Europe Needs a Public Relations Makeover

By Steven Hill, Social Europe Journal, July 16, 2010

The American-European relationship has been crucially important during the post-World War II era for both places. Yet recently it has been hurt by both neglect and design. Even before the Greek debt crisis, Europe had been suffering a longstanding public relations crisis in the United States.

Americans think they know quite a lot about Europe, yet most of it is based on stereotypes. Americans like to be numero uno, and they are fed a steady diet of stories by a corps of patriotic Euroskeptics, as well as a sensationalist media (which shares the public’s biases), about Europe’s allegedly weak, socialist economy, about its being overrun by Islamic jihadi immigrants, and being plagued by an aging, dying-out population.

These trans-Atlantic perceptions were exacerbated greatly by the rupture at the United Nations over the invasion of Iraq. Suddenly America’s erstwhile Cold War allies transmogrified overnight into double crossers, an “axis of weasels” and “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” to quote that erudite American political analyst, Bart Simpson. Each of these fronts has allowed Europe to be used as a convenient punching bag to score ideological points by rabid anti-regulation, anti-government free marketeers, as well as by pro-military and anti-immigration conservatives.

Unfortunately there hasn’t been much of a counter-narrative within American shores to balance all these misperceptions. Remarkably, Europe today is lower on the U.S. public relations totem pole than China, the most over-hyped, overrated, “not-yet-a-superpower” superpower in history. Given authoritarian China’s obvious warts, that takes some doing. Professors of European studies in American universities have lamented to me that most of the undergraduate and graduate students want to study China and learn Chinese; Europe has become a mere afterthought.

Which of course is delusional, in the sense that these perceptions are not based in reality. Europe has the largest economy in the world, producing nearly a third of the world’s economy, almost as large as the United States and China combined. Europeans are enjoying the highest of living standards, but no one is breaking down the door to get into authoritarian, poverty-racked China. People are trying to break OUT of China, not in, and that tells you most of what you need to know.

Europe is suffering from, as they say in the advertising biz, poor branding and low product appeal. So that got me to thinking: if Europe were to launch a public relations campaign in the United States, what would it look like? How could Europe advertise its strengths and selling points?

I can envision TV ads running in heartland America that go something like this. Voiceover: “Jobs. Americans want them and European companies can supply them.” Show visuals of American workers on the job, building autos, working in grocery stores and hospitals. Re-cue the voiceover: “Did you know that in Dick Cheney’s Wyoming and Sarah Palin’s Alaska, as well as in Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Idaho and Alabama, European companies supply over 65 percent of all foreign investment? In George Bush’s Texas, European companies have invested over $50 billion, more than American investments in all of Asia? About 2 million American workers are employed by German and British companies, providing jobs that pay better than average wages and provide health care benefits. Across the great USA, Europeans accounted for nearly three-quarters of all foreign investment, being the top foreign investors in 45 states with over $1.4 trillion in investments.

“We believe in taking care of our American employees. It’s the European Way.” Cue the closing visuals, two flags, side by side, one the Stars and Stripes, the other the European Union’s royal blue with a circle of twelve gold stars, like a halo. Fade away.

Or how about a full page ad in the New York Times that read: Big Headline: “Who are you calling Weak? Who are you calling Socialist? Text: “Europe today, stretching from Portugal to Norway to the Balkans, is the largest, wealthiest trading bloc in the world. Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the U.S. and China combined, as well as more small businesses than the U.S. that produce two-thirds of the jobs, compared to fewer than half the jobs in America. Europe has some of the most competitive national economies in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, and is the largest trading partner with both the U.S. and China. In fact, Europe is corporate America’s biggest target for foreign investment, with U.S. companies making twenty times more profit in Europe than in China. The $19.2 billion invested by U.S. companies in tiny Netherlands in 2005 nearly equaled U.S. investment in all of Asia. If Europe is such a basket case, why would American businesses spend so much time and money here?

“Socialism? Forget it, this is capitalism baby. But it’s capitalism with a heart. We call it social capitalism, because we harness our capitalist engine and plow the wealth into things that help families and workers – such as health care, retirement, vacation, child care, paid sick leave, paid parental leave after giving birth, a kiddie stipend to pay for diapers and other baby needs – you know, family values stuff. We don’t just talk about families, we actually spend money to support them. You don’t need roaring economic growth rates if you’re good at sharing what you have. That’s the European Way.

“Europe – it’s not just a nice place to vacation, but also a nice place to live. Now accepting applications for national membership. But strict criteria apply.”

Or how about this ad on prime time TV: Visuals of green hills and sparkling ocean. Children at play, fields of golden grain, with the voiceover coming in: “Europe is the leading innovator in preparing for global warming. Widespread deployment of conservation practices and “green design” in everything from automobiles, buildings, light bulbs and toilets has reduced our ecological footprint.” More visuals, showing windmills, solar panels and trains. “A European uses half the electricity and emits half the carbon of an American. It takes 40 percent more fuel to drive a mile in an American car than in a European one. And Europe’s green industry has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs and is exporting its innovations to the world. That shows that jobs don’t have to be pitted against the environment.

“Europe: doing our fair share to ensure humanity’s future. And looking for partners, wherever we can find them.” Quick flash of President Obama’s face, to the fade away shot.

You get the idea. Part of the solution to Europe’s poor standing with the American public is to use old-fashioned, conventional means: product advertisement. Just as any business knows, advertising is essential to marketing and branding your product. Europe should advertise its accomplishments just like a business does — through TV, radio and newspaper ads. Corporations do it, why shouldn’t governments? Europe should have clear bragging rights over China, for heaven’s sake, but it never does any bragging. It’s time to change that.

Other things Europe could do besides advertisements include organizing opeds and letters to the editor campaigns in newspapers; and speaking tours all across the United States for European leaders, including interviews with local media. When Merkel, Barroso, Sarkozy or Cameron come to Washington DC, a part of their visit should take them outside the Beltway. Local media would rave over a visit by the Chancellor of Germany or the President of the European Commission. It even might be a good idea to launch something like a Radio Free America to help break the information blockade.

This is a public relations challenge that Europe needs to wage because it would be foster a healthier trans-Atlantic partnership. The world is looking for leadership during this crucial time, and a US-EU alliance could be powerful if Americans valued Europe’s contributions more.

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