Post 9/11, Pakistan’s image abroad has been greatly tarnished despite the country’s great successes in the anti-terror war and participation in global peace-keeping efforts under the UN aegis.
The national concern about Pakistan’s image abroad led to the constitution of a multi-disciplinary committee, comprising senior officials, in the early years of the current century, for devising strategies and plans for improving the country’s image by ensuring a better projection of the nation and the government policies abroad. However, the country’s image has continued to deteriorate over the last 15 years, primarily due to the machinations of inimical forces and our failure to adopt a scientific approach and well-planned strategy to redress the situation.
The word ‘image’ generally refers to the perception that others have about a nation, State, entity, individual or a group of individuals. ‘Image’ denotes a characteristic, which is peculiar not to individuals and corporate bodies alone; the governments, nations and states also enjoy a reputation – good or bad – among the masses or the comity of nations.
As far as countries are concerned, various factors contribute to the making or marring of the image. Notable factors upon which hinge the image of a state include its national policies and relationship with other states, the country’s financial health, socio-economic indicators, human rights record, dealings with commercial institutions, redemption of pledges/guarantees, national achievements, justice system, and, above all, the character displayed by its citizens and leaders in their day-to-day dealings, both at home and abroad.
However, image-building does not happen automatically, nor in isolation from what is happening at the global level. Image has to be earned the hard way, and it cannot be acquired by merely wishing to be like a certain role model. The mirror image refers to the perception that the citizens of a state and their leaders, or the workers of an organisation and its management, believe to be the impression that outsiders have about their country or organisation. It may be based on illusions and wishful thinking in cases where the leader or the management neglects to periodically assess the current image. On the other hand, the “wish image” is the image that the leadership wishes to achieve. Other major forms of image include the ‘current image’, the ‘corporate image’, the ‘multiple image’, ‘pseudo image’ etc. Usually, the mirror and the current image are at variance, or different from one another.
The form relevant to this write-up is Pakistan’s current image — the perception that outsiders have about Pakistan and its citizens. The current image may be based on experience or on poor information and understanding — how much people know about us? Experience tells that the outside world does not know much about Pakistan, especially about our achievements and positive attributes. The patchy information that the global community has about us mostly pertains to some negative aspects, mostly highlighted by the media channels of the West.
A country’s mage cannot be built or improved if it is divorced from reality, especially when there are actors or states engaged in damaging its image. It is important to counter detractors with authentic facts, logic and wisdom in order to revamp Pakistan’s image.
Taking advantage of the national concern for the country’s image, organisers of socio-cultural events often claim that their efforts are geared towards promoting a ‘soft image’ of the country, while the fact remains that such activities alone contribute minimally in promoting the soft image of a country. Here one may cite the example of North Korea. Despite remaining engaged in cultural and sports activities in a big way, it has not been able to carve a soft image for itself at the global level.
If we wish to achieve our coveted goal — improving Pakistan’s image overseas — we need to make a beginning by trying, first of all, to find out what sort of image or esteem does Pakistan enjoy abroad, especially in major or leading countries of the world? What do foreigners know or not know about Pakistan? What are their areas of misunderstanding, i.e. hostility, prejudice, apathy, ignorance etcetera, if any? What are the causes of their negative attitudes. Which segment of the society the relevant people belong to? Who are their peers? What is the media of their choice? What are their norms or habits and cultural traits that can be used to effect change in their attitudes or behaviour, i.e. convert their negative attitudes into positive attributes?
We can find the requisite information through research, and then, with the help of material/data thus collected, make an assessment about the goodwill — or lack of it — that Pakistan enjoys abroad. The research method that can be used for this purpose is the opinion poll or sample survey, in addition to high-level talks, interviews with leaders of public opinion and think-tanks, academic discussions, mass media monitoring, and evaluating factors like increase or decrease in support at international fora, FDI (foreign direct investment) inflows, the state of imports and exports, fall or rise in the currency value and foreign exchange reserves, economic and political situation, debt situation, credit rating, attitude of world leaders etc.
In the light of these parameters, we need to assess and analyse the esteem that Pakistan enjoys region-wise and country-wise abroad. If the reports in the mass media are any guide, in addition to terrorism, radicalism, militancy, treatment of the minorities and women, regional conflicts, human trafficking and the way civil-military relations are perceived internationally are among the biggest challenges faced by Pakistan. Among other factors that tend to create misunderstanding and a wrong perception about Pakistan can be listed organised efforts by hostile quarters and forces, frequent interruption of the democratic process, character-assassination campaigns and witch-hunting of politicians as well as nepotism and disregard of merit in postings abroad.
The information and data thus collected may possibly reveal certain negative attributes, for instance, hostility, apathy, prejudice, ignorance, persisting about us in some quarters. If we succeed in identifying the exact negative attribute being associated with us in a community or a country, then the next logical step would be to determine the nature, depth and causes for the existence of that particular attitude, and also to dig out maximum possible information/data about the groups or communities (like their socio-economic characteristics, special interests, peer groups, access to media and preferred choices) harbouring negative attitudes about us.
It is, however, not in our knowledge if the government or any of its agencies, including Pakistan’s missions abroad, have ever made any serious and systematic effort to assess Pakistan’s image in any country or region. Without obtaining the requisite information/knowledge, and then evolving a well-thought-out strategy, our efforts may not yield the desired or positive results. The fate of persons who pursue such efforts without logical and scientific planning will be similar to the captain of a ship who does not know his destination and, therefore, no wind would be considered favourable to him. In fact, it is impossible to select the appropriate media and communication techniques without establishing the objectives and goals, and also finding out complete information about the peer groups or leaders of public opinion of a nation/state whose attitude or behaviour it is intended to influence or change through programmes aimed at improving the country’s image.
Any exercise without first finding the negative attitudes and suspicions lurking in the minds of the people in a foreign country or region, and then chalking out programmes to remove those wrong perceptions would be like aerial shooting, or firing at objects aimlessly, in which case one may even end up using a gun to kill a mosquito, or spraying an insecticide to get rid of a dangerous animal like lion. To be precise, let me put it this way that in such matters publicity or projection alone cannot yield desired results.
No doubt, publicity does yield an image, but it could be different in different newspapers, periodicals or electronic media channels, if their access to information and the authenticity of that information happens to be different. The access of people to information depends upon the media gate-keeping process or editors’ discretion to print the material which they think will be of interest to their readers.
Experience tells that different media outlets accord different treatment to the publicity material received by them, affecting the image of the concerned entity. If the information has been carried correctly and in full, it will yield a good image; while in cases where information has been carried partly or incorrectly it may lead to a faulty or bad image. Therefore, we need to use the media and technique that is considered to be more appropriate and suitable. Of course, the media and technique would vary from group to group, community to community, keeping their demographic and geographic characteristics in view.
Once we are equipped with the appropriate information, we can launch fruitful and productive campaigns through various fora and channels, including the mass media, the traditional media and modern media, to rectify or improve our image. Overseas Pakistanis can also contribute significantly to efforts aimed at improving the country’s image abroad, if we could organise and motivate them and also give them a sense of direction.
If we continue to face the image problem for an indefinite period, it could adversely affect our economic growth. Therefore, the sooner we accomplish this task, the better it would be for the nation and the country.