Ethics Trump PR

As part of our panel of experts for this year’s Labour and Conservative Party Conference events, Simon Anholt provides us with a guest blog on workable models for public sector marketing. This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.

Countries, cities and regions, in the age of globalisation, compete with each other for their share of investment, tourism, markets for their products and services, and the attention and respect of other governments, the media, and public opinion.

The competition for reputation has intensified as places recognise that in a world of increasingly footloose capital, customers, competitors, profile and image become paramount, as in any busy marketplace. When it comes to attracting trade, talent, visitors and investment, places with a good image trade at a premium; those without trade at a discount.

In a 1998 paper, I coined the phrases ‘nation brand’ and ‘place brand’ to express these ideas. The meme established itself quickly and it is now taken for granted by most administrations that measuring and managing their ‘place brand’ is a critical part of their function.

But even though the idea that places depend on their images is now accepted by most national and local governments, their understanding about what, if anything, a place can do to enhance that image remains primitive. The extreme inertia of place images, combined with the short time horizons of democratic governments and the ambitions of marketing firms, have conspired to ensure that most administrations do no more than waste large sums of money in futile propaganda exercises, which fail to achieve any results.

Most of these places do little more than brag: they buy space in the media (or try to ‘earn’ editorial space through PR) to list reasons why they deserve the world’s admiration. This approach has never been shown to have any measurable effect on the international image of any country, city or region but since such ‘campaigns’ seldom involve any mechanism for measuring their impact, this goes unrecorded.

So what does work? If we are determined to apply commercial models to the public sector, then corporate social responsibility serves as a better guide than PR or advertising. Research strongly suggests that the same ethical principles that drive consumers to favour companies that behave as good corporate citizens will drive those same consumers, as tourists, investors, voters, students, immigrants and purchasers of foreign products and services, to favour the places that satisfy their moral standards.

If a place wants to be admired, it’s not enough to be successful: it needs to give people in other places good reasons to feel glad that it exists. It needs to make itself useful to humanity and to the planet if it is to earn the reputation it needs.

The message is simple: if a place wants to do well, it had better do good.