The eyes of much of the world will this coming year be on the US presidential and congressional elections as Democrats and Republicans fight it out for control of the White House, the US House of Representatives, and the US Senate.
The 2012 US federal ballots will be the most expensive in history, with some anticipating that Barack Obama might even become the first presidential candidate in history to raise more than 1 billion dollars for his re-election effort. Overall, it is estimated by the Center for Responsive Politics that the cost of the presidential and congressional campaigns could be a mammoth 6 billion dollars.
Given the vast amount of money spent on campaigns in election years, a significant mini-industry of US political consultants has long existed. However, what is less widely appreciated is how common-place it has become for many of these same people to work behind the scenes in other countries, including here in the United Kingdom.
Indeed, it is estimated that US political consultants have already worked in more than half of the countries in the world supporting campaigns and elections. This year, that tally will only grow as US consultancies reach out to more uncharted international territory.
In early 2012, key potential targets for new ‘work’ will include: the Egyptian legislative and parliamentary elections in January and March respectively; the presidential elections in Turkmenistan and Yemen in February; and potentially the Russian presidential election in March.
While the success of these internationally-mobile political consultants is mixed in terms of electoral outcomes, they have nonetheless had a lasting effect, prompting what some have called the ‘globalisation’ of the political communications industry. Or, in the eyes of critics, the international triumph of spin over substance, which has tended to promote more homogenous campaigns with a repetitive, common political language.
As James Harding, the editor of The Times of London, documents in Alpha Dogs, the origins of what has become a mini-industry lie in the 1970s. It was then that US political consultants (at the vanguard of which was the Sawyer Miller agency) began exporting US political technologies and tactics into Latin America and ultimately across the globe.
A key underlying premise of the industry is that such technologies and tactics can achieve political success just about anywhere. Thus, many foreign countries are sometimes deemed as mere international counterparts of US election battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
What started as international elections and campaigning work soon branched out into providing more foreign governments, leaders and bodies such as tourism and investment authorities with international communications counsel and ultimately what is now known as ‘country branding’. Country branding is founded (like disciplines such as public diplomacy) on the realisation that, in an overcrowded global information market place, countries and political leaders are, in effect, competing for the attention of investors, tourists, supranational organisations, non- government organisations, regulators, media and consumers.
Some countries may only get a few opportunities a year to make a favourable impression and get their ‘side of the story’ across. In this ultra-competitive environment, reputation can be a prized asset (or potentially big liability) with a direct effect on future political, economic, social and cultural fortunes:
• In some cases, a single highly damaging episode can fundamentally damage a country's standing - as China found following Tiananmen Square. In such cases an approach involving a long recovery time to rebuild what is lost is often required.
• A country may simply wish to promote an opportunity based on a specific single goal, such as wanting to attract more foreign direct investment or increasing tourism -- as the current ‘Incredible India’ campaign illustrates.
• Other states, for example Georgia, Rwanda and the Maldives, may want to establish a presence in the public mind because of fears about a specific issue (such as Russian preponderance, building sympathy amongst donors and investors and tourism in the short term, and/or climate change in the long-term respectively).
In general, the most effective country strategies align all key stakeholders (across the public, private and third sectors) around a single powerful vision for global positioning. A good example here is New Zealand which, since the 1980s, has transformed itself from earlier perceptions of being a relatively remote backwater which, despite its scenic beauty, was not a major global tourist destination.
Especially in the midst of a difficult economic climate in the early 1980s, partly caused by the country's loss of preferred trading status with the United Kingdom (one of the nation's then major export markets), the ‘New Zealand Way’ initiative recognised that a strong country reputation for quality would be hugely beneficial if the nation was to compete in global export markets. Here, the massive untapped potential of the country's natural environment was recognised, not just in terms of natural produce exports, but also for building a destination brand for tourism and outdoor sports.
The New Zealand example underlines how a simple, unified cross-sectoral vision can be enormously powerful. To be sure, the country is not unique in having an unspoilt natural environment and quality produce. But it has managed to capture the world's imagination with its consistent branding that has put natural values firmly at its core.
Today, of course, it is not just US political consultants who are blazing a trail in the industry. London, for instance, has become a major country branding centre fuelled by its favourable European time zone between Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and North America; and the headquartering within the city of key global publications such as The Economist, Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal Europe.
Looking to the future, demand for country branding is only likely to continue growing given the increasing complexity and overcrowded nature of the global information market place. Indeed, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, much of which remains unchartered territory for the industry, globe-trotting firms may be on the very threshold right now of some of the most challenging work they have yet encountered.