New York Times,15 July 2008
With Soviet enemy gone, NATO polishes its brand
By Stephen Castle
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.