Whitewash Greece’s image abroad

Andrew Apostolou has contributed a very interesting article on how Greece is increasingly caring for the image it has overseas:

For the first time in its modern history, Greece has embarked on a systematic effort to understand how the country is viewed abroad.The results are not pretty. Now the government is planning to spend $4 million this year to turn the tide. Odyssey secured a copy of the top-secret image study and asked Andrew Apostolou to analyze it.

The Greek government has decided to change Greece’s poor image abroad.

This is not a direct result of the Ocalan affair, though the incompetence of high-ranking officials, and of the bureaucracy in general, damaged both the government and the country’s standing abroad; nor is it linked to Greece’s friendship with the Serbs, a relationship that will surely come under greater scrutiny and stress following the start of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia on March 24. Instead, three years ago the ministry of press and media noticed something that anybody who follows international media had long been aware of-that Greece is rarely mentioned and that, when it is, the coverage is far from positive.

The irony is that the way the ministry is trying to change the image will simply confirm many of the hostile perceptions that so many foreigners, and Greeks, have of Greece.

In the aftermath of Greece’s 1996 general elections the press ministry spent an undisclosed sum to survey foreign “opinion leaders” and “decision makers” in Britain, the United States, France, and Germany.

The ministry hired the US research firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which conducted one-on-one interviews and focus groups in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The firm spoke to 13 leaders in political circles, 19 in information and communications, 17 in academia, and 32 economists. The British research firm IRB International-Opinion Leader Research used in-depth interviews and focus groups in London with 19 members of Parliament, eight economists, and five leaders of the media industry. In France, the research was undertaken by the BVA-Institut d’etudes de marches et d’opinion and in Germany by the Institut fur Demoskopie Allensbach, both of which employed a mix of interviews and focus groups. All the surveys were conducted in 1997. Their cost is estimated by New York-based industry professionals to have been $50,000-$60,000 per country, for a grand total of $200,000-$240,000.

Sleepy & Low-Tech

The results of these surveys were hardly a surprise-interviewees generally had a negative image of Greece.

As every Athenian taxi driver knows, Greece is viewed abroad as being either troublesome or marginal. Many of those interviewed knew little about Greece, cared less, and did not want to know more. The ministry received pages upon pages of slickly presented slides listing in great detail Greece’s failings. The results of the surveys, along with the press ministry’s analysis of them, were digested into a confidential report for the prime minister in September 1997. Odyssey has obtained a copy of this report.

True to form, the foreign research firms simply told the ministry of press what anybody who reads just one Greek newspaper a year already knows-that Greece is mired in considerable political and economic problems.

The opinion leaders were particularly unimpressed by the Greek economy. The 81 US opinion leaders associated Greece with a low-tech economy exporting agricultural products-an accurate perception given that 21 percent of Greece’s exports in 1996 were food and beverages. Greece was also seen to be lagging behind its EU partners-again not a surprise as Greece was the only country that wanted to qualify for the first round of European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) but failed to do so.

One of the French politicians interviewed contrasted the impressive pace of change and infrastructure investment in Portugal to slower development in Greece, commenting that Greece seemed “asleep” on this issue. This observation is confirmed by European Commission statistics. Greece has a very low take-up of the EU structural funds for which it is eligible-just 44 percent by the end of 1997, one of the lowest in the EU. Foreign investors also tend to give Greece a miss, despite the record-setting days on the Athens Stock Exchange.

Even though Greece does not make full use of its EU entitlement, the country’s reputation is so low that there is resentment at misuse of this money. All the foreign opinion leaders felt that relying on EU money was bad for Greece and the abuse of that EU money was worse.


Unsurprisingly, Greece’s foreign policy attracted the most criticism. Consistently, the opinion leaders did not want their countries to get drawn into the Greco-Turkish conflict, though the Americans admitted to knowing little of the background.

German opinion leaders were a little more sympathetic to Greece than to Turkey-though that appears to have more to do with anti-Turkish prejudice than pro-Greek feelings. For foreigners, the Greco-Turkish dispute shows the two countries are backward-looking and nationalistic. Of German opinion leaders, 63 percent blamed both Greece and Turkey for their dispute. The Britons resented the way the Greek government involves the EU in the conflict.

Two other foreign-policy issues cropped up: the Macedonia name dispute and Greece’s support for the Serbs. The Americans were unhappy at Greece’s stance on the Macedonia issue, seeing it as an example of how Greece is a troublemaker. One of the Britons agreed, commenting characteristically on “all that fuss about a name.”

More damaging has been the perception that Greece is pro-Serb. The result is that Greece’s attempt to claim the moral high ground in its disputes with Turkey, and especially over Cyprus, is greatly compromised. The French criticized Greece’s pro-Serb stance and breaching of the anti-Serb economic embargo, though the French were also somewhat indulgent given Greece’s unique position as the only Orthodox country in NATO and the EU. Although the Simitis government has largely rejected its predecessors’ pro-Serb views, the damage of consorting with those who Richard Holbrooke described as “the worst war criminals in Europe since Himmler” has been done. By contrast, Philip Spyropoulos of the American Hellenic Media Project, argues that some coverage of Greece in the US press aims at the “Serbianization” of Greece-by which he means portraying Greece as utterly hostile to US interests.

One British political source, speaking on condition of anonymity, illustrated the damage done by supporting the Serbs. In early 1995, the Cypriot foreign minister arrived in London for what should have been a straightforward meeting with a group of reliably pro-Greek Cypriot MPs. The session proved to be stormy.

The MPs were furious at Greek and Cypriot support for the Serbs, in particular breaches of the UN embargo. These pro-Greek Cypriot MPs were finding it hard to argue for the implementation of UN resolutions on Cyprus when Cyprus itself was undermining a UN embargo against Serbia.

Undiplomatic Diplomats

The conduct of Greek foreign policy also drew fire. Many of the Britons identified Greece as “paranoid,” “untrustworthy,” and unable to appreciate how others felt. Greece is not seen as a team player and its prickliness, according to the Britons, “shows a lack of confidence.”

One of the most powerful images created by any country abroad is by its political leaders. Andreas Papandreou was well known abroad-he just was not well liked abroad. Margaret Thatcher-the opposite of Papandreou in that she was loathed at home but loved abroad-commented that Papandreou was privately charming but publicly impossible. Prime Minister Costas Simitis has made positive changes in some aspects of economic policy-French opinion leaders were particularly impressed with him. Simitis is, however, internationally invisible. During the Ocalan crisis in February, CNN, referred to Simitis as Greece’s foreign minister.

Meanwhile, Greece’s former foreign minister, Theodore Pangalos, was well known-but for the wrong reasons. Pangalos loved to make outrageous comments. During a visit to Skopje in December 1998, he said that those who had tried to set up an ethnic Macedonian party in Greece were “Stalinists and homosexuals.” In a more puerile mood, Pangalos asked Holbrooke, who was visiting Athens on a private trip, when the last time Madeleine Albright had had sex.

British Philhellenism

One issue highlighted by the opinion leaders was corruption. Among the Britons, the overall impression was negative and nobody had “good stories” about experiences with Greece, with corruption cited as one of the causes. None of this will surprise anybody in Greece, a country afflicted by the sfrangikratia-the tyranny of the official stamp. Most Greek documents require some form of official stamp that allows the official holding the stamp to extract an informal tax (better known as a bribe). Another frequent complaint in Greece is that procedures for tenders are often murky and open to abuse.

More worrying than the criticism was the constant claim that Greece was simply marginal. Aside from those with a special interest, few leaders cared much about Greece. Said one French journalist: “This is because Greece is a small country and we have no reason to talk about it any more often than Portugal or Denmark, except for hot political issues such as relations with Albania or Turkey.”

As many Germans, 44 percent, felt that Greece was removed from them as was close to them. Indeed most of the Germans, 58 percent, associated Greece with holidays, 52 percent with antiquity, 23 percent with business problems, and 18 percent with the Greco-Turkish conflict. One small consolation was that when Germans were asked which EU country was most unstable politically, Greece could not compete with Italy, which outpolled it 55 percent to 40 percent.

Contrary to Greek prejudices, the most positive sentiments came from the Britons. Many Greeks regard Britain with distrust due to its role as the dominant power in the Mediterranean during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among British opinion leaders there was a core that were very knowledgeable about Greece. The Britons tended to sympathize with Greece against Turkey-not because they think Greece is right, but because of closer historical and cultural links to Greece. The Britons also believed that Greece has a “good entrepreneurial spirit.”

Indeed, the Britons also had “a fund of good will and affection” toward Greece-the only respondents to have such feelings. This was based on an appreciation of the achievements of ancient Greece and modern Greece’s role in the Second World War-a sentiment not likely to be shared by Germans. The philhellenic Britons also expressed concern that the modern Greeks were “squandering” their heritage.

Modern Greek Wisdom

The ministry of press seems to have been uncertain what to do with these survey results. Its initial comments are contradictory.

The ministry report admitted that many developments of the last decade have been to blame for Greece’s poor image abroad. Then the ministry tried to console itself by saying that at first glance many of the foreigners’ views seemed to rely on prejudice and stereotypes. The final ministry response, which took more than a year to formulate, was to counter this “negative image” with a publicity campaign abroad.

But the ministry’s study is based on a misunderstanding, namely its claim that “many contemporary states-the US, Germany, Japan, the UK, France, etc.-are carrying out image studies over a series of years and at regular intervals.”

Actually, they don’t. The closest parallel is the British study on the image of Britain abroad, Panel 2000, which was started six months after the Greek ministry of press surveys.

The differences between Britain’s Panel 2000 and the Greek surveys are revealing. The most obvious difference is money.

While the Greek government wants to spend millions on an advertising campaign, the British government generated publicity and debate at virtually no cost. This is because the British exercise was carried out in public, unlike the Greek surveys which were confidential and costly. Britain’s Panel 2000 was able to draw on information from the Foreign Office, British companies, and research firms-virtually for free.

Britain’s Panel 2000 had a clear goal-“to look at all aspects of the projection of the UK overseas” and clearly defined areas of investigation. The motive was clearly commercial: “Everyone has a stake in the way that Britain is seen overseas. Our ability to influence other countries, to sell them our goods and services, and to win job-creating investment depends in part on how we are perceived.”

Panel 2000 took just eight months and two weeks from start to finish. It was publicly launched on April 1, 1998, and published its consultation paper (available on the Internet) on September 10, 1998, with two months added for public comments.

By contrast, the Greek ministry of press has moved at the slow pace for which the Greek bureaucracy is notorious. The process began in November 1996, the surveys ended in July 1997, the ministry’s report was written in September 1997, the publicity campaign tender was announced in December 1998, with the winner to be named this coming April-29 months and the campaign has still not been launched. American-based industry sources say that the data is now so old as to be useless. They also add that it is unclear as to why it is the ministry of press, as opposed to the foreign ministry, which is undertaking this work.

Above all Panel 2000 was both public and inclusive, as befits any debate on the national image. Panel 2000 had 32 members, none of whom received a fee. Of the 32, half were from the government. The other half included broadcasters, business leaders, an independent MP, an athlete, a representative from Amnesty International, and members of the opposition. The British government also made a point of including ethnic minorities, three from the private sector and one from government; indeed, minorities were over-represented, as one in eight of Panel 2000 was an ethnic minority, compared to one in 18 for the British population as a whole.

Such behavior would be unthinkable in Greece. Indeed one of the French journalists quoted in the Greek surveys was shocked by the way that those who are not Greek Orthodox are not treated as fully Greek citizens. The Greek government does not deny that there are ethnic and religious minorities in Greece, but it does refuse to give ethnic minorities any form of legal recognition.

This puts Greece on the defensive when dealing with countries like Britain and the US which are avowedly multi-ethnic and where there is open debate about the treatment of minorities. As one US diplomat with Greek connections noted, if Greek Americans were treated by the US government in the same way that the Greek government treats its minorities, then there would be a scandal. The fact that Greece’s treatment of minorities is better than Turkey’s cuts little ice.

Uncool Britannia!

Yet for all the smooth organization, the whole Panel 2000 exercise was widely ridiculed in Britain. The press viciously dubbed it “Cool Britannia.” The consultation paper was chock full of high-sounding slogans such as: “by working together we can make a bigger impact than an individual firm or government department could ensure on its own.” Panel 2000 also resorted to well-worn cliches: “Britain stands for values and qualities that are respected across the world-integrity, the rule of law, free speech, fair play, creativity.”

The British government’s attempts to show off British technology were equally silly. The day after Panel 2000 was launched, Prime Minister Tony Blair opened an exhibition called “Powerhouse UK” in the center of London. Powerhouse UK was supposed to show that Britain was still at the leading edge of technology, but the inflatable tents which housed vacuum cleaners and other technological wizardry looked like bouncy castles in a circus.

A more striking example, this time of wasted money, is the Turkish government’s repeated attempts to attract more investment. One advertising campaign was run with the snappy slogan “Turkey, the Key” emphasizing Turkey’s important location. Large multinationals remain very interested in Turkey, but rarely actually invest. The complaints are similar to those for Greece: corruption, lack of transparency, and an impenetrable, hostile bureaucracy-issues that slick advertising cannot solve.

Glasgow Became Miles Better

The dangers of spending money on advertisements that do not correspond to reality are obvious.

As one Athens market research source pointed out, the problem was not that the foreigners had a wrong negative image of Greece, they had an accurate negative image. This source was surprised that the foreigners surveyed on behalf of the Greek ministry of press were so well informed.

Meanwhile, Spyros Paschentis, a leading management consultant who runs the Athens-based Orco Group, says “the more convincing are the measures that you take to sort out the real problems, the more fruitful your public-relations campaign will be.” A prominent Athens business source is even blunter, warning that without real changes a publicity campaign will be “built on lies.” Signs of a superficial response are already evident. One foreign journalist who recently visited Greece to write about the 2004 Olympic Games remarked that Olympic committee officials were so insistently invoking “transparency,” that they seeded doubt about how transparent the staffing and bidding related to the Games actually are.

Perhaps the most useful example for Greece is also the most unlikely: the Scottish city of Glasgow.

Once an important industrial center whose population peaked at 1.1 million during the last war, Glasgow went through a period of economic and social decline with its large industrial base collapsing. The city became dirty, violent, and poor. The population nearly halved. Then in the early 1980s the Thatcher government and the city council poured in public money and attracted private investment. The soot-covered apartment blocks were cleaned to reveal sand-and-rose-colored stone that had been hidden for decades. Tourism, financial services, and conferences took off-the city is fed by three privately owned international airports.

During the city’s transformation, a PR campaign paid for with public and private money, “Glasgow’s Miles Better,” was launched. The aim was simple: to communicate to outsiders that their old image of Glasgow was now wrong, that Glasgow was going through a renaissance. It worked. Nearly 20 years of persistence have paid off. From being one of Europe’s least-likely tourism destinations, Glasgow now gets 500,000 foreign visitors per year and is Britain’s third-largest destination.

When Greece starts its renaissance, then it is time to let the world know.