Arun Sudhaman 11 Jan 2012 // 12:00AM GMT
Recent news from the UK makes for grim reading, dominated as it is by racial attacks, riots and continued economic gloom. As the country gears up for a year that will see the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, we ask our panel whether there is an international reputation problem that needs addressing.
Chief executive, MHP Communications
Today’s UK doesn’t so much have an image problem as a split personality problem. The two defining images of the UK for the last 12 months are, in equal measure, the image of a citizen jumping into the arms of the police to escape burning civil unrest and, in an ultimate contrast, a beautiful young lady marrying her fairytale prince and receiving the adoration of the world.
It’s easy to think which of these is a “better” image (clearly the latter), but I would argue that both are problematic. In their different ways, both images fail to create any sense of a modern, export driving, dynamic economy. Kate Middleton, whilst pretty, makes us look anachronistic. And the riots have left a stain of a society falling apart at the seams (only compounded in key market India by New Year’s Day’s terrible murder of an Indian student in Manchester).
It’s easy for politicians to argue that the Olympic glow will change this, but that is too glib and the Olympics alone will change nothing. My prescription is that we re-energise the sense of the UK providing a great environment in which to live, and do business, by creating a long term sustained campaign involving urban planners, designers and architects to genuinely create the iconic work and living spaces that will attract, and keep, the global businesses and globally-mobile businesspeople that we need to fuel the next stage in UK PLC’s growth.
It needs more than just spin, it will need actual content and commitment on the part of UK Government to break down planning policy barriers and support the improved infrastructure, built environments and local government and policing policies that will allow those environments to thrive.
CEO, Ketchum Pleon
I think it’s possible the UK has a reputation problem at home – few people seem to worry as much about how they’re perceived abroad as the Brits – but overseas I think our image is hunky-dory. The riots are forgotten and I doubt recent news events managed to penetrate foreign public consciousness in any lasting way.
If anything, many Americans hold an idyllic notion of Britain, somewhere between Downton Abbey and Four Weddings And A Funeral, and while European policymakers may harbour resentment about the British attitude to the euro crisis, the masses are still coming in droves to London. Likewise, Asians and Russians seem undeterred as tourists.
In the run-up to the Olympics and Jubilee, and against a tough economic headwind, I think we need to reinforce safety and security (some abroad are assuming London will be a target); that visiting the UK can be done affordably (London in particular is seen as very expensive) and that Britain remains the world’s best place for doing business.
Founder partner, Perfect Relations
Whether it is the killing of an Indian student or racist insults hurled at a football player in Liverpool or even the rioting in London and some other urban areas last year, this is a problem. It appears to me that social unrest and an underlying current of racism is once again raising its ugly head, sadly, in the UK, perhaps as the economic downturn worsens there.
Social tensions in a multicultural society such as the UK usually do tend to get accentuated in times of economic slowdown. Race crimes are a manifestation of this unrest. Much will depend on the current political leadership in UK and how it can manage to bring communities together and project them as equal partners behind the conduct of big national investments, such as the Olympic Games.
Fortunately, the Games are still some way off. If the economic situation improves and social tensions are brought under control, there may be little reason for the international community and potential foreign visitors to feel concerned. But as of today, students and those unused to being in such environments will be more apprehensive than before.
An enlightened approach to managing this would also include publicising more frequently, safety efforts, visible policing and student outreach programmes. To my mind, the bigger worry factor is beyond the Olympics, it’s about student safety in what used to be an educational haven.
Author, The Changing MO of the CMO
Were Americans' views of Britain shaken last year by the riots and economic unrest in the run-up to this year's Olympic Games and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee? I would say absolutely. The masses in the US are conditioned to think of the UK as a quasi-fairytale land with magical royal weddings, an over-abundance of creative talent, picturesque villages and landscapes, and a range of endearing accents.Unarmed bobbies maintain the safe haven. Even when there were threats of terrorism in the Eighties and Nineties, that was not so much blamed on Brits as it was a small, irksome faction of the Irish.
So when last year's riots ran riot, Americans were surprised, shocked and appalled. Did it curtail tourism? I daresay not given the attraction of the Royal Wedding and its good-feeling aftermath. Will it make people think again in 2012? Possibly, but if there are no further uprisings, everything may settle down. According to an op-ed in The Washington Post, Britain is showing that it can respond with responsible policing, robust political debate and a respect for human rights not shared by other nations.
Only time will tell. At least, the findings of a recent “Hopes and Fears” poll of Britons, revealed in last Sunday’s The Observer, showed fairly balanced views of immigration and integration. Let’s hope for the best.