News & Opinion on how countries are aiming to utilise 'Soft Power', 'Public Diplomacy' and 'Nation Branding'
At the beginning of June, for over three weeks, all eyes will be on Ukraine and Poland as they play host to Europe’s most prestigious international football tournament: the European Football Championships. For Ukraine in particular it was the country’s chance to shine, to forge closer links with the West, increase its prestige and international standing and complete its transformation from a post-Soviet state into a modern, globalised one. Yet, what was meant to herald a new chapter in the country’s history, a celebration of its political and cultural heritage, has turned sour and is slowly becoming a ‘public diplomacy’ and ‘soft power’ disaster.
Recent history has been littered with examples of countries exploiting the ‘soft power’ and ‘public diplomacy’ potential of sport and mega-events as they have become an effective communication technique. Sport, itself, is a powerful tool; a language that doesn’t vary from society to society and as such sporting mega-events have become unique opportunities for host nations to reach out to global audiences. Germany’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2006 was an unqualified success and countries have sought to follow their example.
Yet, just as hosting a mega-event can provide a positive dividend to the host’s international image, without a properly formulated communication strategy it is a high-risk strategy and one that could ultimately backfire on the host nation. The natural spill-over effect that these events cause put the country firmly in the spotlight, but regarding Ukraine this spotlight has shown in some shady places, tarnishing the reputation of the country. In particular, cases of political prisoners, corruption, poor planning and racism are threatening to derail the country’s attempt to communicate positively.
The awarding of Euro 2012 to Ukraine was done primarily in the hope that diplomatically it would ‘glue’ the country closer to Europe, furthering integration and accelerating its post-Soviet modernisation which had stagnated. Hosting the European Championships would confirm this transformation. At the time it was awarded the West was captivated by the country who had recently elected a pro-Western government. The country harboured hopes of joining the European Union.
But today the political situation within the country is rather different. The Tymoshenko case has brought into the spotlight illegitimate (in the eyes of the West) political values and ideals and hasn’t actually achieved the same level of democracy as had been thought. Western countries decried the imprisonment and rough treatment Tymoshenko who claims that it is purely an act of political revenge, an example of political thuggery, undertaken by the current Ukrainian President Yanukovych. Already it has brought about a worldwide political backlash as world leaders have threatened to boycott the event and has generated a mass of negative publicity, which is only harming the country’s reputation.
The country saw it as their chance to show off; a communicative opportunity to impress the continent. It was after all the first ever football mega-event that had come to this part of Europe. The President, Viktor Yanukovych, took on a personal interest and has subsequently splurged billions on enhancing the appeal of the country. Despite the country being in dire economic straits, the Economist has recently estimated that around $13 billion has been spent on stadiums, airports, trains, hotels and other Euro 2012 related projects. The amount is rather significant as Britain have themselves spent around £16 billion on their hosting of the Olympics later that summer. Ukraine, who jointly co-host the tournament have nearly matched the amount spent by a more prosperous European country who, arguably, are hosting a more high-profile tournament.
Despite the large amounts spent on the tournament, there has been overspending and a lack of planning as logistics behind the competition have been tarnished by corruption allegations. It had been hoped that the building of a modern transport infrastructure would raise the profile of the nation and bring increased tourist flow to the country, but corruption has taken over the preparations and planning for a tournament spread over a country as wide as Ukraine has caused numerous problems. A recent promotional video commissioned by the government caused negative press as the 30-second video caused great embarrassment when it emerged that a group of Ukrainians learning English made a grammatical error. This was compounded when of the 33,000 state employees who took a three-month intensive course in English, the 15,000 police officers scored the worst. While identified in advance as it allows the hosts to ‘iron’ out any difficulties, this negative PR does not bode well.
UEFA has had to invest 500 million euros in both Ukraine and Poland due to a lack of experience and the country remains in dire economic straits. Corruption has been rife and both the Ukrainian opposition and UEFA have criticised the country on this aspect. The government has been accused of embezzling up to $3.7 billion by subcontracting friendly firms at inflated prices, while in March 2012 it was announced that there were 120 criminal cases related to Euro 2012 construction projects. UEFA has also criticised over-priced hotels run by alleged “bandits and crooks” and although it has been announced that only 5,000 tickets remain unsold, instead of being a summer of celebration many visitors are staying away due to fears over corruption and rip-off prices.
The latest blow to the image of the country has come over the past few weeks and hit a new height when the former England captain Sol Campbell urged fans not to make the trip, not over high prices but racism. Interviewed on a BBC Panorama programme about racism within the country he publicly advised fans to “stay at home, watch it on TV. Don’t even risk [going]…because you could end up coming back in a coffin”. Some have suggested that the racism allegations have been overstated and sensationalised; that racism in sport is not predominantly a problem in Eastern Europe, but regardless the images shown in the Panorama programme of racist chants and Asian fans being beaten up will have been transmitted to a worldwide audience and cause a flood of negative publicity.
A communicative disaster?
From a communication perspective, the European Championship was a great opportunity for Ukraine, but is slowly threatening to become a ‘public diplomacy’ and ‘soft power’ disaster; another missed opportunity for the country. While the country has spent billions on infrastructure changes it has failed to sell itself adequately and properly utilise Euro 2012 as an effective communication strategy. If the country does not act on the negative allegations it may never recover; it certainly will find it difficult to. Reputation in world politics today is vitally important and will impact how countries perceive and communicate with others on an international stage. Rebranding a nation, overhauling negative ones is an extremely difficult, long-run and potentially thankless task.
According to Professor Andrew Wilson, of Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, journalists are queuing up “to write the same story of ‘Poland good, Ukraine bad'”. While the country has slowly but surely starting to attempt to change perceptions it could be too little, too late as no matter how much money has been spent, the images conjured up by human rights abuses as Tymoshenko, corruption and now racism will tarnish the reputation of Ukraine and ultimately diminish their ‘soft power’.
Euro 2012 is highlighting everything that is wrong with Ukraine and instead of “discovering the potential and beauty of Ukraine, visitors and the public abroad are now reminded of the ugliness that exists in politics and business”. Instead of thinking of Ukraine as a forward-looking, inclusive country and promoting the decent, upstanding values of the country, its rich political and cultural history, the country is being recognised as a backward, racist and corrupt state.
Ultimately, from a PR, communication and ‘public diplomacy’ sense the tournament for Ukraine is on the road to becoming a disaster.