Carl Spielvogel, the new American ambassador, has truly put his shoulder to the wheel in suggesting that the private sector 'sell' Slovakia to the rest of the world as a tourist and investment destination. But given the lack of marketing know-how here, and the resistance Slovaks feel to viewing themselves and their country as products that can be sold, one wonders how much forward impetus the ambassador's business contacts and personal enthusiasm can impart.
The need for basic marketing skills certainly exists. One only has to look at the resumés that one receives as an employer to see how little even young people understand the need for turning themselves out well. It's not just that the resumés are confusing, it's that they give almost no indication that the author is aware of any personal skills that might be attractive to a prospective employer. Doubtless part of the problem stems from communism, whose egalitarian principles frowned on any sort of self-promotion, but at least some of it betrays reluctance to see oneself as marketable, and thus ultimately reducible to a list of useful skills.
Similar problems exist with the management teams of Slovak firms, who often regard business as an investment-intensive affair - in other words, build an expensive factory and sit behind the reception desk waiting for the phone to ring. The foreign consultancy teams now criss-crossing the country trying to prime troubled companies to woo investors say that marketing remains the biggest challenge. Older managers, they say, with few language skills and no idea of how to promote their wares on foreign markets, are completely at sea when it comes to preparing an alluring business plan. What is worse, given their positions they are often loathe to be corrected.
Even the government, which ostensibly includes greater intellects than one would find in a similar-sized group of ordinary managers, has not mastered the marketing game. Not only are classic promotional opportunities misspent (OECD invitation, investment conferences and round tables), but the bad news (political bickering and backstabbing, corruption etc.) spreads with a rapidity and over a radius that would do credit to the best marketing firm in the world. Nevertheless, state officials remain jealous of their authority and unwilling to yield it even to other bureaucrats, far less private sector consultants.
Human nature being what it is, people sometimes reject a cure when they are most in need of it. Ambassador Spielvogel may have no problem convincing the advertising/media community of what is needed, but whether the promotion team will be able to erase the gloomy scowls on the face of Slovak citizens is another proposition altogether. The ambassador has been struck, as we all have, by Slovakia's beauty and potential; communicating that vision to a people brought up on images of political corruption and moral decay will be a major challenge.
A promotional role will also have to be found for state institutions. Ambassador Spielvogel proposes working with government bodies such as the SARIO investment agency wherever possible, to avoid "reinventing the wheel" and giving people the feeling that Slovak institutions are being ignored. And in terms of investment, this strategy may work well for the time being, as the state's pro-FDI apparatus is small, manageable and staffed for the most part by reasonable people. But tourism is another matter, with the government not yet having identified an overall strategy and underfunding pitting bureaucrats against each other for scarce resources.
In the longer term, what becomes of the reform of public administration will be another major question. The reform proposes to have 12 regional governments elected, and given authority over much of what concerns them. If this actually happens, that means 12 new governments which must be given a place in the promotional hierarchy, and trained to market local rather than national resources.
Teaching Slovaks how to market their country is a good idea, and one whose time has come. But while many institutional barriers remain, those are perhaps secondary to the psychological hurdle of seeing oneself and one's country as commodities that could be sold to foreigners. These may be concepts that fall easily from Western tongues, from people whose positive experience of capitalism has taught them not to fear a process that may seem to demean people's worth as individuals. But for Slovaks, whose experience of a free market economy has been nothing if not painful, rendering this latest due unto Caesar may take some getting used to.
20. Nov 2000 at 0:00