What is Wrong with Latvian Public Diplomacy: 3 Challenges to Face

Public diplomacy, according to Nicholas Cull, is “an international actor’s attempt to manage the international environment through engagement with a foreign public.”[1] In other words, this term enshrines various activities that are directed at creation of certain – obviously, favorable – image of the country projected abroad. It is about delivering a message to a foreign audience by emphasizing the strengths of a state or even a nation.

Despite being used as a euphemism for propaganda during the Cold War era, the two are not equal. Propaganda is always aggressive, it operates on the simplistic “we are good and they are bad” ideology, which is readily consumed by the unprepared public as does not require much intellectual effort. It is true though that both PD and propaganda share an aim: the power over opinion. However, while the former offers, the latter – imposes. In case of propaganda, the public is only the recipient, the “consumer” of the message delivered. Public diplomacy, as the term implies, engages in a two-way dialogue. There are two types of public diplomacy: governmental, the one directed at the public and non-governmental, the one exercised by it through non-state actors such as NGOs, international organizations and even private individuals. Yet public remains key.

The author of this article considers there are three basic problems with Latvian public diplomacy: structural issues on a governmental level, lack of actors on a non-governmental level and image problems.

To start with, it is a serious shortcoming that the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have a separate department dealing with public diplomacy. While there are departments in charge of public relations and the media, it is important to recognize that they fulfill informational rather than cultural or promotional functions. This indicates that the government is not yet ready to engage in a continuous PD effort, which would not be a set of sporadic activities but an elaborate and well-thought-out strategy. This, in turn, shows that the power of image is not fully acknowledged.

The MFA-controlled Latvian Institute, whose main task is in fact to popularize Latvia in the world, does not manage to fulfill the task either. The social campaign #gributeviatpakaļ (#wantyouback in English) was uncussessful primarily because it has chosen a wrong recepient: addressing the Latvians, even though living abroad, instead of foreigners. It is the addresse of the message who forms the content; in this case, the wrong choice of audience resulted in formation of content unsuitable to attract foreign public.

This case shows the main problem of the Latvian PD as a whole: activities are directed internally rather than externally; instead of Latvians, primarily foreign audiences should be targeted.

From a non-state perspective, another disappointing tendency can be noted: there are very few public diplomacy actors in Latvia at all. There is a lack of powerful NGOs or international organizations with local roots, the activities of which would attract attention to their country of origin. Thus, Latvian public diplomacy misses its constitutive element – being public. The activities directed at improving the perception of Latvia on international arena are largely state-initiated, state-financed and state-controlled. Thus, the agenda is dictated and politically driven, leaving no room for independent action.

With problems on both levels, the desired two-way dialogue cannot be established. Effective public diplomacy always starts with listening. There is hardly an attempt on the part of the state to examine opinions of average people in Latvia - to find out what they love and value about their own country; and abroad  – to learn how they see Latvia at the moment and, on the basis of that perception, construct a PD strategy that would support or alter this image.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that there are no efforts at all: there are activities falling in the realm of PD. Yet, public diplomacy is always about telling a story, and the story that Latvia is trying to tell is not attractive. For example, the public diplomacy program of the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the EU in Austria was concluded by an exhibition called “Latvia’s Tragedy. 1941.”[2] While it is important respect the past, an image of a victim is certainly a wrong choice of narrative. Public diplomacy must provoke interest – not pity. Formation of an image is a delicate process: once an image is formed, associations become so strong that it would be very hard, if possible at all, to change it. If Latvia chooses the role of a victim to portray itself on international political stage, it has to be ready to continue to be associated with this image for decades to come and face the consequences of this choice. The harsh truth is that nobody likes victims - success stories are much more appealing.

Having outlined three main problems, crucial question appears: what to do?

First, policymakers should realize that, without an effective PD strategy, Latvia will keep being confused with Lithuania by foreigners because of similar names. One should not overestimate public diplomacy: it is an instrument of soft power, which in no way substitutes technological progress, economic growth and political influence. Yet, it is capable of improving country’s reputation, which would result in the increase of credibility both on the part of foreign governments and foreign public in general.

Such shift in perception should be supported with substantial action. PD should become one of the priorities of the Latvian Foreign Ministry in order to ensure coordinated and centralized action on the part of the government. Moreover, there should be at least one separate institution dealing primarily with PD: it could be the Latvian Institute or a completely new agency.

Most importantly, Latvia should find its points of emphasis. Our closest Northern neighbor – Estonia – realized its potential earlier and managed to build a truly powerful PD strategy on it. Since 1991, Estonia managed to find its niche, which is IT, computer technologies and Internet. They have translated these strengths into a brand E-stonia and improved their image internationally. Estonians understand the power of listening before telling: social media are being used there to re-shape and adjust PD in accordance with people’s opinions and beliefs. A bright example: in 2016, Peter Kentie, the Dutch marketing and branding specialist, has proposed a new campaign for Estonia: “Just estonishing.”[3] Ambitious? Certainly – but effective.

The task is to get inspired from this success story. Latvia is a singing nation – make it a brand. It is the second greenest country in the world, which could form a truly successful campaign: green is a trend. Our Black Balsam or grey peas are perfect for gastrodiplomacy.

Fortunately, the course of history has given us one more chance: in 2018, Latvia is turning 100, which is a remarkable opportunity to design an effective PD strategy, reflecting our values, traditions, culture – the things we cherish.

They are estonishing? Well, we are lattractive. As simple as that.

[1] Cull, Nicholas J. Public Diplomacy: Lessons from the Past (Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2009), p.12.

[2] 27 June 2015. The opening of the exhibition - “Latvia’s Tragedy. 1941”- and a symposium conclude the public diplomacy programme of the Latvian Presidency in Austria. Available at: http://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/news/latest-news/47215-the-opening-of-the-exhibition-latvia-s-tragedy-1941-and-a-symposium-conclude-the-public-diplomacy-programme-of-the-latvian-presidency-in-austria. Last visited: 20 July 2017.

[3] Dutch marketing ace proposes ambitious nation branding for Estonia. Estonian World. Available at:

http://estonianworld.com/business/dutch-branding-ace-proposes-ambitious-nation-branding-estonia/.  Last visited: 20 July 2017.

Publicēts 24. jūlijs, 2017

Autors Anastasija Aleksejeva