Since the beginning of the year, I have discussed the topic of nation branding in various PR INDONESIA editions because I firmly believe that we need to take this matter seriously. It is an often-quoted anecdote that Bali is more widely known than Indonesia, clearly indicating that a gap in understanding about Indonesia is fundamental and urgently needs to be corrected.

Responding with a wry smile or a frown at the ignorance of the international world about Indonesia is inadequate. Active measures are called for to rectify misperceptions about our country to allow Indonesia to play a more significant role internationally commensurate with its strategic importance. It is apparent that essential facts have not been communicated well over a lengthy period.

We must convey to the world that Indonesia is the largest archipelagic country, the fourth largest democratic country, and a member of a group of countries comprising the world’s largest economies known as the G20, whose presidency this year is held by Indonesia. Many foreigners are surprised to learn that the distance from the westernmost point of Indonesia to the other end is equivalent to the distance from Reykjavik in Iceland to Baku in Azerbaijan or Anchorage in Alaska at the northern tip of the American continent to Monterrey in Mexico.

I often meet first-time visitors to Jakarta who are amazed that the actual situation is far removed from the picture in their mind’s eye before witnessing first-hand that it is a vast and rather a modern metropolis. One of our closest neighbors, Australia, does more business with Malaysia and Thailand. These two Southeast Asian countries have economic structures that are not that much different from Indonesia’s. However, their economies are far smaller than ours. Moreover, Indonesia is geographically closer to Australia.

Presumably, much of the disparity is rooted in a lack of awareness that may be overcome with a broader and deeper knowledge of business and economic potential that we need to credibly communicate, among others, by means of nation branding or public diplomacy.

Punching Power
Some countries, such as New Zealand, Singapore, and Israel, exert far greater power or influence on the international scene relative to their sizes. These countries are said to be “punching above their weight,” like a bantamweight boxer whose punches are as powerful as a welterweight boxer. The global influence of aforesaid countries far exceeds their size. The term “punching below one’s weight” denotes exactly the opposite. As a lesser-known country, Indonesia is a giant that punches weakly, figuratively speaking.

Several news headlines highlight Indonesia’s perceived lack of ability to play a more significant role in the international world. On April 9, 2022, the Bloomberg business news agency published an article titled “Indonesia Has Been Punching Below Its Weight”. On April 21, 2016, the Diplomat published an article entitled “Indonesia’s Hesitancy on the Global Stage – The country has long punched below its weight when it comes to foreign affairs”. Such articles paint a picture of a large but weak country and therefore exert little global influence, which does not put us in a favorable light.

In an interview on August 21, 2021, with an American think tank that has an Indonesian namesake, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia Marty Natalegawa admits that he often feels that we are “punching below our weight” – there is so much more that we could do (“Pivotal Player: Marty Natalegawa and U.S. – Indonesia Relations”).

As a relatively new field of study, there is not much literature on nation branding, and those that are accessible mostly state that nation branding is closely related to public diplomacy. Some consider it different designations for the same phenomenon. A German social scientist and practitioner of Communications, Tim Stiehl, conducted a literature review published under the title “Public Diplomacy Gleich Nation Branding?” (Are Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding similar?) He answered this question in the subtitle I translated from the original German into “A delineation of two concepts in the external representation of nations”. In essence, he argues that between the two definitions, there are basic differences.

(Photo: Public.)

Know the Difference
In addition to explaining the differences between nation branding and public diplomacy, Tim Stiehl also discussed the differences between traditional and public diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy pursues a “power play” strategy to impose a view on others under the direction of the government in question.

Public diplomacy strategy creates mutual benefits (“win-win”) to generate a benign view that may lead to preference. The role of government in this instance is to facilitate the process. In nation branding, the state behaves like a private company that creates a brand in competition with other countries (brand to brand) to capture market share. The approach is akin to branding in marketing. Although not explicitly stated, public diplomacy has its roots in political science and international relations.

So, between nation branding or public diplomacy, which should we opt for? In my view, both can go hand in hand; each has its distinct advantages. The prerequisite to success is meticulous planning followed by consistent implementation over the long term. As well, it is essential to be guided by Doorley & Garcia’s formula: Reputation = Performance + Communication + Behavior. All three must be in sync as a flaw in one element will not result in an optimal reputation.


Noke Kiroyan
Chairman & Chief Consultant, Kiroyan Partners

This article has been published in PR Indonesia magazine 85th Edition, issued on April 2022, pages 56-57.


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