Serbia’s Image: Great PR Got Us Here, Great PR Should Get Us Out

Ok, so the title of this post is a little controversial and could even be misleading from a certain perspective. This is a personal blog so I get to do that (within reason) every once in a while. Got your attention didn’t it? And there is much truth to the statement. It should read: “Decades of bad politics and a few years of someone else’s great PR got us here, good politics and great PR from us should get us out”. I have mentioned time and again that I try to keep this blog away from politics but, let’s face it, separating Serbia from politics entirely is impossible. I’d have better luck solving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis single-handedly.

So, what exactly do I mean by the above statement? Just what it says. As the break up of what was the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia began in the early 90’s, one of the best public relations campaigns ever was being launched. As a matter of fact, it is considered the most successful campaign in the history of any U.S. PR firm by most PR and advertising experts. Diana Johnstone summarizes the feat well in her 2002 book Fool’s Crusade (Creating a Public Opinion): “On 7 July 1991… a major unilateral step was taken in the most decisive of all wars in Yugoslavia: the public relations war. On 12 August 1991, the Croatian government hired the American public relations firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to ‘develop and carry out strategies and tactics for communication with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with officials of the U.S. government including the State Department, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies and departments of the U.S. government as well as with American and international news media’.”

Smart cookies, if you ask me. Given the opportunity, I would’ve done no less. The politicians on all sides of this particular Balkan conflict had all been educated, in one way or another, in Tito’s Yugoslavia – a country that relied on public relations and propaganda like no other in the world. Tito’s Yugoslavia had not only managed to keep decent relations with both sides of the Iron Curtain, but was the only socialist country in the world to receive financial aid from both the U.S. and British governments, while holding on to the U.S.S.R.’s cooperation and promise of military and other aid. That took some quick thinking and smooth talking. In other words, it took some expert public relations know-how. Which is exactly why I find it so surprising that the Serbian leaders of the 90’s failed so greatly in the media war of their time. True, it was the first media war of this magnitude and perhaps importance but they had the expertise on hand and the funds to react immediately. They didn’t. Modern telecommunications and media were growing and developing like never before in the 1990’s. Anyone who had anything invested in the public opinion needed to move and learn fast. As has been the case with Serbia throughout history, a delayed and blazé reaction was the problem.  Too little, too late.

Once again, we are entering an era in which media and communication tools are developing at light speed. Yes, folks, this is just the tip of the iceberg and we are only beginning to find ways to use the technology we already have while new technology is being developed as we speak. We can’t even begin to imagine how the next generation will be using what we develop today. Will they even have to leave their home to go to work, or study or shop? What will their needs and wants as consumers be? How will they receive their daily dose of information? Will there be any need for print newspaper or physical retail spaces?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but living in Serbia, a country that has always been dedicated to being in step with the latest fashion, technology and trends (but not always able to afford it), I can tell you that we are moving into a completely new world. I can see the trends developing right here, especially in Serbia’s rural areas where modern tools of communication are all that the younger generations have to rely on for new trends, information or ordering and purchasing what they otherwise would not have available to them. From my layman’s perspective, I see the world a decade from now in a modern state of feudalism. I see consumers here and worldwide being divided and identified by their interests, by the websites they visit, socialize on, and do business with instead of by nationality, age groups or professional circumstances. Word-of-mouth was always and continues to be the most successful road to the formation of public opinion. Now there are just new, faster, perhaps better ways of using that.

I’m glad to see Serbia taking that step forward these days. Today I passed by a bus belonging to Belgrade’s public transportation system that was adorned from head to tyre in a well designed advertisement for one of Serbia’s most successful websites. This particular website doesn’t even sell anything other than a huge amount of advertising space and paid content and still they’re investing in one of the simplest and most efficient forms of advertising to “get the word out”. Many businesses in Serbia still don’t understand that one must invest money in order to make money. As a typical Serbian consumer and citizen, I’m hoping good PR will help in that area as well.  Screw the military. The questions on my mind, as a single working mother who plans on a future in this country for herself and her child, are:  will we be able to handle another major media war and will we be able to have a sustainable economy with viable modern businesses in the future?

Yesterday, in opening the first International Conference of the Public Relations Association of Serbia, aptly named Creating Image and Managing Reputation, Serbia’s Minister for Environment and Spatial Planning, Oliver Dulić said: “Serbia has lost its good image and the key problem is how to fix it.” Needless to say, the 90’s are over so no need to put a spin on those days anymore and I believe we have plenty to work with in a more positive light today. But there is work to be done. Glad to see the boys and girls of Serbia’s PR world are on board and working on current and future trends. I’m just hoping we can get the local consumers and the world on board too.

One response to “Serbia’s Image: Great PR Got Us Here, Great PR Should Get Us Out

  1. Hey, it’s great to read social (and political) analysis from Serbia. In this way, I can better prepare for my visit in 2011/12, on vacation and to make some great videos of beautiful Serbia for distribution, in order to promote the country.