Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Enough Is Enough

Greece is one of the few countries that has been tried, convicted and sentenced to flaying alive in the court of global public opinion. The once proud Hellenic Republic has become the flashing neon sign for corruption, tax evasion, dysfunctional bureaucratic and judicial systems, and a broken political system that misled its partners and failed to deliver basic economic security to its own citizens. Foreign politicians and pundits have been merciless in their steady drumbeat of criticism, schadenfreude, and bad jokes about Greece.

Unfortunately, other than groveling and saying mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, please dear sir give me more money, Greek leaders have done very little to counter this damning indictment.

Can I get the next loan disbursement, please?
Greek officials at home and abroad act like small woodland animals paralyzed in the glare of the headlights of a huge, rapidly moving truck labeled Troika – European Central Bank, European Union, and the International Monetary Fund.

This litany of unfavorable, condescending media coverage would be merely sad and somewhat humiliating if it didn’t affect real economic decisions from tourism to investments. The charms that make Greece a wonderful tourist destination still exist.

The Reality  .  .   .
The sun, the sea, the unmatchable islands, the mountains, the cultural heritage are still here. But given the sharp drop in tourism this year you would think Greece has suddenly become Elizabeth, New Jersey.

And the current perception of a holiday in Greece
I have spoken with several potential major investors who are very polite until I mention the word ‘Greece’. Any suggestion that Greece does, in fact, have some very interesting investment opportunities is met with words not found in a family newspaper.

The negative impact of this very public global trial seems to be lost on Greek leaders. They don’t seem to understand the broad, global dimension of the damage. Their response so far has been narrowly focused on private meetings with European leaders and bankers. I met with the press officer of a major Greek embassy in Europe and said he must be very busy meeting with the local media to share information about Greece. Absolutely not. If anyone from the media called he ran for cover. I asked how he communicated the daily messages and information he must get from Athens. What messages? What information? There were no messages, no guidelines, nothing from Athens to counter the avalanche of bad press. “Oh,” he said, “They did send me a nice poster of Mykonos once.”

The tragic irony of this non-policy is that Greece actually has a story to tell. Obviously there many critical bureaucratic and administrative reforms that remain to be done, but it is time to start giving credit for what has been accomplished. On the foreign trade side, for one, the trade deficit has declined from €33.7 bn in 2009 to €20.8 bn in 2011 as imports dropped 10% while exports jumped 56%. Interestingly, exports to Turkey have almost tripled since 2009, and that country is now Greece’s third largest export market, just behind Italy and Germany. A recent report from Goldman Sachs noted the real drop in Greek labor costs and government expenses. The Goldman report also says that much of this improvement is structural rather than merely a reflection of the deep recession in Greece.

What to do about this? The last thing Greece needs now is a program to fix the image of the country. No amount of polishing will make the antics of the ridiculous political class over the last several decades look reasonable. It’s enough to communicate effectively the reality of Greece, to acknowledge the costly mistakes of the past and to focus now on the real steps taken to repair the damage of those policies.

Greece is rich in talent at home and abroad if it wants to come out of the bunker and start communicating effectively. First, the various public and private groups in Greece need to clarify the message. Exactly what do you want to say? Selecting and training the right people to give this message would also help. While every government minister’s wife may think he looks and sounds like George Clooney, the reality more often is that he comes across on television like Mr.Bean.

No Comment

Be careful who you put in front of the public or on the box. One bad presentation can undo months of work. Mobilize the diaspora. Make better use of the dedicated and talented diplomatic corps. Take advantage of the global presence of Greek business people.

It’s time to end the open season on Greece and change the dialogue. Instead of hammering away at sins of the past and what Greece should do, start to focus on what Greece has accomplished and what it actually can do. Ultimately Greece will make the reforms required to change the economic and administrative structure of the country. They probably will never satisfy those who want to turn Greece into Bavaria-by-the-sea, but that’s not going to happen regardless. Greeks will remain Greeks and will resist being shoved into someone else’s mold.

Changing deeply ingrained perceptions takes time and money, but the cost of doing nothing is much, much greater.

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