Skip to main content
the daily review, wednesday, aug. 19

Evan Potter

John Humphreys hardly ever stumbles over his words. But emotion intervened in May, 2009, when the BBC Radio host conveyed the "bizarre" news that the Queen's representative in Canada, Michaëlle Jean, had eaten the "raw" heart of a seal.

Although many Canadians approved of the Governor-General's actions, the gesture cost us dearly in Europe. It reinforced the stereotype of a backward, resource-dependent country, and quite possibly affected future business deals and vacation plans.

Incidents like this concern Evan Potter, a former communications strategist in the Department of Foreign Affairs who now teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa. At a time when nations are striving to brand themselves as leaders in the arts, sciences and technology, one high-profile faux pas can negate years of carefully managed marketing.

Potter's message is that a country's brand matters. International relations are increasingly driven by a handful of global media giants and numerous non-state groups that transcend the international and domestic spheres. Influencing public opinion abroad has become as important to achieving foreign policy goals as interstate negotiations.

A good brand contributes to "soft power," the ability to influence behaviour by persuasion rather than coercion. Developing a brand is the task of "public diplomacy," which Potter defines as "the effort by the official institutions of one nation to influence the elite or mass public opinion of another nation for the purpose of turning the policies or views of that target nation to advantage."

Canada, a wealthy mid-sized country with no sworn enemies, should have a good brand. But successive federal governments have neglected to enhance ours. According to Potter, Canada spends "approximately one-tenth of what its G8 counterparts spend on public diplomacy."

Global media outlets rarely mention Canada. The stories that do receive coverage are often negative and channelled through pre-existing stereotypes. As Potter explains, "If a country fails to tell its own story, its image will be shaped exclusively by the perceptions of others."

The key to branding, he explains, "is to give people an exciting story about Canada that they are interested in and to prove it over and over again in a variety of ways, thus creating accumulated recognition." And Canada has a great story to tell, of a sophisticated, creative, multicultural, multilingual country with extraordinary natural wonders and vibrant, cosmopolitan cities.

We used to be quite good at public diplomacy. An advertising campaign attracted two million foreign settlers to the Prairies between 1896 and 1914, and in doing so embedded Canada firmly in the global consciousness. By 1945, just six years after its creation, the National Film Board was reaching more than 40 million people with weekly newsreels aimed at educating U.S. and British audiences about Canada's contributions to the Second World War.

Of all the instruments of public diplomacy, culture is the most self-defining and long-lasting. As Potter explains, "Cultural diversity, rather than being a barrier, is now a strategic resource that, in a global knowledge-based society, drives innovation, creativity and reconciliation." Canada already has a strong brand in literature and popular music, which indicates that a more comprehensive brand is possible - if we give it a serious try.

Sport is another instrument of public diplomacy. My British in-laws might hesitate over the name of our prime minister, but they will never forget that Canadian rowers won gold in the men's eight at the Beijing Olympics.

Tourism contributes, too, and not just through the people who see Canada first-hand. Advertising campaigns, by creating a mental image of place, can influence those who never actually visit but still make decisions about Canadian products, services and policy initiatives. According to Potter, the annual budget of the Canadian Trade Commission is $78-million, "paltry" compared with the $200-million spent by Australia, which has a much smaller population.

Public diplomacy also involves engaging Canadians, because foreign policies are difficult to sustain without domestic support.

This book contains some excellent examples of successful public diplomacy, including the 1998-99 "Upper North Side Campaign." With a smart name and logo (a green apple with a red maple leaf attached to the stem), the campaign played to the "New York state of mind." It linked dozens of upcoming Canada-related events into a "season" and, on a shoestring budget, cracked one of the world's toughest media markets.

Potter chronicles some blunders, too, such as the failure to give U.S. television networks a heads-up about the post-9/11 remembrance ceremony on Parliament Hill in September, 2001. The Canadian ceremony was not seen on U.S. television, while a similar ceremony in Britain was given priority coverage across the United States.

The quality of information also matters. People, countries and companies respect and return to credible sources of information, which is important because repeated interactions are critical to the development of a brand. The British and U.S. brands both suffered when it became apparent that their governments had manufactured evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Public diplomacy can be essential during short-term crises, such as when the U.S. media wrongly convinced themselves that 9/11 terrorists had entered from Canada. In these circumstances, direct interventions with journalists, foreign bureaucrats and politicians - often based on personal contacts - constitute what Potter refers to as the "battle space."

Potter also emphasizes that activities aimed at strengthening relationships and improving understanding - such as providing scholarships for foreign students - can generate even greater long-term gains. But they "constitute an investment in image management in which the payoff is not immediately visible or measurable." As a result, their value can be seriously underestimated by decision-makers.

Above all, public diplomacy must be grounded in good policy, because selling a flawed product can, over time, generate distrust. Which raises the interesting question (which Potter diplomatically chooses not to address) of whether Stephen Harper's leadership has affected Canada's image abroad.

Harper has adopted a more aggressive foreign-policy stance than most of his predecessors, as exemplified by his March, 2006, assertion that "Canadians don't cut and run." He has, at different times, used distinctly undiplomatic language when speaking about China, Russia, the U.S. ambassador and, more recently, the entire G8. He has repudiated Canada's climate-change commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, shown little interest in United Nations peacekeeping, arms control or the search for peace in the Middle East, and been inconsistent in his defence of Canadians detained abroad.

There are costs associated with all of this. The initial frostiness toward China, for instance, probably contributed to the denial of Canada's bid for "approved destination status." As a result, we might be missing out on as many as one million Chinese tourists each year and, just as important, the positive impact those visitors would have in promoting Canada as a trade and investment partner.

Part of the problem may be that public diplomacy is sometimes seen as a Liberal approach, exemplified by Jean Chrétien's "Team Canada" trade missions and Lloyd Axworthy's campaign against land mines. The partisan lens obscures the fact that public diplomacy has become a central focus of governments worldwide, of all political persuasions.

A country's influence, to a considerable extent, is determined by what others think of it. It's time to consider the reputation consequences of our actions. It's time to enhance our brand.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Before 2005, he served as director of Canadian Studies at Duke University.

Interact with The Globe