International PR clients come in many forms: executive and legislative branches of sovereign governments, individual political parties and politicians, multinational corporations, organizations and individuals. For any number of reasons, they all want to tell their stories in the U.S.
When a corporation wants to enter the U.S. market, or increase its presence here, it identifies competitors and their market share and does some form of SWOT analysis. These data are the foundation of the business decisions that will follow.
Complementary communications and marketing campaigns would be similarly data-driven. A multinational company would never enter the U.S. or try to amplify its presence here based only on a hunch or anecdotal evidence.
Yet, that’s exactly what foreign countries have been forced to do when trying to determine how to spend their advocacy dollars in the U.S. As with any campaign, before you start, you need to know where you stand. Data-based tools that give insight to foreign governments on their impact in the U.S. have been sparse.
Soft Power Indexes
Traditionally, soft-power indexes have been the closest proxy of countries’ non-military impact on the global stage. Soft-power indexes are rankings of countries, based on categories of data, that show how successful countries are at exporting their politics, ideas, economics and culture.
A good and recent example is the high popularity of South Korean music, movies and TV shows around the world. Global music fans like BTS; hence, they know more about South Korea and may feel more positively toward it.
But as a tool to show countries where they stand in the U.S.—soft-power indexes have three main deficiencies:
- They are meant to estimate a country’s impact on the world at large, not just in the U.S.
- They do not include the impact of online news and social media, which greatly influence what Americans think about foreign countries.
- They do not answer the question, “what next?” In other words, now that you have this data, what do you do with it?
The Impact of Reputation
To address this issue, our firm created the BGR Impact Index. The Index ranks all 195 United Nations member countries based on how well-known and well-liked they are in Washington, D.C. and the U.S..
Data from 25 categories, including four online news and social media categories, are weighted and scored to produce the ranking. For the online categories, we analyzed 3.8 trillion pieces of data across all of 2022.
The results showed surprises. One axiom in branding is that reputations—good and bad—linger longer than the facts support. Based on reputation, one may assume that the most impactful countries in Washington are Western European, thanks to the shared history of immigration, diplomatic and commercial ties and culture. But the data, in fact, demonstrate the rise of Asia in Washington: four Asian countries make the Impact Index Top 10 and six are in the Top 15.
More critically, countries can see where they stand compared to peer and rival countries, because they are all fighting for Washington’s attention. If a country can increase its positive presence in Washington compared to its neighbors, beneficial U.S. policies related to defense, trade and foreign aid may well follow.
Crafting a Strategy Through Data
Communications professionals can use the data to craft strategic plans for foreign country clients that surgically apply resources to areas that matter most to them. For instance, if a country is ranked lower than peer countries in the Index’s institutional transparency category, despite taking demonstrable steps to fight corruption, a communications partner could create a multi-channel plan to tout the country’s efforts, successes and challenges through content creation and SEO, think-tank and media engagement, the creation of fact-based case studies and participation in relevant events.
And, because the Index’s data are updated annually, the client can see year-over-year improvement. (Representation of foreign governments requires registration with the U.S. Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.)
How to Boost Ranking
There are several Index categories where countries can boost their ranking. Targeted social media campaigns, for example, can move the needle quickly in a positive direction for a country in the Index’s four categories that track online conversation. The Index rewards countries that increase their lobbying spending, join more international organizations and increase security.
Not all categories can be easily changed; these include a country’s population, GDP and physical distance from the U.S. It matters how far a country is from Washington, and that is immutable. But a country can increase its flow of students, tourists, investment spending to the U.S., raising its status and moving the country figuratively, if not literally, closer to Washington.
Are data the silver bullet that will make any foreign country top-of-mind in Washington? No. But the data will tell countries where they stand and help them make some of their most important decisions, without relying on hunches.
Frank Ahrens is a principal at BGR PR in Washington D.C. and was the vice president of global corporate communications for Hyundai Motor in Seoul, South Korea.