A call for help! Enhancing Britain’s Reputation: the perception of country identity in social media. What would YOU say?

In a few weeks in London (February 26-27) I will be participating at a conference, organized by TMS, the Management School London, dedicated to Enhancing Britain’s Reputation Summit A4 brochure.pdf  Specifically I am expected to present for 20’ on the topic: the perception of country identity in social media …

This, in the context of a panel moderated by Jon White where Adam Bolton from Sky News will be talking about Electronic Media and Guy Black from the Telegraph, Times and Economist will be speaking about Print Media.

To be absolutely honest, my mind is now full of tidbits of semi ideas, but I have yet to formulate a sensible, rational and stimulating scrapbook of arguments.

So, I am taking the liberty of asking each of you to contribute with remarks, ideas, examples, experiences, arguments which you believe might help me, possibly along the following guidelines:

° being in the context of a panel in which others will have touched on the electronic and print, I will want to differentiate my remarks by underlining the specificities of social media;

°being in the context of a summit dedicated to ‘enhancing Britain’s reputation’, I will want to touch on the term ‘enhancing’ (can and, if so, how does one enhance anything in social media?) and on ‘Britain’s reputation’ (you will have noticed that I insisted that my specific remarks were under a title which carries ‘perception of country identity’…rather than ‘reputation’, and that in tislef will need some explaining..);

°finally, in order not to excessively abuse of the time of conference participants, I will want to dwell on topics which will allow them to ‘bring home’ something of value and avoid saying the obvious (but what is obvious in this realm?).

Of course I am ready to abandon these guidelines if you believe they are lousy and can offer other and better ways of approaching the theme.

To some, it may seem obscene for me to be so blunt and to profit from your suggestions and criticisms (disclosure: I have accepted to participate on a volunteer basis, although, being a speaker, I will not be asked to pay the hefty participation fee…) , but I have also been led to believe that we are all in the same boat and that we should be, can be and are willing to cooperate.

Certainly, I will post my remarks and acknowledge all the contributions I will have received.

I do have some precedents in collaborative work: about six years ago, on the web site of my professional association (www.ferpi.it), I began to write my book (governare le relazioni- managing relationships) by posting, week after week, chapter by chapter featuring a small software which allowed visitors to comment, correct, add and criticise. This went on for about ten consecutive weeks and I received (in Italy! And six years ago!) more than 100 contributions from professionals, educators, students and others, which substantially modified the original draft. The final published version of the book disappeared from bookstores in the following three months. A year later, I began in the same location a second collaborative work by posting, week after week, alphabetical letter by letter, an Italian dictionary of English public relations and communication related terms which also enormously benefited from visitor cooperation. The finished dictionary was at that point added to a second and amply revisited edition of the first book which also disappeared from book stands three or four months after appearance (second disclosure: all copyright benefits from both books went directly from the publisher to the always empty coffins of my professional association).

Having said all this…..say that you were asked to express your ideas and comments on the topic I am to prepare for the London Summit.

How would you approach it?

What would you say?

I will be grateful for your input!

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3 Replies to “A call for help! Enhancing Britain’s Reputation: the perception of country identity in social media. What would YOU say?

  1. Catherine, you are my saviour!!! What brilliant remarks…
    I’ll ponder and post an outline in a few days. Certainly, I will ask for your name to at least accompany mine in the final version of the presentation and I will copy, copy, copy…
    I also have an idea on how to close the presentation but I am eagerly waiting for a diplomatic ok to proceed….mystery, mystery…

  2. Dear Toni

    I don’t know if any of the following will be useful at all, but I hope at least, it will give some food for thought. A good starting point is to take a look at the impact that social media has had on the perception of the UK’s reputation abroad. Mainstream media reflects social and economic improvements in the UK over a period of years – sustained growth, low unemployment etc. But flick through the social media entries that have been made over the last two or three years (which I must confess I have had to do in relation to another project) and you will see quite a different picture to the one the current Labour government might hope to paint.

    The social media commentators/citizen journalists paint a picture of a downtrodden, angry and grumpy country, swamped by crime, beleaguered by a failing education system, sick at heart thanks to a national health service in terminal decline etc., etc.. Then switch to the feedback sections of mainstream media portals and monitor conversations/feedback from individuals and community contributors – the ‘Blogger on the Clapham Omnibus’ – and the negative perception continues, to the point you might start to wonder if anyone is actually left in Britain, given the number of entries that indicate an intention to shift countries, continents and lifestyles in order to escape the Blair and Brown double act.

    The impact on perception here is considerable for the following reasons:

    Mainstream media reach is generally confined to country borders. Although avid news consumers like myself will have feeds in from a variety of sources, traditional circulation ‘boundaries’ are still in place.

    Social media, on the other hand, is a far-reaching network. For example, traditional comms channels would never have facilitated a connection between us, that allows me to respond to your observations and those of your other readers. Perhaps I might have read a letter from you in a journal, or listened to you on a radio broadcast, but the opportunity for discussion, exchange of views and perceptions, would not have presented itself.

    Social media allows citizens and residents to paint an immediate picture of their circumstances. They can describe, photograph, vlog and talk directly and immediately about their situation and environment, so if it isn’t working for someone in Essex, I will hear about it in Auckland.

    Perceptions are altered because social media is regarded, certainly on comment and dialogue platforms as individual, genuine and honest comment – which I know is daft as it can be and is often completely made up – but the perception of those perceptions is taken as truth. And therein lies the rub and the really interesting thing about social media – and in part touches on your other post concerning social responsibility.

    Governments are going to have to do what they say ‘on their tin’. When UK governments open for business, they must realise that they have millions of new commentators and pundits to please. There is no getting away with it any more. Those who previously had no voice – other than a four-yearly trip to the ballot box – now have the ability to challenge the agenda on their podcast, YouTube video or blogpost. They can scoop themselves into the mainstream by using the dialogue tools offered by mainstream media – one comment gets voted up the foodchain and suddenly the BBC producers are asking you to participate in web documentaries.
    As entertainment content has been driven and created by users over the last two years, expect to see the same migration towards political co-creation of content. If life is hard for citizens, they will say so – on a global platform, not just down at the village hall to the local councillors. If they can’t get work, the streets are dirty or the city is not safe at night, we will learn about their misfortunes from afar – and resolve perhaps, not to do business there, go there on holiday or let our children sign up for the university, and armed with our perceptions – gleaned from ‘real people’, we will then tell others in our other community, considerably magnifying any resulting damage caused by such negative perceptions. So that’s the social media aspect I think.

    But I am afraid the whole notion of this conference set my blood boiling – so much so, I had to go for several walks over several days when I got the mailer through! Reputation is determined first by actions. I know that this will be at odds with Eric’s thoughtful comments and assertion that reputation starts with identity, but an identity is created by the vision, thoughts and actions of an entity. As an entity, I might see myself as a great soprano and lay claim to the reputation of an operatic diva – but if I sing like a crow, my actions will dictate how my identity is perceived. As an entity, my chosen identity must be truthful, sustainable and transparent. Whatever the shape of the community – be it country, business, corporation, charity – reputation will be determined by behaviour. If it behaves dishonestly or performs badly, then no amount of good communication, using any channel, will necessarily help or improve that reputation. The need for behavioural authenticity has been thrown into sharp relief as organisational and business models evolve, with transparency now a user requirement. Bad behaviour will be highlighted by the users, now enabled and plugged in to their own voice. Hell will have no fury like a ‘brand lover’ spurned. Britain is grumpy and disillusioned just now – listen to the voices out there. The ‘voices’ feel hard done by economically, scared about their futures thanks to rising interest rates and dodgy looking pension provisions and lied to by their politicians over a whole range of issues from Iraq to Blair’s departure – whether or not their perceptions are actually grounded in fact.

    Now I know you don’t want to state the obvious at any point, but I think you have to – simply because people are getting so carried away by social media. And the obvious is that by necessity, public relations practitioners are agents for change, advising on those areas where urgent improvements are necessary, or where reputation has been damaged by action. And they do this by virtue of the fact they are the organisational ‘listeners’ – tuned in to the impact communities. The organisation then needs to fix the problem and the process of communicating that repairs have been made can then begin.

    Perceptions created on social media mean that this process – which has always existed – is simply faster, so the practitioner must be expert at identifying issues and communities that require the organisation/government to change behaviour or explain the rationale behind the undesirable action.

    Ethical public relations practice will see practitioners increasingly acting as facilitators for change as users drive demand for behavioural change within the organisation/country to facilitate their group/community/individual needs.

    So that’s what I think anyway – my perception of this topic after wading through the blogosphere since its ‘birth’! I think it will be interesting after the event to see if the conference delivers any of the promised outcomes – maybe it could be done as a blog carnival and save all those harmful emissions!
    Have fun when you get there.

  3. Toni, this presentation will come from your core beliefs. Allow me to share with you some initial reactions that may fit into the eventual presentation that you deliver. Use of the loaded term “identity” is special because it implies that you are concerned more with the characteristics, or markers, of the country that establish a connection with the public. Reputation starts with identity. What social media can do for the identity of a country is to slowly build the frequency of interaction and discussion necessary to impact reputation. And using social media thoughtfully—the right tool for the right job–is really the key to nurturing what can be a tenuous start of any new communications venture. Governments must carve out and define their niche just like any new media venture. If government is going to embrace new media with intention of continuing to build and shape its identity it must do so in a way that harmonizes with larger initiatives relating to transparency and more rapid, open communication. Good luck Toni!

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