The challenges of working effectively with politicians and the politics of organisations

You can’t avoid politicians in the world that we live in, especially in the era of so called “Populism”, “Fake News”, referendums and media polls on all sorts of issues where politicians will naturally have their say.

Politicians cannot be avoided in the public sector as they have been elected to govern places and to guide and control the professionals who manage them and advise on their development.

And in the private sector, you also cannot avoid the politics that are all too often inherent in, and surrounding, organisations like property developers or destination developers that deal with the built environment and place development, management and promotion. There is a role for brand strategists working with developers of real estate to guide their clients on those aspects of their proposed schemes that will bring either kudos to the developer or bring down a load of criticism on their heads.

Increasingly, in the public sector, politicians are taking the lead in fronting and funding the development of places, be they countries, regions, cities, towns or smaller areas such as special area regeneration programmes.

In our experience, there are several major challenges presented by the political “process” in democracies that place brand strategists need to recognise and deal with, each of which we discuss below. In summary, they are:

  • The cycle of elections and the challenges politicians face in re-election.
  • The need to increase politicians’ understanding of what place and destination branding is, and is not.
  • Getting politicians to invest in place brand strategy as a long-term process and not a quick fix.
  • The ethical requirements of honest and truthful place branding.
  • Enabling politicians to understand that the decisions they make on policy and legislation have a powerful impact of the reputation of their place and its brand.
  • The need for politicians to “share” the process of brand strategy development with local stakeholders and communities and understand the value of their engagement.
  • Enabling politicians to understand that place brand strategies impact as much on existing residents and businesses as they do on prospective investors and tourists.

Address the  cycle of elections and the challenges politicians face in re-election

By and large, politicians in democracies are elected for a fixed term and stand for election or re-election every two to five years, depending on their country’s rules on periods of governance. This can lead them to focus on policies and strategies that will have positive and beneficial effects in the short term: successes that will give them election-cycle brownie points and help with their re-election. So, even though most place brand strategies cover periods longer than administration periods, as practitioners we know that we must provide politicians with tangible, short-term successes during these periods if we are to stand a chance of getting them to support brand strategies that will take longer to come to fruition and have a lasting impact. Identifying on-brand  “low-hanging fruit” which can generate demonstrable short-term benefits and help to lay the foundation for the brand in action is essential if we are to motivate politicians to support and spend scarce resources on brand development.

Increase  politicians’ understanding of what place and destination branding is, and is  not

One of the most common misconceptions that politicians (and others) have is that brand strategy is about the design of logos or graphics. This is not to say that brand identities do not have a place in brand strategy. They do, when they are recognised as effective identifiers, a shorthand for the brand offer of the place that will be developed over time. Designers consistently tell us that it is much, much easier to design an identity program when they are clear on the nature of the brand strategy, its constituent offers for target market audiences and the messages to be conveyed to them about those offers. In summary, politicians need to understand this is not about, to use an analogy, “giving the place a new lick of paint” but about “building a better house with more rooms”.

Getting  politicians to invest in place brand strategy as a long-term process and not a  quick fix.

We are regularly faced with the challenge of helping politicians recognise and understand that effective brand strategy takes time to produce lasting benefits – that “Rome was not built in a day”. Short-term gains will not lead to substantive change unless they are carefully crafted as interlocking building blocks and a foundation for larger-scale construction of a place’s desired future.

Time is precious to politicians. As practitioners, we need to heed this fact. Their pronouncements are usually crammed full of priorities that compete with each other and promise results within unrealistic timescales that are subject to complex party-political negotiations. (The recent failed replacement of Obamacare in the USA is an example of that dynamic.)

Politicians want gains to be realised in the election cycle to demonstrate the action they have taken, to justify the expense of creating a brand strategy, and support their re-election efforts in order to continue with the strategy in the medium term.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Having a place brand strategy is not top of mind for most politicians. We do not know of any elections that have been won a platform of developing a place brand strategy.

However, we have been able to demonstrate to politicians that place branding is an effective way of implementing and achieving real results from some of their existing, as well as new, policies. This is especially true in the related fields of place-making, urban regeneration, attracting inward investment and increasing tourism. When politicians recognise how interconnected policy making in these fields is, they begin to see the benefit of an approach that can integrate policy and its implementation.

The ethical  requirements of honest and truthful place branding

In the current climate of “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts” there is an even greater need for politicians to recognise the need for an ethical approach to place branding and marketing, based on accurate interpretations of current reality and honest representation of that reality in brand marketing and promotion.

Politicians, understandably, can exhibit fierce pride in their place or constituency. There can be a natural tendency to talk it up and, perhaps, exaggerate its offer and what the place is good at.

In our view, exaggeration, inaccurate or otherwise dishonest claims for a place brand are completely unacceptable if the place or destination is to establish a brand reputation for integrity. Having the courage to tell a politician that a claim for a place is inaccurate or just plain untrue, is one of the defining moments of your personal integrity as a brand consultant. It’s a requirement that, on occasion, can be tempered by helping them to understand ways in which the place can actually become the place they imagine it to be or want it to be.

Closely related to encouraging a wholly ethical and honest approach to brand promotion is the need for the people who drive brand development and promotion to define the values of their brand, the values of their place, and how it will behave as the brand evolves. For example, if a tourist destination promotes its commitment to customer care and service but does not demonstrate care for its staff, then its reputation can be severely damaged. Articulating and reinforcing values that complement each other can offer a place a clear set of standards to guide the development, management and promotion of its brand offer.

Enabling  politicians to understand that the decisions they make on policy and  legislation have a powerful impact of the reputation of their place and its  brand

All too often we find that politicians think that brand strategy is just about the new things they want to do, e.g. their proposals for attracting inward investment, boosting exports or increasing the numbers of tourists and their spend. A growing number recognise that other existing policies, strategies and legislation can be powerful determinants of their existing brand. For example, how a country treats immigrants; how a city treats the homeless; how a district governs developments that might damage local people’s quality of life; they can all speak volumes about a place. How a place governs for the many, rather than a privileged few, can alter investor and visitor perceptions as well as help to retain existing people and businesses.

So, when helping a place to develop and implement their brand strategy, conscientious brand consultants and practitioners should not flinch from pointing out to those who govern the realities of a place’s existing reputation, or from suggesting ways of improving it.

The need  for politicians to “share” the process of brand strategy development with local  stakeholders and communities and understand the value of their engagement in  brand implementation

Elected politicians can fall into the trap of thinking that, having been elected on the basis of a published platform, local people will agree to all their policy proposals and initiatives and support their vision for future development.

Place brand strategists need to make a clear, coherent and convincing case to politicians for consultation with local communities to understand their perspectives on their place – what works, what doesn’t, what’s in need of improvement, and what should be built on to strengthen the current offer – before proceeding to frame a brand strategy for its future development. If they do not do so in a substantive way (avoiding token gestures), then they may not get the support of local communities in later stages. Effective engagement implies a long-term dialogue with stakeholders not just disconnected, episodic consultation. Meaningful engagement is likely to result in long-term and increased support  from residents, businesses, developers and investors.

There are now a range of online tools and processes available to places and brand consultants that enable engagement in deep and meaningful ways with local communities and stakeholders. One great example is Neighborland. Tools like these can positively assist politicians in co-creating meaningful place brand strategies with their constituents in ways that will drive short- and long-term benefits for all.

A collaborative blog by  experienced place brand practitioners who have worked together - Malcolm Allan  of Placematters, Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory in Toronto, Roger Hobkinson of  Colliers International in Dublin, Jose Torres and Gonzalo Vilar, both of Bloom  Consulting, Madrid and Lisbon

Related articles / resources:

The Mayors’ Perspective, panel discussion moderated by Gordon Innes, Bloomberg Associates, with Mayor Buddy Dyer of Orlando and Mayor William Bell of Birmingham, at City Nation Place Americas - VIEW NOW 

Policy & Place Identity, two further presentations from City Nation Place Americas, with Patricia Rojas-Ungar, VP Public Affairs of the US Travel Association discussing the impact of public policy and Wit Tuttell, VP Tourism & Marketing for North Carolina’s Economic Development Partnership with a case study of crisis management when policy creates a backlash. VIEW NOW

Missed the event in person? Don't worry...

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.