In the consciousness of European masses the word Romania is often a conjoined twin with communism, Dracula or Ceausescu, and maybe a few other names belonging to sport or culture, but only for the ones in-the-know. A few days ago, a young Australian studying in London admitted he could not point Romania on the world’s map. A few Oxford students seemed somehow familiar with the notion, localizing it in Europe, but the light in their eyes only sparkled intelligently on hearing Transilvania, written with a Y in their acceptable ignorance.
Romania’s image has got over the 0 kilometre, but only on the reverse. The British (and international) mass-media push, generally but not entirely, the minuses’ treadle, because good news is not news. Until not long ago, the Romanian authorities did not join the eternal race for balancing the image of the country that, theoretically, they work for. Now and then, they wave a peace scarf from their stalls, or whisper a treat once in a presidential mandate. But they fail to defend or represent the Romanians from the Diaspora, who often goes to work with their glances sown to the ground while the person sitting next to them in the tube is reading a Right-handed newspaper literature about the Romanian criminals who came to be pour the last drop over the British immigration patience.
The British PR specialists rightly state that Romania needs a serious introspection, which should result in a clear, strong and exciting image. This week, a few of them tried to define Romania’s image in a European consciousness context and to offer a few tips in the country’s branding CPR out of the chocking provoked by lack of PR expertise or by the negative media avalanche offered to the British public as a substitute for circus, beside the elective bread, anticipated increasingly by the Tories.
The Foundation Id? for Romania has brought to London’s Westminster University three writers, all professors, out of which two are PR specialists and one is a former BBC reporter. Vessa Golsworthy left communist Serbia in 1986 to come to a Thatcherite Great Britain. She worked with the BBC World Service and now teaches at Kingston University. She published Inventing Ruritania and Cernobyl Strawberries. Simon Goldsworthy teaches PR at Westminster University and co-signs with Trevor Morris – the third guest – the book entitled Public Relations for the New Europe.
Here are extracts from their speeches about the image of and imaging Romania in European context.
Lack of meaningful image
Trevor Morris (PR specialist): “I’ve asked a few British what they knew about Romania. You would be surprised to hear that number one on the list was Dracula/Transilvania. Some of them were uncertain if that was in Romania. A few more educated friends mentioned Olivia Manning with her books The Balkan Trilogy. I know that some Romanians don’t like those books. Personally, I’m a huge fan and I have to say they made me want to go to Romania. Some people recalled the Romanian football team from the 1998 World Cup, when they all dyed their hair. Three contradictory, certainly very different, images of Romania, but one has to say: not very deep images.
Overshadowed by its shadow
Simon Goldsworthy, an expert in Public Relations, visited Romania extensively. Together with Trevor Morris, he co-signs the book entitled Public Relations for the New Europe.
“I visited Romania many times: the first time – as a school boy, with a party of teenagers crossing the country on our way to the former Soviet Union. It was the prospect of visiting the former USSR that actually attracted people in this trip. But as our bus drove through the picturesque villages of Transilvania, and this fairy tale tows and lurched through the spectacular scenery of the Carpathian Mountains, it was actually Romania and the Romanian people that actually fascinated me and my companions. So we asked our English organizers why Romania hasn’t been featured more heavily when they first promoted this tour. And they responded – and I think they were right to do so – that very few people would have signed up for a tour of this kind to what was a little known country.
‘National image is a movable feast’
Among our students here are an increasing number of talented Romanians, testimony, if you’d like, for the increasing interesting in Public Relations in their homeland. When Trevor and I published this book last month or so (…), we insisted that we had the Romanian flag on the cover. I can’t claim to be an expert on Romania. There’s plenty I don’t know. But not knowing too much can sometimes be an asset when it comes to responding to PR challenges. Experts are often too close to the challenge. They cannot see the strengths and weaknesses that others on the outside see them. They lose perspective. Perhaps the best PR advice comes from people that know rather more than their target audience, but less than those true experts. And I thing that in Romania’s case, external PR people, working beside Romanians, should ideally be able to bring a fresh understanding of the PR challenges that face Romania and help Romania to relate to external audiences. This focus on the country’s images is very topocal, a reminder that countries, like companies, have to compete and that the image they project is vital part of the process. National image is a movable feast.
Romania’s emotional level remains massively unexplored
If we’re looking at the perceptions of countries, let’s look first at the brand or emotional level. In Romania’s case, a special place must be given to the country’s natural beauty and the built environment: from the painted monasteries of the Bucovina, to the time capsules cities of Transylvania and Banat, from the wild life of the Danube Delta, to the unique urban character of Bucharest. These are more feature of Romania maybe better known than before in London and elsewhere. But they remain massively under-explored. If one looks around the world, there is a precedent for iconic celebrity buildings serving as effecting national brand ambassadors. Something to bear in mind.
Find the country an up-to-date identity
The brand also depends on how outside the country is perceived in terms of its popular and high culture: ranging from films, TV, sport, and music to history, art and literature, even popular local products, and including not just elevated cultural achievements, but also popular celebrities. Few countries can score in all these grounds. Romanian theatres and films might have enjoyed births of success, which should not be ignored. Romania can hardly rest on its laurels. It needs to do more to reach higher markets. No one can doubt Romania’s historic contribution as an island of Latin civilization to high culture: Ionescu, Eliade, Tzara, Brancusi… The list goes on. But these are not enough to be brand ambassadors in today’s world. Romanian products need to make their mark. Sadly, there are very few truly prominent people identifiable as Romanians and with whom outsiders can identify. People like to give faces to countries.
Looking into local foreign mirrors
The cultural image makers may not necessarily be Romanian. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy may not be to every Romanian’s taste, but it had a huge impact on how people in the outside word that had come to see Romania and has encouraged people to take interest in the country. The book of the ill-informed writer, Bram Stocker, has had an impact on people’s perceptions on Romania. And to give another example, long ago, before the WWII, the Romanian government subsidized a book on the country by a well-known British writer. I was thinking that maybe today Romania should take the exciting step of appointing a series of foreign writers in residence.
Image branding is like martial arts
This brand image of a country takes time to amass. And it often raises above short-term political preconceptions and engages audiences at an emotional level. Romania may be currently short of some of the raw materials needed to improve its national brand image and internationally. But not only are the Romanian natural beauties and architecture priceless, and its history rich, but the very fact that Romania is little known and less understood can become an asset. In a way, it’s rather like a marshal art in which one’s weakness can become its strength. (…) My personal feeling is that Romania should play into a mild sense of mystery. Being exotic is better than being boring.
‘How a country reacts to a crisis says a lot about it’
Public relations could help tell the story. And Romania has a fascinating story to tell. Romanians need to keep producing new exciting chapters. Any PR campaign, however ingenious, needs raw material: interesting high quality Romanian products to describe, inviting Romanian investment opportunities, enthusing Romanian holiday destinations. And, at a certain time, one mustn’t forget that they need to lay any anxieties that people may have about the country.
Brand image of this type evolves slowly. It’s not about quick fixes. It is worthy of seriously, long term investment, because it enables the country to get over the heads of its critics and reach out directly to overseas populations. It’s also like a reserve of cash for a rainy day. If and when Romania encounters difficulties or faces crisis – every country does from time to time – it can cushion the blows at least. After all, how a country reacts to a crisis says a lot about it. A well-handed crisis may actually improve the image of a country; a badly-handled one may damage it.
Consider the public and the relationship with it
In contrast to the emotionally-based brand, the concept of national reputation may seem more rational. It’s about what you do, say or what others say about you. This involves how countries promote, explain or justify the political and economic actions that they may take.
In theory, this is what determines the responses of governments, international organisations and business, including inward investment. This is also what requires long term determined public relationship building. In practice, this process of brand building and national reputation are not quite as distinct as one might think, because no one is entirely rational. The emotional response that I described earlier affects everyone. And governments have forever to consider public opinion as they relate to other countries, and businesses have to consider the responses of their stake holders.
Of course, many of the key tasks of Romania are for Romanians to accomplish, and no one doubts the ingenuity of the Romanian people. High powerful external expertise can make a powerful contribution working in concert with Romanian talent. The best resort for cool-headed, detached advice. It can relate immediately to extern audiences and the media simply because it is more familiar with them. It can contribute with experience for older PR market places. That must be easier than reinventing the wheel.
What do you know about Romania when you don’t know anything about Romania?
Vessa Godsworthy has been dealing with the ways of imagining Romania, her specialty for the past 20 years. She was working for the BBC at the time when Ceausescu’s rule came to an end, and she happed to be in Serbia at that time.
“We took the first train from the Danube station in Belgrade, a completely empty, overheated train which went east, towards Timisoara. The only few passengers got off on the Serbian side of the Banat. No one was going to Romania other than journalists at that stage. What I realized at that point was that, although I grew up literally within 200km from Romania, I knew nothing about it. It was a voyage of discovery and I fell in love with Romania at first sight. Those who loved Romania in December 1989 love it at any time, because that was really the pits, the frozen pits. I also realized that I was travelling to Romania with two English books. It was interesting that us, in the Balkans, knew so little about each other and wrote so little about each other, that we used English books to study each other. Romanian poetry was translated in Serbian. But if you wanted to get a sense of the world, you had to study it relatively more detail. So I became fascinated with these invented countries of the Balkans. Hence my book came to be called Inventing Ruritania. Ruritania is one of those imaginary lands created by Anthony Hope in the 1890’s, when it was very difficult to tell one Balkan country from another. (…) I started studying not history, but imaginary lands. And I started using those imaginary lands (…) to actually think of this problem: what do you know about the Balkans when you don’t know anything about it? By analogy, what do you know about Romania when you don’t know anything about Romania?”
The need to deny the Balkan-ness
“Romania, very often in English books, is referred to as the least known of the Balkan countries. But Romania doesn’t really think of itself as Balkan). And with some right: I often point to an article by Elena Zamfirescu – who was a deputy foreign minister at the time of the wars in former Yugoslavia – this lovely article called Flight From the Balkans, where she argued that Romania was Central European, and even Western, because of the Latin language and Latin influences. So, you can think about symbolic geography and mind maps. Where exactly does Romania belong in terms of its culture, in terms of its identity? If you have the need to deny your Balkan-ness, than perhaps you’re ipso factum Balkan, since England, in many ways, does not have that need.”
The last vampiric homeland
“I gave a lot of lectures about Dracula and I wrote about him. You can’t talk about the image of Romania without mentioning Dracula. I think it is something Romania actually needs to exploit. Dracula is one of the most powerful brands of the world’s entertainment industry. A hugely valuable brand. So if you can’t beat it, join it. But join it on your own terms. That means don’t change the country in order to suit Dracula industry, but if the people come to your country to see Dracula’s castle, they will be surprised to see one of the most beautiful and Western castles.
You should remember that there is a kind of ambivalence about Dracula, even in its very creation. First vampires in British fiction came from Serbia, in the 1850s. Some of the vampires in English literature were Austrian. The vampires migrated eastwards. As Europe comes to be discovered further and further, Romania at the edge becomes the last vampiric homeland. Bram Stocker chose the very edge of the European continent, creating the most powerful brand, without actually ever setting foot in the Balkans.”
The real place does not matter
“Transilvania sounds like an unreal place. When I was publishing Inventing Ruritania, the marketing department at Yale University Press said ‘Please, please call it inventing Transylvania!”. How could I call it Inventing Transylvania, because Transilvania is a real place? And they just stopped. There was a group of people in the room, mostly Americans, who, at that stage, had no idea that Transilvania is a real existing place. In a sense, it does not matter. It is a real place, but it does not matter. My hobby is producing photographs of Romania, showing them and asking: guess which country this is?”
Zagreb, Romania’s capital
“One of the beauties of imagining Romania is that you endlessly rediscover it. What I said about Transilvania goes for Romania as a whole. It’s almost chameleonic in the international imagination. No one knows actually how it looks like. It can be anything. It was used as Kazakhstan in Borat, it was used as Virginia (American state) in Cold Mountain – a Civil War epic. On the other hand, when Olivia Manning Balkan’s trilogy was filmed by the BBC, because this was in the time of Ceausescu, they used Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, as Bucharest. The BBC imagined that any little quaint Austro-Hungarian provincial town would do. I’ve never seen anything as ridiculous as that until I saw Casino Royal, which was supposed to be set in Montenegro, but was filmed in the Czech Republic.
Exoticism at Europe’s door step
Romania is endlessly re-imagined and reinvented. A place which is endlessly talked about to be at the back of beyond, whatever the back of beyond means. I have this excerpt saying: “Because of the country’s obscure geographical position in Europe’s back of beyond, events in Romania, no matter how terrible, have always assumed a remote side-show quality to people in the West”. I actually think that you should make virtue of that side-show quality. That in fact, no matter how often you invite people to reinvent and re-imagine Romania, you could always use the ‘Discover Romania’ as your motto, because you’re endlessly discovering and rediscovering it. It is a country which is exotic, yet on your door step, which is an invitation that can be endlessly repeated because it somehow manages to remain unknown. I don’t know why.
Tourism vs. Politics
And for tourism, in the era of globalization, that marketing of difference or particularity of ethnic difference creates enormous value. It seems to me that when you’re branding a nation, because the country is not a corporation, there is always a set of competing interests. So what suits tourism, the exotic difference, does not suit politicians. Because politicians would like to say is that Romania is exactly the same as any other European country. I think this kind of tension represents a challenge as well.
Drop the folklore. Where is today’s Romania?
Toby Moore, Public Relation expert from Monument PR, gave us his opinion on the folkloric show the Romanian embassy has organised for celebrating the 1st of December in London.
“Judging by the festive celebration that the ambassador organised for Romania’s National Day, I would like to offer my feedback. We do not have national folkloric costumes. He invited business persons, diplomats and ‚all the usual suspects’ to the Royal Automobile Club for a folkloric event. I wish I saw the Embassy. I wonder why he chose that location. The image such a performance conveys is of a backward country, one that lacks present and freshness. What does that say about Romania’s present? How is it representative? I believe he should have organised something much bolder. I would have loved to see a Romanian rock concert. Music is the youth’s currency and it transgresses all barriers. Even something edgier would have worked. People would have said wow! and would have remembered it. I would drop all the folklore initiatives from now on. We know that already. Bring us today’s Romania. And involve the Romanian youth from the Diaspora.
Article by Crina Boros, first published here.