This is a guest blog post by Andrey Barannikov, CEO of SPN Ogilvy, Chairman of Russian PR Association AKOS and ICCO Board Member
There are topics that one can discuss forever. For Russian PR practitioners, one of those is the country's image in the world. This issue has been regularly raised on key national industry events over the past few years, so you would think that the topic is rather outworn. However, recent news on the business, political and other arenas keep bringing the issue up, urging us to look at it again and again, each time from a new angle.
On April 24th, SPN Ogilvy, in partnership with the leading global PR industry expert The Holmes Report, held a panel discussion in Moscow dedicated to the brand of Russia and the way corporate and product brands affect it. The panel became The Holmes Report's debute event in Russia. As Arun Sudhaman, partner and Managing Editor of The Holmes Report, noted, the Russian PR industry shows an impressive development dynamics, both in terms of quantitative and qualitative indicators, and the appearance of The Holmes Report in Russia is, in a way, an acknowledgement to this.
The panel called “The Matryoshka Effect: Russia’s face within and without" featured several senior Russian PR practitioners representing such companies as VTB Capital, Shell, MegaFon, UTAir and a government agency Rossotrudnichestvo dealing with foreign affairs. I will try to give you an overview of what was discussed.
A national brand: why does it matter?
The presence of Russia at the international scene, as our colleague Arun highlighted, is getting more and more noticeable, in terms of Russian companies entering the global market, and also in the light of the political transformations and upcoming sports events. That's why the question of the national image obtains a particular importance, taking into consideration the growing globalization – after all, it affects the success of domestic business in the world and the ability of a country to attract foreign investments.
According to the latest international research Arun cited (Futurebrand etc.), the reputation of Russia as an investment destination is quite strong – it ranks fourth among the European countries – however, the number of projects is decreasing, and the brand of Russia is in the state of decline (alongside with Pakistan and Paraguay – not the most desirable company for a country aiming to boost its reputation before investors…). The coming Universiade, the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the 2018 FIFA World Cup are opening ample opportunities to change this situation. Referring to the London Olympics, Arun fairly mentioned that such events help to change not only the country's image abroad, but also the way citizens perceive their country, business, culture and themselves, which is probably even more important.
Business takes the lead
"Business is an avant-guard of the international dialogue, it is a communicator and mediator. The way it looks and behaves shapes an idea of the possibility to work with this country". This very important point was made by Olga Podoynitsyna, Managing Director and Head of Global Corporate Relations and Marketing of VTB Capital, a company for which improving the perception of Russia internationally is an organic part of their communications with the global media.
Leading international media outlets are the key “opinion leaders” shaping investors’ attitude to the country. However, as Olga sadly concluded, today the international media are still influenced by the same stereotypes as 5-6 years ago: in their eyes, Russia is still made up of matryoshkas (nest dolls), vodka, caviar, the Kalashnikov machine gun and girls. However, the surveys show that the image of Russia also has a few characteristics investors consider attractive – those are connected not only with its economic potential, but also with intellectual and cultural resources. These are the things Russians should communicate more actively to key global decision-makers.
It’s not that simple!
However, a country’s image is a complex phenomenon. Petr Lidov, PR director of MegaFon (one of Russia's top 3 mobile operators), argued that it would be wrong talking about the creation of Russia's image as a single entity, which would be the same all over the world and for everybody. Indeed, the perception of Russia differs from country to country, depending on the history of our relationships and on the national values. If the West, where democracy stands above all, treats Russia cautiously, then in China, where power is revered, our country is deeply respected. The sector discussed also matters: e.g., Russian oil, gaz and banking industries look very attractive to foreign investors, while no one can call Russia a much-desired tourist destination (although perhaps the potential here lies within positioning it as an extreme travel experience?..). Finally, the country's geopolitical image and its leaders' images also form the context of its perception. You know who we mean.
Language is power
The discussion on Russia's image would be incomplete without representatives of government agencies. Oleg Belyakov, Adviser of the Head of Rossotrudnichestvo, recalled a statement of the Ambassador of Switzerland in Russia: "I have never been to any other country the reputation of which would differ so much from the reality". Unfortunately, all the efforts to improve the country's image undertaken on the federal level so far have not been able to improve the prevalent negative attitude towards it. One of the major problems is that there is no one "in charge" of it – however, the country’s image is indeed everybody's concern. In this respect, the government, the business and the PR community should be playing as one team.
Another problem is that, sadly, we are often not aware of our own resources and the new generation doesn't feel the connection to the cultural and historical heritage of the country. It is important to show that this heritage is not gone – it is there and present, and it is one of the strongest sides of Russia, in particular, in the eyes of the global community. A powerful resource, the potential of which is underestimated, is also the Russian language, which does not only helps spreading the culture of Russia, but also affects its economic positions in the world: you do business with those who speak the language you know. My father used to be a respected indologist, and I still remember that magazine published in Russian in India – a simple and cheap tool, but what an effect! So there is a huge opportunity for the government and business cooperation lying in the development of Russian language and culture centers across the world.
To succeed on the international scene, domestic companies must remember that Russia is part of the global world. Igor Ignatiev, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Shell Russia, felt the importance of the global vision when he worked at the Sakhalin 2 project, where the tiniest event on the oil platform would instantly become a global news. The company's task was to educate the employees that the way each of them acts forms the perception of Russia as a global energy leader.
According to Lev Koshlyakov, Deputy CEO for Corporate Communications of UTair (one of the leading Russian airlines working internationally), when entering the international scene it is important to think, first of all, what values we bring there. For his business, the expert defined the following combination: "international expertise of a company with a Russian experience".
A riddle wrapped in a mystery
It would of course be impossible to elaborate a strategy of building the country's image within 2 hours. However, the experts and the audience agreed that for the country in general and for every Russian company it is crucially important to:
- Think in a global perspective;
- Tell the truth about the problems and, at the same time, take measures to solve them;
- Appreciate and leverage the resources available;
- Start from small details, such as putting signs in English in the underground or ensuring adequate behaviour of Russian tourists abroad, for a start.
And, going back to the matryoshka metaphor, perhaps the most elegant way to close the discussion on this rich subject was sir Winston Churchill’s saying quoted by Lev Koshlyakov: "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". May be, after all, that’s what Russia's brand is?..