“Every Citizen is an Ambassador of his Country”
10. August 2016
Sudhir John Horo is co-founder of Indias only communication agency that specialises in place branding and public diplomacy: the Ideaworks Design & Strategy Private Limited. In this position, Horo developed a variety of successful international campaigns, for example the global “Incredible India“-campaign or “Bonjour India“, a culturally focused campaign for the French Embassy in India. We spoke with him about the challenges and opportunities of place branding and digital diplomacy.
Everyone has an influence on the branding of their own country – either when travelling abroad or when hosting people at home. In your opinion, how important is every single citizen in creating a reputation for a country?
The world has fast moved away when only diplomatic ambassadors managed the reputation of their countries and influenced audiences across borders. I feel that today, in this rapidly globalised and inter-connected world, every citizen is an ambassador of his country and is constantly, consciously or unconsiously, influencing people from other countries, through the physical or virtual medium.
Citizens from across geographies and nationalities are constantly in touch with their counterparts across borders, in real time, through advanced telecommunications and the world-wide-web. Reduced travel costs and highly organised travel sector is also compelling more people to travel.
More business people are travelling; more tourists are visiting places, and more students and professionals are operating in increasingly multicultural environments. This is directly exposing individuals to the different ways and means, beliefs, practices and cultures of other nationalities. And this exposure often becomes the primary touch point to obtain a credible first hand experience that helps one to formulate an opinion and perception of the country.
Moreover, with the media boom and 24x7 television channels, more accessible internet services and social media platforms, lesser known or popular personalities are constantly becoming stereotypes that seemingly mirror their countries of origin, accurately or inaccurately.
Thus with the increased interface of people across borders, both physically or virtually, every citizen, through his actions and behaviours, is knowingly or unknowingly, shaping the way how his country is being seen and perceived. Therefore, every citizen has an important role to play in managing the reputation of his country in today’s world.
What are the challenges that nations face when doing place branding today?
On the conceptual front, nations have always been brands. And these brands not necessarily reflect the countries accurately, as their brand perceptions have been formed over time and influenced by multiple factors. However, these brand perceptions are constantly fluctuating to reflect the present day reality of nations. Therefore, it becomes challenging for nations to ensure that their brand perception is favourable and positive, which may not always be possible as the ground realities might reflect otherwise.
Moreover, it is a daunting proposition for a country to unanimously define itself and arrive at one simplified singular construct, the brand idea, that would accurately reflect its reality and one that the country may want to propogate without the fear of internal disagreements or external controversy. Interestingly, stakeholders within the nation as well as audiences outside are constantly forming brand perceptions. And with such a wide spectrum and heterogeneous target audience base, it is always a challenge to balance and present a nuanced yet cohesive brand image.
On the operational front, it is always a big challenge to bring together the key stakeholders, who come from diverse backgrounds and diverse agendas, to buy into one common objective, which would then be instrumental in presenting a coherent face of the country. This makes it imperative for any nation-branding programme to have a strong leadership that can steer multiple stakeholders and a clear vision that can make the exercise relevant and attractive for each of the stakeholders.
Social Media could be used as a seismograph for temper and senses. What are the chances and risks of Facebook, Twitter and Co. when branding a country?
Social media does make for an interesting tool to observe the pulse of the audience but I am not sure how accurately it reflects the temper and senses. Perhaps the social media could be an accurate seismograph only if there was a way to identify honest opinions voiced by genuine social media users.
As an observer, I would not like to believe too much in the statistics that emerge from the social media chatter today. Nowadays, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are being increasingly used by hired professionals as important tools of propaganda to influence people by driving and controlling narratives in the public domain, through paid advertising, sponsored content, trolling and creation of spurious users. With the emergence of this disturbing trend of managing narratives in the social media, the veracity of the content in social media becomes questionable, and the emerging social media data misleading.
But on the other hand, as a communication professional, I see social media as an effective tool for placebrands to reach out, connect and engage with audiences with their micro-targetted tailored narratives while monitoring, regulating and measuring the visibility of the message. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms can therefore be very effective media vehicles to promote a country as they have the capacity to reach out and convey the transmtted messsage to a large circle of people. However, if the social media strategy is not conceptualised smartly, it will always be a challenge to engage social media users in a positive conversation and generate a constructive dialogue.