Friday, November 2, 2007

Albania, Karen Hughes

Just got back from Tirana and the Economist's Round Table with the Government of Albania, and was greeted with the news that Karen Hughes, Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy at the U.S. State Department, has resigned.

Two countries battling against a negative image they are convinced they don't deserve, two sets of officials asking "why do they hate us?", two countries complaining that the good stories just don't seem to be able to get out.

Albania is in many ways the typical case of a transition state whose reputation lags painfully behind the reality: since the end of Communism, the country has made notable social and economic progress, but this appears to have had almost no impact on popular perceptions of the country. The 'professional' audiences - such as investors, diplomats, tour operators, bankers and business people - are, of course, better informed about the place, and some of them are quite excited about Albania's prospects, but the general public is twenty years behind the curve. From the way most Europeans talk about Albania, you would think that King Zog was still on the throne.

Albania's problem is the fact that most people are far too busy worrying about their own countries and their own lives to give much thought to a country they know little about and will probably never visit, and they are unlikely to go to any trouble to update the shallow, convenient, prejudiced narrative they hold in their heads about such places. Modest progress, growing stability and sensible reforms don't make headlines and don't interest people who have no personal connection with the place. Evil tyrants, self-styled monarchs, repulsive regimes, shocking repression: these are the stories that make the media and become the common currency of a country's international image.

If I've learned one thing in the years I've been working in this field, it's the sad, simple fact that public opinion will never voluntarily 'trade down' from a juicy story to a boring one.

Karen Hughes, with her energetic and well-meaning attempts to communicate how tolerant and benign the USA really is, to publics that, largely, detest the place (and for, largely, very good reasons) suffered from the same misapprehension as the the Government of Albania: both think that nice stories will kill nasty ones.

They are both wrong. Strong stories can only be killed by stronger ones.