The eyes of much of the Middle East and African regions will be on the US
presidential and congressional elections in 2012 as Democrats and Republicans
fight it out for control of the White House, the House of Representatives and
The ballots could have key implications not just for US
domestic issues, but also US policy across the Middle East and Africa, including
This year’s elections will be the most expensive in history,
with some anticipating that Barack Obama might even become the first candidate
ever to raise more than a billion dollars for a presidential campaign. Overall,
the Center for Responsive Politics estimates the total cost of the 2012
presidential and congressional elections could climb as high as a mammoth $6
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 it has become for many of
these same people to work behind the scenes in other countries. American
political consultants have already worked in more than half of the countries in
the world to support campaigns and elections.
This year, that number will
probably grow as more uncharted international territory is reached out
In the first half of 2012, for instance, key potential targets for
new “work” in the Middle East and Africa will include the Egyptian parliamentary
and presidential elections in January and March; Senegal’s presidential election
in February; Kuwait’s parliamentary elections in February; Yemen’s presidential
election in February; the Iranian parliamentary elections in March; the Mali
presidential election in May; Palestinian parliamentary and presidential
elections in May; and the parliamentary elections in Burkino Faso in
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 “globalization” of the
political communications industry. Or, in the eyes of critics, the international
triumph of spin over substance, which has tended to promote more homogeneous
campaigns with a repetitive, common political language.
As James Harding,
the editor of The Times of London, documents in Alpha Dogs, the origins of this
phenomenon lies in the 1970s, when US political consultants (at the vanguard of
which was the Sawyer Miller agency) began exporting US political technologies
and tactics into Latin America and, then, ultimately across the globe.
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 realization that, in an overcrowded
global information marketplace, countries and political leaders are, in effect,
competing for the attention of investors, tourists, supranational organizations,
non-government organizations, regulators, media and consumers.
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
among 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.
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.
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
recognized that a strong country reputation for quality would be hugely
beneficial if the nation was to compete in global export markets.
the massive untapped potential of the country’s natural environment was
recognized, 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
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 center 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.
The writer is an
associate partner at ReputationInc.
He was formerly a special adviser in
the government of UK prime minister Tony Blair.