom. I like ambassadors but not Ambassadors. The role of a country’s overseas diaspora should not be overlooked. Which is as much an internal campaign as an external one.

      Arun Sudhaman

      July 27, 2009 at 8:52 pm

  5. I’m reading Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning – a fictional account of 11 missing American tourists in Burma. There’s a whole side story of the Burmese government hiring a PR person to help with rebranding the country and some of it’s departments. Very humourous, very scary.
    Unfortunately, that’s often the public’s perception of the worst of PR. That it’s smoke and mirrors to hide the bad stuff.
    Like dating, charm is only as good as its sincerity.


    July 30, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    • Nicely put. Yes, substance must precede style. All the PR in the world can’t help Burma, nor should it.

      Arun Sudhaman

      July 30, 2009 at 4:02 pm

  6. lipstick on a pig?

    Thomas Crampton

    July 30, 2009 at 6:02 pm

  7. Country charm offensives are taking place all the time. For me the best recent example has to be the rehabilitation of Libya. They had to pull out the big gun by getting Michael Porter involved (, but the change of perception over the past decade is incredible.

    I got interested with this subject from Simon Anholt’s first book, (who is v active in Asia) and Martin Roll, who has been focusing here for the past six months. Sure you know both of them, but they have some good examples to share. Good question as to why no firms have specific practices…

    BTW – good comeback by your boys at Edgebaston, but I think this one might belong to the Aussies – good luck!

    John Kerr

    July 31, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    • Interesting – I think Libya might be worth looking at as a case study. The question must be: does the overseas positioning truly reflect the reality at home?

      England are battling well at Edgbaston but I’m not sure they can be described as ‘my boys’. For an Indian cricket fan it is just interesting to see two second-tier sides slug it out!

      Arun Sudhaman

      July 31, 2009 at 4:52 pm

      • Ha – why did I think you followed the Lords brigade? Apologies go without saying!

        Gaddafi going to Italy recently was another watershed – only a PR person would’ve had the balls to push that through. This you’ll find more consistency at home and abroad than you think.

        You should drop Porter an interview request – that’d be bigger than Penn! 🙂

        John Kerr

        July 31, 2009 at 6:02 pm

  8. The study I would like to see is the impact of Hollywood on the US international image.

    I once had a very interesting discussion with China’s top spokesperson about the role of Hollywood vs China’s propaganda machine.

    His main point: The US is very smart because they privatized propaganda through Hollywood (Top Gun, etc) which saves the taxpayer money.

    Thomas Crampton

    July 31, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    • Agree Thomas, the whole area of military sign-off of any movie/TV script before providing access and support is mind-boggling. You can’t argue that the US (esp. thru Hollywood) has always launched the ultimate charm offensive. Does the overseas positioning reflect the reality at home, that’s the question?

      John Kerr

      July 31, 2009 at 6:15 pm

  9. It is a similar dynamic with Bollywood for India or Lord of the Rings for NZ. Soft power. Not ideal for countries that don’t have those cultural exports.

    Even if you argue that the US military has been adept at promoting its message overseas via Hollywood there are any number of other US products (like The Wire) that portray a truer story. Would China allow a show like that to go out?

    Arun Sudhaman

    July 31, 2009 at 9:27 pm

  10. Yes, to your point, Arun, a key ingredient for thriving “private sector propaganda” is free speech.

    Just to contradict myself, however, you do get some countries producing great films under less than ideal circumstances: Iran, Russia.

    Thomas Crampton

    August 1, 2009 at 12:15 am

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