Friday, June 4, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

A recent article in Slate discusses the impact of political unrest on Thailand's sex industry. The Washington Post has a piece on how the flotilla debacle has updated the relationship status of the U.S.-Israeli to "It's complicated." And a Wall Street Journal article on the Hungarian economy uses "Greece" as a synonym for financial meltdown.

All three articles illustrate an important point: A major crisis can quickly eclipse a nation's public diplomacy efforts. I'm using the term "public diplomacy" very loosely here, to cover all attempts at national branding and image building abroad. While Thailand may not benefit politically for its reputation as a haven for fast and loose hedonism, sex tourism is a significant contributor to the national economy, and the ongoing riots have introduced a libido-chilling element of complication and danger to the nation's image. Israel's global reputation has taken a sharp knock since its deadly response to the Turkish flotilla and its international relationships and policies have all been affected. And the Journal is hardly the only publication to use "Greece" as shorthand for fiscal ruin in recent weeks, showing how difficult it can be to shake a bad reputation, once acquired.

Every year, nations invest billions of dollars into public diplomacy efforts in an attempt to curry favor with foreign publics, improve national reputations and facilitate international policy. But even the best efforts can be undermined if the attention of the world's media is diverted by a catastrophe. To some extent, governments can compensate with typical damage control activities, but ultimately it is the actual policies and formal responses that will carry the most weight.

When it comes to crises, actions speak louder than words.

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