The Untapped Power of Regional Politics. PR expert on how to fix Visegrad brand
Vojtěch Boháč: How do you perceive the Visegrad group from your professional point of view? What do you think can be improved?
Szymon Walkiewicz: The main question is: “What is the V4?” In the very beginning, when they set up the group, the task was clear and everybody knew its purpose. However, after the four countries entered the EU in 2004, it should have signalled the end of the V4. That would have been a great success and proof that cooperation and collaboration between countries beyond borders is possible.
Since 2004, when I think about the V4, I am not sure whether those countries have the same drive and purpose anymore. From the public relations perspective, it is hard to build a brand if you don’t have the same common values. Those who created the group – Antall, Walesa and Havel – were symbols of freedom fighting for democracy. The values of the current V4 governments are a bit different.
In 1990, Vaclav Havel said in the Polish parliament: “Now we have an opportunity to transform Central Europe from what has been a mainly historical and spiritual phenomenon into a political phenomenon. […] Then we can approach the richer nations of Western Europe, not as poor failures or helpless, recently amnestied prisoners of the USSR, but as countries that can make a genuine contribution. What we have to offer are spiritual and moral impulses, courageous peace initiatives, underexploited creative potential, and the special ethos created by our freshly won freedom. We can offer the inspiration to consider swift and daring solutions.” How can branding the V4 help us in such efforts?
I think that those words are very wise. Their strength and truth are motivating and could be the base for an empowering, supportive approach if we could implement them in the V4. Sadly, they made more sense in the 90’s.
When you are fresh, you have different experiences to draw inspiration from, you have something to say. In many ways, we lived up to those ideas because the V4 countries worked very hard till 2004. Now, it is too late, you can’t use the same rallying call anymore; you can’t build a brand on something that is 26 years old. In my opinion, it was good at that time, but not for now.
Do you see any positive content upon which we can start building the V4 brand?
The biggest problem of the V4 is that it hasn’t redefined itself since 2004. Certainly, it is a daunting challenge which many in the countries might be timid in attempting. The reasons are obvious, the countries have different visions of Europe, of the EU and totally different approaches to society and democracy.
Let’s compare two regional identities, the first being CEE – Central and Eastern Europe. And if you think of CEE, there is a lot of what Havel said: an essence of the eastern soul, a great heritage, the willingness to fight for freedom, a shared, sad history of very hard times from the 50’s to the beginning of 90’s. When you think about CEE, it stands for something.
The V4 is little bit like CEE, but when you say V4 or Visegrad group, people don’t really understand what you are talking about. The CEE is for me more like the Scandinavian countries. When you think about Scandinavians, it stands for something. It is a unique lifestyle, design aesthetic, atmosphere and ecology. Those are values and aspects which you can build a brand on. When you say CEE, it is also something; it is the eastern way of doing things. It is the approach, the heritage, the strength, the belief in freedom, but what is the V4? I can’t recall what the V4 stands for.
Do you suggest abandoning the V4 brand and starting with a new one?
Well, yes and no. I would probably move back to the Bratislava declaration from 2011. It states that the V4 is here “to develop the principles expressed in the values of the four freedoms which open up new opportunities for jobs, economic cooperation, trade, investments and contacts among citizens.”
While the V4 has the potential to be a great brand for Central Europe, this will depend on if the governments shift from thinking about their global political positions and focus instead on regional politics. They should develop stronger relationships between the four countries by expanding the infrastructure for exchanging information, money and technology. They should have grants and programs for entrepreneurs and students alike.
Today, students from Warsaw would like to go on exchange programs in Spain, and this is understandable considering how easy it is do so and the obvious benefit of increased sunshine. But if they were given scholarships to Budapest, trust me, people would consider going to Budapest. They will meet people, make friends, they could actually raise a family there. These small connections, multiplied many times over, will increase the bonds between the countries, and it is not just about the students. Businesses and entrepreneurs can tie the countries and their citizens together by incentivizing them with capital and the potential for economic betterment.
This is the direction V4 should follow. We can’t fight with the politics of the EU or compete with the Scandinavian lifestyle. What we should do is build a brand for the place where we live. Globally, we achieved what we wanted in 2004. Now, we should focus on solving our problems and bringing our citizens closer together.
Do you think that we shouldn’t care whether other countries recognize us or not?
To build a brand, you need common values. If you want to build an international brand on the geopolitical map, you need to have consensus from all the members. Today, this is just impossible. Even if Orban, Sobotka, Fico and Szydło had similar mindsets, I still don’t think that it would be good for developing the block within the EU. These politicians think about their respective countries first from a national perspective: “we, the people of Poland”, or “we, the people of Hungary”. The only types of policy they can agree on are the ones that go against the will of the EU as a whole. And it is not really smart to build the brand of the V4 by pivoting against the European Union. Again, to not kill the V4 outright, I would focus on local politics.
You don’t need to be on the top level in geopolitics to create the sensation of great activity. If you build a highway from Warsaw to Budapest and have a stronger vision of how to cooperate together, people will hear about it, and the word will spread organically. This is how you build a brand, through long-term cooperation. It is more about corporate and public affairs and PR, not top-level geopolitics. The groups managing at this level have already cemented their positions, and there is no space for the V4 right now.
We have the Erasmus program, which we can use for exchanges in V4 countries, but for some reason students still choose Spain or France more often than Poland or Hungary. There are also the V4 scholarships, but people don’t really use them. How would you encourage the people from V4 countries to stay within the region?
First, I have to define the problem. Why do people prefer going to Spain with Erasmus than to Budapest? I don’t know of any specific research that supports this, so let’s hypothesize for now.
From my perspective, the reason is that moving within the V4 only requires a change of address, and the essence of adventure is limited. In Spain, the changes are more notable: the sun, the culture, the emotions including even the romantic notions stemming from flamenco… all of this is really PR. If you have never been to Prague, Bratislava or Budapest, you just don’t know how beautiful those cities are and there is no way you can imagine it. They have no PR. Prague has the best image due to their Hollywood connections, several famous films have been set there, so it has been promoted really well. But the other cities are not that sexy at all. Worst of all is Warsaw, a city lacking definition. Warsaw is the capital of Poland. Wow. That’s it. When you say Krakow, you get more excited. This, again, is PR. So, this is first thing I would point out is the lack of positive PR within the V4.
The second problem is that you have to attract people. There are ways to solve this though; say if you come to Budapest as a student, we will pay your rent. When you bring in students, you bring with them atmosphere and culture. In turn, they will start to promote the places where they came from. This can cause a snowball effect where more will go on exchange and more PR will follow.
If you were in power, what would be your first steps to make change? How do you envisage starting such transformation?
Well, I’ve done some research before we met and in all the documents I found one common thing that grabbed my attention. We talk a lot, we discuss a lot, but we don’t come up with any solutions. It is kind of a gentlemen’s club. The first step would be: stop talking, and start acting.
But answering your question, I would say that the crucial thing is to define the role of the V4. The next meeting of the V4 should be about trying to answer one question: what are we for? After that decision has been reached, I would leave the prime ministers and start working with department directors responsible for education, transport, student exchanges and grants. To be successful, we need cooperation on the lower levels. Leave the big politics to the prime ministers and just report every half a year or so. Let the people get to work, and don’t impede them with blue-sky ideas.
What are the most serious obstacles in building a common brand? Are they the current politicians?
Politicians are in charge of the V4, so in some way the politicians are the main obstacle. But when you look at the way in which Orban, Szydło or Fico think about their countries, they are more focused inward than outward. More focused on themselves as a country, more focused on building the strength of the country, the pride and heritage. That is something that makes the space for political cooperation very narrow.
Let’s take Poland as an example. If I think about myself as a “Pole”, it means I have a thousand-year-long history of fighting the Russians, Germans, Swedes and sometimes also the Czechs. But it doesn’t stop there; if I am a “Pole”, it means that I come from the biggest, strongest country in the Central Europe, and I want to be the leader of all the political activities in this area. But Slovaks and Czechs are as proud as we are, and they don’t want the Polish to rule them. Thus, we reach an ideological impasse.
In terms of common values, Central Europeans do think similarly, just from their own individual perspectives. Imagine these leaders coming together on one ultimate goal. For the past several years, it has been possible, but only because they just talk and don’t act, don’t attempt to solve any difficult problems. If they would be more strategic with the power of the V4 and focus on the local and regional aspects, that would be much easier because there are fewer issues to contend with.
What should be the relationship between the V4 brand and the brands of each respective country within the V4? Isn’t it a conflict to promote both?
I can give you the analogy of Lipton tea. When you see a commercial for Lipton tea, it always ends with: Lipton, by Unilever. Here, Unilever is the V4, and Poland is Lipton. But if you do that, then where is the EU? Is it ok to promote the group without the EU? Originally, the V4 was an instrument to join the EU, and we still have not addressed the problem that after 2004 the V4 is a bit artificial. It becomes more problematic when you belong to three or four groups because your core message becomes muddied. It doesn’t matter whether you talk about a group of countries or you talk about Lipton tea. The communication has to be clear and understandable.
Do you see any group of states which have already done it? Which have a strong brand created by a branding agency?
When I look at the European Union, I see 100% brand. It has a story; it has a corporate identity in terms of a flag and an anthem; it has certain rules that define it. The benchmark is the European Union, and the EU has more than one PR agency that work on it.
When we talk about the Nordic countries, it is just a matter of time when they will start building the idea of the Nordic group based on this definition of the Scandinavian lifestyle. It is a reality worth sharing, and it has an impact beyond their borders, beyond any politician’s preferences. Scandinavian means cool, good looking, well-designed, beautiful cars, beautiful furniture. You can’t mix the Scandinavian style with any other style; it just is its own thing.
Can we do the same with the CEE brand?
The CEE could be a direction for the development of the V4 brand. Maybe the V4 should start talking from a perspective of the V4 / CEE. And you start to exchange V4 with CEE more often, and, at some point, the V4 will fade away and the CEE will be the brand. But still, if you want this to happen, you need strong leaders.
In terms of mentality the CEE is a border area. It has a different mindset and lifestyle than Western Europe. Yet, we can bring these two cultures together because we understand our people, our markets. But without the V4, the CEE won’t happen because you need a leader, someone who will make it happen.
However, I want to reiterate that I would focus regionally first. We’ve completed so many projects together; we have so much in common. We can build the brand not as a global brand, but as a Central European brand. These four countries are cool and sexy. All you have to do is your homework: define the problem, find the solution and start acting, not just talking.
Szymon Walkiewicz – Owner and business development director in Walk Group. Walk Group is a Polish award winning full service advertising agency with strong event marketing department. With university degree in business and years of experiences in advertising Walkiewicz started his business in 2005.
Vojtěch Boháč – Visegrad Insight’s intern in 2016. Czech freelance journalist with focus on Central and East European affairs. Correspondent of Czech monthly “Reporter” and “Denik Referendum.” He covered Ukraine in 2013 – 2015, European Refugee Crisis or developments in Poland after 2015 legislative elections.
This article was first published in Visegrad Insight 1 (10) 2017.