Public Relations Experts Help Embassies Put Best Face Forward

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The field of public relations, which is focused on promoting positive reputations, doesn’t always garner a good one itself. After all, when promotion and pushing a message are involved, people tend to get wary. But in this information age, a good handle on PR can make or break organizations — including embassies. And it’s not just about visibility or brand recognition, but also the bottom line.

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Photo: Tony Powell / Podesta Group
The Podesta Group is a lobbying, public relations and communications firm that represents various embassies.

“A country’s embassy can be its primary interface with the American public, policymakers and the business community,” said Will Bohlen, senior global communications specialist at the Podesta Group, a lobbying and communications firm that represents various embassies. “Having a strong public relations program in Washington can build relationships and a positive profile, as well as boost tourism, influence and investment, all to a country’s benefit.”

That often means using PR to foster a country’s relationship with the U.S. government, including the administration and Congress, he said.

Embassy officials are typically in regular contact with interested parties in government, media, business and the international community at large, “but without a concerted public relations effort, that community will not strengthen and grow. Expanding that community broadens the embassy’s reach and leads to new opportunities for promoting the country in Washington and throughout the U.S.,” Bohlen added.

PR Basics

To understand PR, we must first define it: “Public relations specialists create and maintain a favorable public image for the organization they represent. They design media releases to shape public perception of their organization and to increase awareness of its work and goals,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In short, PR professionals spread information about groups or individuals to sway public opinion and boost their clients’ exposure among the target audience, whether it be the media, investors, policymakers or ordinary people.

Arguably, PR was born when the first person began selling goods or services. After all, that person likely wanted more business. Modern PR, however, can be traced to 18th-century London, when Georgiana Cavendish, duchess of Devonshire, campaigned for Whig candidate Charles James Fox, according to IPR.org.uk. The real meaning of the term, however, dates to the 20th century.

Today, PR is a booming industry in the United States. In 2011, when the economy was slugging along, PR agencies experienced 11 percent sales growth, according to data from financial information company Sageworks. And that’s likely to continue. In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that employment in the field would grow 12 percent between 2012 and 2022.

What Good PR Looks Like

Embassies make two common mistakes when it comes to PR, Bohlen said. First, they aren’t involved enough in social media.

“A lot of conversation is happening on social media, especially among influential scholars, journalists and policymakers,” Bohlen said. “Social media is a great way to engage those individuals, ensure the country’s point of view is being heard and even help find new champions. Establishing social media platforms isn’t enough; you have to tend to them, feed them, grow them.”

The other mistake is focusing only on top-tier media outlets. “If you are a smaller country, the New York Times or the Washington Post may only cover your country rarely — and often for the wrong reasons,” he said. “It takes some work, but lining up the issues and regions of the U.S. that your country cares about with the media outlets that focus on those issues or regions can be much more effective.”

Some small embassies can’t afford the help of an outside PR firm, and even internal PR efforts could be hampered by not having a dedicated PR team or point person. In those cases, Bohlen said prioritization is crucial.

“They may have a good sense of their goals and their audience, and then they will want to focus their efforts on how best to achieve success,” he said. “That may mean having someone get more involved in digital media, or making an effort to know some key journalists and think tank scholars or working on hosting cultural events. In the end, it’s about building relationships.”

For more tips on not just doing PR, but excelling at it, we consulted with some of the area’s best agents, both inside and outside embassies. Here’s what they said.

Carla Bundy, press officer at the Royal Netherlands Embassy

The Dutch Embassy’s six-person Public Diplomacy, Press and Cultural Department where Carla Bundy has worked for 11 years serves as the PR hub for the country’s North American network of embassies, working with its counterparts in Miami, San Francisco, New York and Chicago.

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Photo: Royal Netherlands Embassy
The Dutch Embassy created a nifty infographic explaining all the ways that D.C. and Amsterdam are different after D.C. Muriel Bowser said the city wouldn't become "like Amsterdam" if it legalized marijuana use. The infographic was a social media sensation and got picked up by the Washington Post and other news outlets.

“We advise them on PR, media relations, on social media; we help them when they are formulating their public diplomacy projects and calendar for the year,” said Bundy, who worked in TV news before trying PR in 1989. “It’s critical for an embassy to get its message out to its targeted audience. For the embassy’s case, not only do we want to educate and inform people in Washington about the Netherlands and its relationship with the U.S., be it on trade issues or water management or cultural issues, we also want to inform the everyday public.”

Being a hub is one thing, but handling PR in D.C. carries its own set of challenges.

“When you work in Washington, D.C., and you work for an embassy, you’re very mindful of the other [European Union] member states, and we are all competing for that airtime or that space in the newspaper or on the website of the media outlets,” she said. “We are amongst over 100 embassies in Washington, D.C., and the few that make up the [EU] member states, so we work with the same media. We always want to talk to people who cover foreign policy or trade issues or culture issues, so the pool of reporters that we want to try to establish relationships with or gain their attention is very small.”

To make their messages stand out, Bundy said embassies must be topical and pitch the right outlet. Technology is enormously helpful, too. Chances are that even a small embassy with one or two people are posting to Twitter about their work, she said.

It also helps to be clever and seize an opportunity to go viral. The Dutch Embassy did just that when it stepped into the fray over marijuana legalization. After D.C. voted to legalize marijuana and Mayor Muriel Bowser tried to assuage fears by saying the District wouldn’t become “like Amsterdam,” the Dutch Embassy quickly shot back and schooled the city’s new mayor.

It issued a not-too-subtle Q&A, pointing out, among other things, that in the Netherlands it is still illegal to possess pot (unlike under the new D.C. law) but that police treat certain cases as a low-enforcement priority. It also noted that the lifetime rate of marijuana consumption among those ages 15 to 64 in the Netherlands is 25.7 percent, versus 41.5 percent in the United States. The embassy even put out a nifty infographic explaining all the ways that Amsterdam is not like Washington — from pot to street car lines, poking fun of the city’s troubled street car debut. The response was concise, catchy, timely and got picked up by the Washington Post, Vox and other news outlets.

Ultimately, PR is an extension of an embassy’s mission, Bundy told us. “It really is something that enhances the work that the diplomats do here,” she said. “I have a really cool job.”

Barbara Martin, owner and principal of BrandLinkDC Communications

Barbara Martin and BrandLinkDC co-owner Jayne Sandman started their firm six years ago, sharing a desk. Today they manage — from their own desks — 13 employees and 22 retainer clients with impressive names such as Tysons Corner Center, Brooks Brothers, Kiehl’s, the local W hotel and the Discovery Channel. The company has seen annual double-digit growth since its founding.

Although Martin doesn’t represent embassies, the rules of PR are the same no matter the organization type, she said.

“PR is important to everyone because it is literally your outward-facing message,” Martin said.

Across the board, good PR agents must be good writers, able to work round-the-clock and believe in what they’re pitching. “You have to be able to care about your clients as much as they do,” she said.

When it comes to PR, size doesn’t matter. Resourcefulness does. “Have a great message. Honestly, that’s the most important thing,” Martin said. “Really think about what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to and make sure it’s relevant to that reporter. Be consistent and be available. If it’s not a priority to you, it’s not going to be a priority to the reporter. ‘I can’t help you’ isn’t an answer.”

Sanna Kangasharju, press counselor at the Embassy of Finland

Transparency is at the heart of everything Sanna Kangasharju has done in her two and a half years at the Finnish Embassy, which has had a communications department for decades.

“Our whole government works in a very, very transparent way,” said Kangasharju, who studied communications in Helsinki. “We always answer every query, even if it’s a difficult question. Sometimes there are very rare cases where some information may be classified, but then you just have to tell it openly: ‘OK, I can tell you this much and I’m afraid that the rest is classified.’”

For embassies that don’t have a press staff, she recommends identifying three topics that are the most important and repeating them — a lot.

Another idea is to choose something unique about your country to share with others. For instance, saunas are an important part of Finnish culture, so once a month the embassy invites journalists, Capitol Hill staffers and others to be part of the Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society of D.C. 

“Often people don’t know much about especially smaller countries or sometimes there might even be misconceptions,” Kangasharju said. “I think it’s very important to be present, to answer queries and to actively inform about your country and to let people know what sort of things are important. The more we know about each other, the better our situation will be.”

Dannia Hakki and Sherry Moeller, co-founders of MoKi Media

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Photo: Joy Asico / MoKi Media
Sherry Moeller, left, and Dannia Hakki celebrate the fifth anniversary of MoKi Media.  

This luxury lifestyle-focused boutique PR firm started five years ago with a staff of two in one office. Today it’s got 10 employees and two locations — Dannia Hakki holds shop in Georgetown while Sherry Moeller works out of Maryland. When Hakki, who worked in PR in New York City, teamed with Moeller, just coming off a year as editor in chief of Capitol File magazine, they realized combining their experience could be a perfect mix.

A client roster including the Hay-Adams hotel, Boffi Georgetown and United Colors of Benetton would suggest they were right.

“The biggest thing to keep in mind — and one I always strive to do with my clients — is to make sure their names stay out in the public and stay in front of the right people,” said Moeller, who launched Washington Spaces magazine.

For Hakki, PR means serving as an expert who knows the media landscape. “If you don’t have a PR person gunning for you and making sure your news is front and center, you will be forgotten,” the Washington native said.

How embassies publicize their information depends on the message, Moeller said. If they’re trying to promote an event, for example, she recommends getting it on event calendars, including it in an embassy e-newsletter and putting it on the website and social media. Be consistent with the message and keep it updated, she added.

“Maybe it doesn’t have to be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and all of them,” she said. “Maybe find one that they can really populate and make sure it stays current.”

Gina Anderson, public affairs adviser at the New Zealand Embassy

a8.pr.new.zealand.storyThe New Zealand Embassy has had a public affairs department for at least 30 years, but the communications role, which includes its digital footprint, is a recent addition, Gina Anderson said. Currently, the communications department is just her and a seasonal intern.

To keep the embassy, and the country, at the forefront of people’s minds, she makes heavy use of social media platforms.

“Your organization website usually shows up in the Google search, but only think of it as a backup resource. Free social media platforms are your best way to reach a wider audience,” said Anderson, whose love of writing and international and current affairs led her to PR. “Facebook and Twitter, just to name two, are very user-friendly. If you were to survey your organization, you’d probably find several social media practitioners who might be willing to spend 10 [percent] to 15 percent of their day finding and producing content for your social media sites.”

She recommends sending those individuals to training courses on using those tools in their professional capacity. The Public Relations Society of America, PR News and the National Press Club host social media boot camps, for example.

“If you leave your brand and reputation up to a website and a 1-800 number, then you are missing a majority of your audience,” Anderson said.


About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on May 4, 2015