Switzerland is the world’s most reputable country. This is one conclusion of an annual study by the Reputation Institute, a leading global advisory firm. The study, carried out in 2014, placed Canada in the number 2 spot, a slight drop-off from the top position we held from 2011-2013. These rankings take governmental, economic, and environmental factors into consideration. It’s nice to be held in such high esteem, especially on the basis of a comprehensive assessment. But what are the tangible benefits of a country’s good reputation? Tourism revenues and high rates of foreign direct investment (FDI) are the most obvious advantages; as such, they will be the focus of this post.
There are a myriad of ways for a country to improve its reputation. Although affecting internal change through government policy may be the most significant, image building activities – including those that fall into the marketing and public relations realms – play an important role. Crises can be powerful motivations for these activities (consider the recent campaign by Gambia’s Tourism Board, which appeared in response to ongoing Ebola fears), but even those nations with the strongest reputations can benefit from image building. Just ask the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which called for increased investment into Canada’s marketing budget in 2014.
Professionals who engage in national image building – including those who work for embassies, investment promotion agencies (IPAs), and federal tourism commissions – face an increasingly-complex set of challenges. Globalization and the development of new communication channels have made it more difficult than ever to control messages sent out to the public. The good news? These trends have made disseminating information far less expensive, helping to level the playing field for countries that don’t have the resources to fund slick marketing efforts (like Australia’s $360 million dollar “A Different Light” campaign) or set out massive budgets for their IPAs (the investment promotion agencies that work to attract foreign investors to
a country). Ironically, ramping up technology-based communications may represent a return to basics, where creativity and savvy take center stage.
The Art of Listening
“If speaking is silver, listening is gold”. Those trying to promote a particular point of view should take this Turkish proverb to heart. Listening is an essential first step toward improving your reputation. This is especially true at this historical moment, when, thanks to the proliferation of social media and wireless-enabled mobile devices, consumers are more vocal than ever before. Decisions about where eat, shop, and sleep are frequently made on the basis of reviews and other forms of online information. Imagine the amount of research that occurs when more money is at stake.
Professionals involved in attracting global travelers or foreign investors must listen to what’s being said about the country they’re working for. The first-page results of a Google search – a country’s prime online real estate – are a good place to start. It goes without saying that, while negative stories can contribute to a bad general reputation, certain types of stories may impede specific goals. For example, editorials about crime are likely to have an impact on tourism, whereas stories suggestive of a bad investment climate (such as reports of political instability) may be a deterrent for potential investors.
One of the best things about listening? It’s very often free. Even when it’s not, it’s generally well worth the investment. Media-monitoring automation can help those involved in reputation-management activities go beyond catching negative stories to answer important questions that will help them achieve specific goals. Often, the most important of these questions will be, where do the people I’m trying to reach spend their time? With regards to tourism, which travel sites are potential visitors viewing? Are they making use of forums or blogs? Conversations can be tracked within these spaces, at which point further questions should be asked. Are there any issues preventing travellers from visiting? Is the country in question off the radar as a tourist destination in certain promising markets? Drawing conclusions based on this information will help target promotional efforts much more effectively.
Answering similar questions can also be hugely beneficial when it comes to attracting FDI. Because many IPAs have been slow to adopt strategies for gathering intelligence from online conversations, those implementing a systematic approach may have an instant competitive advantage.
One of the worst things about listening, at least with regards to online conversations, is that it often involves distracting and time-consuming chatter (there are, after all, over 1 billion websites on the internet). A major advantage of media-monitoring software is that it can pinpoint the news outlets, blogs, and forums that disseminate information that may impact public perceptions of your country. It can find relevant comments, leading users directly to the spaces in which they’re being posted. But this will only work if a monitoring solution is carefully chosen and implemented. Most organizations will need an intuitive software that minimizes monitoring time, freeing-up employees to perform other duties. The best course of action is establishing a process that can be easily integrated into other communications activities.
Some reputation-building tips – such as ensuring websites are mobile friendly – are universal and easy to implement. Acting on the intelligence unearthed by effective monitoring measures is more complex, but if there’s one overarching principle, it’s this – tell the story of your country. Place branding isn’t a new concept; many professionals working in the tourism industry have a strong sense of the image they are expected to convey. Consider Norway. The country’s online brand platform is described as “a guide for everybody working in developing or selling Norway as a holiday destination…”. The site keeps things simple by including a list of values that should be associated with the country (unsurprisingly, “open-minded” makes an appearance).
Not all nations have Norway’s clearly-defined sense of self. Engaging content that highlights positive national attributes can help change this. The websites that represent diplomatic missions (such as embassies and high commissions), investment promotion agencies, and bodies devoted to promoting tourism can all be used to showcase a country’s character. In addition to reinforcing the positive, website content can be used to counteract negative stories, which are often sensationalized in the media. Search engine optimization can help ensure that content reflective of a country’s true values and culture appears on the first page of its Google search results.
Of course, we all know the value of social media. In addition to disseminating reputation-boosting content to a broader audience, social accounts can help users build beneficial relationships. However, depending on the size of an organization – not to mention the time constraints and levels of expertise of its staff – claiming accounts on all available platforms may not be a good idea. According to many marketing experts, a generic or neglected social media account may hurt a brand more than having no account at all. It seems many involved in promoting countries are aware of this fact. A 2013 blog post from the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication reported that (at the time of posting) Facebook and Twitter were the most popular platforms for American embassies. IPAs, on the other hand, were more likely to use Linkedin than Facebook – at least this was the case in 2012, when an fDiIntelligence article examined the slow, strategic adoption of social media by these organizations. Monitoring of both social and traditional sources can provide valuable insights as to which platforms an organization should concentrate on.
In the case of embassies and high commissions, a website can be used to connect members of a diaspora. Email campaigns can keep subscribers abreast of relevant cultural events, which will contribute to the diversity of communities and possibly even lead to the formation of public forums and advocacy groups. The overall effect will be a strengthening of the diaspora community, which can greatly enhance a nations’s reputation within the country that hosts its diaspora.
There are innumerable tactics for building and maintaining a good reputation. When it comes to promoting the benefits of a country, the best methods will be those that are efficient, repeatable, and easy to evaluate. Like marketing in other areas, these campaigns will need to be tweaked on an ongoing basis in response to evolving preferences and perceptions.
One final comment: while those who are hired to carry out place marketing and public relations activities can have a huge impact on the world’s impression of a country, any interested community member can contribute to the process. When it comes to communicating the best a country has to offer, those looking for inspiration should look to the people who embodying its values.
Feature Image by Cristopher Policarpio