With Soviet enemy gone, NATO polishes its brand
By Stephen Castle
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
International Herald Tribune
BRUSSELS: A top executive at Coca-Cola, Michael Stopford, spends much of his working life guarding its image. But in August, he starts working on an even more powerful global name: NATO.
A British-born American, Stopford is a specialist in managing reputations. His career combines time at Coca-Cola and Exxon Mobil with two decades in the public sector, including the United Nations and the British Foreign Office.
By hiring Stopford, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has shown how determined it is to revamp its image as it approaches its 60th anniversary in 2009.
Eighteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and confronted by evidence of ignorance or indifference among many in its 26 member nations, NATO is rethinking how it communicates with the taxpayers who pay for it.
For example, at its headquarters here, the alliance has created an Internet-based service called NATO TV and established a media operations center just for Afghanistan, with 14 media officers.
More radical changes are planned, said Jean-François Bureau, a former chief spokesman for the French Defense Ministry who became NATO’s assistant secretary general for public diplomacy last year.
"We have the green light to think about branding policy for NATO," said Bureau, who aims to present the strategy in time for the 60th anniversary summit meeting next year.
During the Cold War years, when Western and Warsaw Pact tanks massed on either side of the Iron Curtain, the idea of a brand for NATO would have been ludicrous because everyone knew why it was important.
Not any more.
Unlike the European Union, which is also headquartered in Brussels, NATO does not conduct regular opinion surveys, but an internal document on the alliance’s image cites data from German Marshall Fund surveys. While the number of those who believe NATO remains essential for security increased in the United States by 4 percent from 2002 to 2007, it declined by 19 percent in Germany, 12 percent in Britain, 13 percent in Italy and 8 percent in Poland.
One internal document notes that large parts of the population of NATO countries have only vague ideas about the alliance, its purpose and policies. Often their perceptions are based on Cold War stereotypes. The document underlines the need to convey messages about the organization to a larger audience, reaching out to young people and women as well as opinion leaders.
Stopford declined to comment because he has not yet taken up his new NATO position. But his priority is likely to be helping the organization explain how its activities impact on daily life and how trans-Atlantic security should not be taken for granted, according to one official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
At NATO headquarters, this work is seen as vital to the alliance’s future.
"We are acting on the basis of public support," Bureau said. "It was true for the Balkans, and it’s more important for fighting terrorism. If people don’t feel that there is a link between what the soldiers are doing and their own security, then legitimacy is at stake."
The collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to take away NATO’s reason to exist, and then it went into battle for the first time – in Europe.
The 1999 Kosovo conflict was a serious test for NATO and divided people across Europe. The bombing campaign itself was controversial, with Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent in London, describing the huge, four-pronged metal logo outside the alliance headquarters as the Death Star, a reference to the Empire’s evil forces in "Star Wars."
To its alarm, NATO seemed to be losing the public relations war to Serbia. It called on the services of Alastair Campbell, then spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, to supervise a team of specialist media officers in Brussels.
Increasing support for NATO will not be an easy task, according to Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former chief executive of the European Defense Agency.
"Its major engagement is in Afghanistan and we have all heard that it is make or break," he said.
"There are a lot of European citizens who believe the best response to Islamic jihadism is to stay home and hide under the duvet," Witney said. "Defense is no longer a business of manning the ramparts or preparing to resist invasion. It has to be about an attempt to project stability. It is a hard doctrine to get people to believe in."
Nearly a decade after the Kosovo conflict, NATO needs to communicate different messages to audiences from Kabul to Kansas. It must also adapt to the needs of new media and a younger generation that gets its information electronically.
"We have been emitting messages without knowing where they go or if the people who receive them have more questions," Bureau said. He noted that his annual budget for public diplomacy of 8 million, or more than $12 million, is the same as for the French Defense Ministry alone.
The alliance’s chief spokesman, James Appathurai, has been upgrading his operation. When he arrived at NATO, he said, "we were still talking mainly to newspapers."
"There was very little video production, very little Web production," Appathurai said. "If you want to talk to anyone under 30 you have to have video. We had no video gathering capability – one team of two guys. We had no presence on TV and virtually none on the Web."
The idea behind NATO TV, which the Danish government is financing as an experiment, is to bypass the conventional media, which Appathurai believes are too focused on the negative.
"With NATO TV we want to show the story that the broadcast journalists don’t automatically show because it isn’t bad news," he said. "We are using the Web like everyone else uses the Web: to get around the filter of the news editors. Not to show propaganda – because it is true – but to show the other side of the story, which is not getting through the filter."
Though he admits the impact is limited so far, Appathurai believes that NATO TV is an important link, for example, to families of soldiers in Afghanistan.
Witney believes that reimaging NATO may be easier said than done.
"Brands do go to the basic purpose: What is the point of this organization?" he said. "NATO lost its primary rationale on the day the Warsaw Pact closed up business. It has been casting around for a different identity and role so it remains relevant. The jury seems to be out on whether it has succeeded."