The number of tourists visiting Georgia increased by 21% in 2013 compared to the previous year. The total number of visitors last year was 5,365,356, up from 4,428,221 in 2012. The number of tourists has been increasing for the last 5 years thanks to significant investments in the tourism sector, especially in hotels and the infrastructure of the Black Sea and mountain resorts. But experts believe the recent tendency of reducing the amount of advertising of the country will worsen the situation again.
“The support of foreign media is important for the country’s image. The reduction in the number of articles will impact on the awareness of the country internationally,” Givi Khachapuridze, Director at PR Consulting Group, told The Financial. “Considering the political factor, radical forces will get the opportunity to evoke negative information about the Government. The decreased coverage in international publications has already become an obstacle for the Government and the country’s image,” Khachapuridze believes.
Khachapuridze recalls the events following October 2012, when all influential publications stated that Georgia had effectively been handed to pro-Russian forces and their leader PM Ivanishvili was a Russian project. “Such information significantly undermined the country’s image. Since then the authorities have made huge efforts in changing this impression of their foreign partners. After a year of intensive work, the Government has managed to neutralize the situation. However, there is still much work to be done in this direction,” he said.
The new government has not refused the services of world leading lobbying companies. However the fund for such expenditure has been reduced. Up until the end of 2013, the Georgian government was cooperating with Patton Boggs, which is an influential lobbying and law company in Washington. PM Ivanishvili personally hired this group for recruiting [promoting - HTN] the Georgian Dream party. Due to the tough election year in 2012, the majority of that time was served by several lobbying companies: Orion Strategies LLC, Prime Policy Group and Gephardt Group Government Affairs, Podesta Group. As far as I know, their service was valued at more than USD 12 million.
“Lobbying companies’ services are expensive, but without them the country would not enjoy a good reputation internationally. The bilateral relations of countries cannot be formed on the basis of leaders’ good relations. This issue requires a systematic approach. The previous government managed it with the help of large financial resources,” said Khachapuridze.
After less than a year in office, the newly-elected Georgian government said no to the country’s promotion via CNN, BBC and other leading international TV channels. “The previous TV campaign was quite simply a waste of money,” said Giorgi Sigua, Head of the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA). Banners, LED screens and billboards, and online advertisements are the new advertising means of choice of the current administration.
Khachapuridze witnessed radical changes in the situation both before and after the presidential elections held in October 2013.
“I would say that the Government does not advertise their activities appropriately. PM Ivanishvili tried to encourage rational decision-making in society. However, transforming public awareness from emotional to rational in a year would be a very difficult process. The fact that during the presidential election only 46% of the population went to the ballot box is good proof of that. Of course, the result was not due only to a lack of advertising, but it does have a significant influence,” said Khachapuridze.
In his words, former PM Ivanishvili refused to use elements of PR. His successor Gharibashvili radically changed this approach after taking office. “The advertisements of the Ministry of Interior are an example of that.”
The current government is trying to distance itself from TV ownership. “Channel 9”, Tbilisi -based television channel owned by PM Ivanishvili’s family, was closed down on 1 September, 2013, sixteen months after it was launched ahead of the 2012 parliamentary elections. Ivanishvili’s decision was affected by criticism from international media organizations.
A television station with the same name was founded and funded by Ivanishvili till April 2004 when Ivanishvili unexpectedly closed it down. After going into politics, Ivanishvili said that his decision to shut down his television station after the Rose Revolution was a mistake.
The form of PR used by the current government is unclear to Archil Gamzardia, public communications management specialist. “As time passes it is becoming clear that they face a lack of specialists in this field.”
“This may be for the fact that there is a high amount of personal intrigue in the Government and everyone’s trying to get a slice of the ‘pie’. Due to this many specialists are not allowed to get involved in the processes. The ruling coalition consists of several parties; in it everyone has their own interests. Fear of the opposition party - the United National Movement - is the only reason why the coalition does not collapse. This fear makes their unity artificial but still sustainable. Thus the Government’s public campaign becomes multifaceted. It involves the personal interests of various individuals. It often happens that members of the coalition block each other in image campaigns. Overall they are hampering the large-scale promotion of the administration, including those that would benefit them. This is a poor quality process and will reflect on the results,” said Gamzardia.
“A PR campaign does not just mean the creation of artificial circumstances and satisfaction out of nothing in the public consciousness. First of all it is about creating a reality that society needs. Otherwise the achievements of public relations become short term prospects,” Gamzardia explained.
“You need a real product that will have a positive impact on the public’s consciousness, its correct presentation and marketing in society. The process of PR involves mutual harmony. Otherwise it will just be a propaganda methodology. Thus, over the years we have been seeing not so much PR methods, but rather a propagandistic means of communication,” Gamzardia added.
In his words, the current government is no exception in this regard. “It may be in relatively weak doses, but they mainly built their public campaign with the same technologies. More importantly though, if the public does not accept the product, in which the governments exists only under artificial promotion and image-making conditions, there will be no long-term results.”
According to Khachapuridze, as Georgians have got used to an active advertising campaign from the authorities, the current activity seems invisible to us. “In some cases this is true. The Government needs to be more active in this direction. The local elections are coming up, which is another challenge for running a PR campaign.”
Khachapuridze suggested the Government use more resources during the self-government elections than they did during the presidential elections.
“At this point there is nothing alarming for the majority in a limited PR campaign, but in the long term it could be threatening. Considering the economic problems, devaluation of the national currency and other pressing issues, the reduced PR campaign of the Government will have a negative impact,” he added.
“The PR campaign of the state is strong walls built on a strong foundation and this is a good representation. We basically meet a “building” without a foundation - or flow of unsubstantiated information, which is only temporary and does not provide important benefit to anyone. The Government should fulfil its obligations and be effectively presented to both internal and external audiences,” said Gamzardia.
Khachapuridze predicted that from today’s perspective, government activity may not have a negative impact on the 2014 municipal elections, but the 2016 parliamentary elections will be quite difficult for the majority.
“PR campaign spending at this stage is more useful on the domestic market rather than the external. More media support for Georgian specialists from various departments is what’s really desirable. All of the government members cannot go to each citizen on an individual basis and show what they have done. This is the function of the media. The Government should apply to more resources in this regard. PR, somehow, is seen as a mechanism of cheating on people in our reality. Informing society timely, accurately and effectively is what PR is actually about. The Government should manage to become the main creator of news in the country, instead of any opposition party,” Khachapuridze said.