Latvia’s image abroad may be shaped by the people of Latvia, but it is conveyed for the most part by non-Latvians.
Although no hard data are available, my guess is that 90 percent of the people in the world who know something about Latvia today learned about it from a non-Latvian. Apart from those who actually visit Latvia, most people in the world have heard, read or seen something about Latvia that was written, produced, edited, published or broadcast by the international media. Now that Latvia is joining the European Union and the NATO defense alliance, the amount of material produced by non-Latvians in the international press or on TV and radio is increasing by leaps and bounds.
That’s one of the reasons why during the first five years of its existence, the Latvian Institute (LI) has focused on developing relations with the foreign media as one of its strategic priorities. Limited funding is another. If you don’t have the money to make your own films, videos, news programs, commercials or magazines that will reach millions of viewers and readers, you have to work with those who do.
The institute was established by the Latvian government in 1998 to promote Latvia’s image abroad. But before you can “promote” an image, you have to establish an information base that people can access and understand. When Latvia restored its independence in 1991, there was very little information available about Latvia in English, or any other language, other than that which the Soviets had provided to encyclopaedias and the international news media for 50 years.
The first task of the LI was to begin building a new information base, in English, about all the various aspects of Latvian life that foreigners could be interested in. Although the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economics had begun producing some materials for their specialized audiences, there was very little about Latvian culture, history, society or nature that was of interest to a broader public.
Over the last five years the LI has developed an Internet home page and a series of brochures, booklets and fact sheets to fill this gap. While these materials do reach some foreigners directly, they are just one part of a strategy designed to reach a much broader audience. The LI also assists Latvian ministries, government agencies and the private sector in the development and organization of conferences, seminars and other events targeted at international audiences.
The audiences at international events consist of specialists who, like journalists, take information they have received and pass it on. They write articles, reports and books that reach an even wider audience. They also make policy, convey opinions, initiate programs and develop projects that people in Latvia could never dream of undertaking.
We live in an information age, where those who have the resources, money, skills and talent to make information interesting and relevant can reach billions. Our goal at the LI is to inform the informers about Latvia. As we enter our sixth year of operation, the LI has established contacts with thousands of the “information elite”—journalists, editors, producers, publishers, researchers, academicians and promoters. Most have produced print and multi-media materials about Latvia based on our contacts with them. We arrange interviews and briefings, organize tours or simply answers questions. Many are return customers who come to rely on the LI for reliable and useful information about Latvia’s past, present and future.
The LI recently introduced a new law to the Latvian government that would expand the role and resources of the institute in coordinating the way government ministries and agencies provide information about Latvia. The initial goal is to review what is already being done, and do it better.
Until now, we have simply tried to fill the knowledge gap and provide useful information to those around the world who are interested in this country called Latvia. Informing about Latvia is one thing. Promoting it is something else altogether. Toward this end we have begun research on the prospect of “branding” Latvia, i.e. developing a targeted marketing concept, strategy and campaign to promote tourism, foreign investment and export sales. But that will take time, money and considerable coordination.
For now, the Latvian Institute remains Latvia’s only “one-stop shopping” source for any and all information about Latvia. We collect it, we convert it, we convey it and we share it. Finally, after a half century of silence, the word is getting out.
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