Monday, May 3, 2010

Istanbul 2010: I'm inspired. Are you?

The virtual Global Chaos was recently neglected because real chaos had taken over. Now, with the end-of-semester overload almost over, I will try and catch up with some of the issues I have been coming across.

As a part of a semester-long project for my International PR class, I did some work on Turkey, particularly related to public diplomacy. Istanbul 2010 was something I kept coming across, so I ended up doing a paper on it. Here are some thoughts...

What is Istanbul 2010?

Since 1985 the EU has been nominating various cities as "European Capitals of Culture" (ECOC), giving them cash and fame to preserve cultural heritage, and promote sustainable development and tourism. (Basically: bring Europe closer together, while benefiting the locals.) In 2006 Istanbul was chosen to be one of the cities to hold the ECOC title in 2010 (the others are Essen in Germany and Pecs in Hungary). This, of course, was of special significance, since Turkey has so far had a bumpy ride with its EU membership bid: Istanbul 2010 was seen as an opportunity to prove Turkey's "Europeanness" to Europeans.

Millions were spent on restoration and preservation projects as well as the city's development, while hundreds upon hundreds of various cultural events are planned to take place throughout the year (for more, see here and here). This, certainly, is being accompanied by a promotional campaign, which was designed to "inspire" foreigners (with a particular focus on Europeans). Here's your share of inspiration:

Beautiful. Fascinating. Inspiring?

Perhaps. The campaign is not limited to video ads, of course. It also involves giant billboards at the Heathrow Airport in London, Gare du Nord in Paris, or Piazza San Marco in Venice: presumably, "key major spots" around Europe. The opening ceremony was apparently huge, with some special events held in Brussels. The idea behind the attempted "brand" is also noteworthy: diversity and complex identity - the old and the new, the traditional with the progressive, the religious and the secular, etc. - certainly stand a high chance of appealing to Europeans.

And yet, it seems the campaign has not met the expected success so far.

Firstly, it was not properly implemented. Starting off too late (December 2009!!!), the organizers limited the focus to Europe, and failed to properly explain what Istanbul 2010 stands for, or what ECOC is all about (there seems to be virtually no promotion elsewhere, except for the "central stage" in Turkey's Shanghai Expo Pavilion). It certainly is losing a lot of potential ground by ignoring another major tool - the Internet and the social networking websites - which could, indeed, prove very successful in such tourism promotion/branding campaigns (conventional ads, but also sharing of experiences, videos, photos, tips, etc). There are no major headlines, no grabbing images, or discussions about Istanbul 2010: all search efforts resulted in detailed coverage of the events/activities at home, with virtually no attention paid by the foreign media.

Even when there was coverage, it seemed to neglect the ECOC theme, by focusing more on the problematic aspects. The BBC, for example, highlighted some issues between NGOs and the government, as well as problems related to corruption, neglect of contemporary culture, and the insufficient effort "devoted to confronting the painful twentieth century legacy left by the mass expulsion of the Greek and Armenian communities, whose buildings, many of them derelict, still litter the city."

And then, there's this report:

Inevitably, makes me think of Anholt's warning about place branding:
The message is clear: if a country is serious about enhancing its international image, it should concentrate on what it does and what it makes, rather than obsess about what it says or how it looks. There are no short cuts. Only a consistent, coordinated and unbroken stream of useful, noticeable , world-class and above all relevant ideas, products and policies can, gradually, enhance the reputation of the country that produces them.

Indeed, nothing can speak louder than actions. Turkey has been trying to make some progress in this regard as well: the recent commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in the middle of Istanbul, or the sanctioning of a May 1 demonstration at Taksim Square (which also commemorated the victims of 1977 clashes). But then, Turkey's human rights record is still very much tainted, while there are also concerns about the security of its secular, democratic nature given the most recent wave of high-profile arrests.

In short, this was a great chance for Turkey to attract attention from around the world. And although it might still be early to make assessments, it seems that the promotional campaign, at least, has not been successful enough. Istanbul 2010 is (or could be) about so much more than just tourism... And to improve its image, especially in the eyes of Europeans, Turkey should perhaps start paying greater attention to genuine public diplomacy as opposed to conventional marketing.

Nonetheless, Istanbul is indeed an inspiring place: one I'm certainly looking forward to going back to some day.

[UPDATE] Just found another promotional video. The kid: absolute cuteness! And yet, it's still not clear how the ad speaks to foreign audiences, let alone "inspire" credibility.


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