REPORTS THAT THE GOVERNMENT has retained the services of Chlopak Leonard Schechter and Associates, an American public relations firm to manage its reputation abroad, were met with outrage by media commentators who criticised the waste of taxpayers’ money.
Their argument was premised on the fact that Kenyans, and their leaders, know perfectly well where the problem lies and that paying a PR firm a whopping $1.7 million (Sh129 million) for two years to improve Kenya’s image abroad was a complete waste of money.
The first step toward branding Kenya locally and internationally, the commentators argued, was for the government to focus on a local reform agenda that will put the nation on a more stable footing.
Kenya’ case is the latest among a host of other nation-branding initiatives that are proving to be quite a challenge to international public relations practitioners.
NATION BRANDS, ESPECIALLY THOSE of African countries, struggle with debunking some real or perceived stereotypes and reputations created over the years.
Though there are many positives about Kenya — its warm people, beautiful landscape, and amazing wildlife — the country suffers from negative stereotypes that are stuck in the minds of foreigners.
To be precise, events of the 2008 post-election violence will remain ingrained in the minds of those who watched them on TV or Internet for a long time to come.
Visual images, especially those of gory events, are hard to forget. Images of machete-wielding youths hacking their neighbours or torching houses have only reinforced the Western stereotype of Africans as savages.
Changing global perceptions of African countries is a tall order since stereotypes and beliefs about Africa and its people are emotional and deeply held.
As bizarre as it may sound, Africa is treated as a homogeneous entity in the West and trouble brewing somewhere in the Congo is generalised to be an African problem.
Stereotypes of Africa as a perennially troubled spot have been reinforced by unimaginable acts of corruption. Last week’s saga in which it was discovered that over $2 million meant for primary education ended in the pockets of a few is both baffling and sickening.
Recent news reports that those who illegally acquired the pristine Mau forest land are to be paid from taxpayers’ funds rather than be punished for their irresponsible acts is extremely maddening.
As Africans, we may protest the brazen manner in which the Western media has sensationalised some news from the continent.
However, how do we defend the loss of such a huge amount of money meant for educating poor children? Worse still, how do we explain it when the President takes no action against those who failed in their responsibility?
Indeed, efforts to brand Kenya abroad when no action is taken to rein in graft and violence will remain a pipe-dream.
The outcome of a recent survey conducted by the PR firm among legislative and executive figures, academics, corporate executives and researchers came as no surprise. It showed that Kenya was a floundering state dragged down by widespread corruption and impunity.
Africans governments may spend as much taxpayer’s money as they wish, but unless they come up with home-grown measures to tackle corruption, stem inter-ethnic violence and restore good governance, lobbyists in Washington D.C. or any other capital of the world will do little to build a lasting nation brand.
THERE’S A LESSON TO BE LEARNT from Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who engaged a PR firm in Washington to lobby for his government abroad while simultaneously looking for home-grown solutions.
The power of communications to change perceptions is limited by a country’s behaviour, and public relations cannot create an image that does not correlate with reality on the ground.
For Kenya to attain a good name abroad, there has to be a multifaceted approach to this endeavour; crafting educational campaigns that will ensure Kenyans change their attitude towards their country, while reinforcing the fight against corruption and impunity.
Until such issues are given priority in Kenya, no amount of lobbying for Kenya in the US will change anything. And the challenge for international PR firms is to tell Kenya’s and other African governments as much.
Mr Kiambi is a graduate student in Communication at Miami University, Ohio.