Tuesday, February 16, 2010

PD and PR: estranged bedfellows. Or so they say...

Since I started reading on Public Diplomacy, I keep coming across attitudes that dismiss marketing and public relations as useless for promoting "national interest and national security through understanding, informing and influencing foreign publics, and broadening dialogue between citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad." Arguments range from the need to champion the "primacy of reason over passion" (the assumption being, for some reason, that advertising is all about passion) to the already-redundant "You can't sell America as you would sell Uncle Ben's" (referring to Charlotte Beers, the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, 2001-2003). Then, I have also come across views that dismiss "nation branding" as futile commercialization of values and ideals that are essentially political, social, and cultural.

These are all reasonable arguments that make sense. But I think they all rely on two major, but faulty assumptions:
- The international "political marketing" is conducted as just another advertising campaign in the US (i.e. the target audience is American, and thus the basic strategy is built on approaches that would resonate with and be culturally appropriate/relevant to Americans).
- When talking about marketing and public relations, the reference goes to ads or commercials only.

What is more, there is an expectation that such an approach should be the silver bullet for fixing all problems the Americans are facing abroad.

Many of the ideas and concepts from International PR (in which I am fortunate to be taking a class now) seem to be challenging such a view.

First of all, there is a need to clarify the "expectation" element. Many, even in PD, do agree that it is the actions and the policies of a country that form the foundation for its PD. As Simon Anholt, coiner of the "nation branding" term says: "The only sure way places can change their images is by changing the way they behave: they need to focus on the things they make and do, not the things they say."
Then, there is need to shift the perspective, a little. Marketing, and especially public relations, are not restricted to airing commercials, planting newspaper/online ads, or putting up billboards. As defined by the American Marketing Association, "Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large." The most official definition for Public Relations is that it "helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." Very broad, indeed, and perhaps that is why one a lot can be read into them. But the actual point here is that international marketing and public relations can bring a lot to public diplomacy, especially in terms of techniques.

GLOCALIZATION: a well-familiar term to many by now. Every major international company does a thorough research of the market before entering new territory (history, underlying values, approaches, narratives, etc., come to supplement the basic demographic, geographic, and consumption pattern data). And if it is really keen on succeeding, the company then customizes its products/brands to make them relevant to the local customer base. Well, they realize that altering the product - a little - is much easier than changing the entire culture, which provides the underlying basis for both, reason and passions, with which the product is supposed to resonate.

Certainly, there is the question of brand integrity: "Does the essence of the brand remain unchanged if the product is altered/customized?" The Integrated Marketing Communication approach suggests that it does not. The main principle is to find the "core competency" - the broader platform - upon which the organization can build its image. It is also a platform that defines the limits and boundaries of the extent to which the brand can be "customized" to make it more appealing to the local market: "mutually adapting the interests of the organization and its target public."

There has been a lot of debate whether the US can or should be "branded," and if yes, what its brand would be. Building on the explanation above, I would say the US does not need a brand per se; however, it would certainly benefit from identifying a core competency that would provide the foundation for further building and hammering out of the message based on the culture of the target audience. Core competency should be vague, globally applicable, and therefore, also malleable. Ideas such as freedom, democracy, and justice can be a good start. However, there should also be the realization that they are, and they should be seen as, culturally relative. These values have not been static (or, at least, have not been perceived as such) throughout the history of the US, and there is no way they can be universally accepted in the way that the US wants them to be. The main question here is what is the goal: cooperation, partnership, and mutual benefit; or imposition and domination? If it is the former, the US should stop determining - to the very last detail - what is "right" in other societies based on what is perceived as right by the Americans. After all, such universalism is impossible in the post-modernist age America itself helped create.

(Image courtesy of Savage Chickens)

In terms of application, the core competency can provide the major themes running through all communication - public and not-so-public - that the US has with the world. However, when getting to the details, extra effort should be made in ensuring that they are applicable to the local audience: their perceptions, narratives, issues of salience, and most importantly, their interests and vision for the future (i.e., where the US can fit in it). In short, there is a need to be mindful not only the medium, but also of the message, since one message cannot be good for the entire world.

Integrating Marketing Communication also calls for active engagement of the target public, since it has an inbuilt feedback mechanism that helps adjust and refocus the strategic approach based on shifts and changing patterns. Yes, it is much more difficult to measure the effect of PD - since it deals with ideas, values, and emotions - and yet, some of the mechanisms suggested at Nation-Branding can be very useful, and perhaps, can be as good as it can ever get given PD's nature. These mechanisms should engage as well as act as a source for generating ideas. To name but a few: they can range from essay or video competitions, seminars and discussion groups, the use of online social networking websites, to call-in programs on TV and radio (where the US would be the listener of the concerns raised). That said, it would also be very important to educate the American public as well: in geography, global history, cultural awareness, and, most importantly, tolerance to difference.

Of course, a good ad can never replace a faulty "product". But when the "product" is viable, such international techniques can be coupled with PD as well as traditional diplomacy to provide the US not only with many more friends around the world, but also with an enhanced ease of conducting its foreign policy (in terms of its core national interests).

Perhaps, in that sense, PD does have a lot to learn from PR?

(Disclaimer: There is no way all the ideas involved could be sufficiently expanded in one post. However, do stay tuned for follow-ups as I keep making sense of the chaos!)



  1. I don't generally consider you to be overwhelmingly chaotic, but this post is making me a little dizzy. :) That is to say, I'm looking forward to future expansions.

    But I'll join your skepticism of faulty assumptions about nation branding and marketing. I'd also add that not only the responses to branding efforts, but the motivations behind them vary widely. Unless a branding effort is coordinated and rigidly controlled, there are likely to be conflicting messages from different voices within the government, private sector and civil society of a country, and that can lead to ... chaos.

  2. i know, i know... i crammed too much into one piece. and these are ideas that are still developing in my mind, as i read on it more :) just thought i should try and formulate it all, secretly hoping it will help me make better sense it and connecting the different fields..

    as for your comment - you are very right. the major problem, i think, is that "branding" - because of the vantage point (that is, a highly commercialized society) - is seen as something that is necessarily very corporate/business-associated. why can't one use similar principles but apply them to a different field, which will inevitably change the nature to something that is more applicable to the latter. i think this is the point where transferring PR into PD has failed. but there certainly is A LOT of potential... :)

    to be continued...!