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Can public relations save Mexico?

When I first arrived in Mexico a couple of months ago, President Felipe Calderon was making various pronouncements to try to counter the image abroad of his country as a dangerous place.

He urged Mexicans not to speak badly about their homeland, and said homicide rates were actually lower in Mexico as a whole than in some other countries considered safe, and even in some U.S. cities.

Mexico Calderon_Nost Speaking to businessmen on March 26, Calderon said Mexico’s homicide rate is 11.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, less than the 60 per 100,000 in Jamaica or the 52 per 100,000 in El Salvador or the 22 per 100,00 in Brazil. It’s actually near the rate of Costa Rica, he added. Moreover, Washington D.C. has 31.5 murders per 100,000 people and New Orleans tallies 95 per 100,000, he said.

“We don’t intend to hide our problems but it is also worth an effort to put things in perspective and speak well of Mexico,” Calderon said.

A few weeks ago, Calderon’s government signed a large contract to mount a public relations campaign to improve Mexico’s image.

The reality is that it is unfair to paint Mexico with a broad brush. Some parts of it are very dangerous while others are relatively or very safe. The panorama can change from month to month. But just as tourists wouldn’t want to visit New Orleans around the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it would have been safe to visit other parts of the United States.

In any case, this subject arose this morning when I read the following comment on the always-interesting daily subscription Latin American Advisor newsletter from the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank on regional issues.

 The comment is from Andres Rozental, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and head of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City:

"Mexico's image is certainly in need of improvement, but it won't be easy to shift media attention and perceptions away from the daily dose of murders, executions, decapitations, kidnappings and other violence that has been the object of attention, both in Mexico and abroad. A successful public relations campaign requires more than just hiring firms to play up a good story with positive news and trying to drown out the negatives.

As long as the Mexican media continues to highlight graphic reports of violence on newspapers' front pages and on evening newscasts, foreign correspondents and others will pick up the same and repeat it in their own outlets abroad.

The only way that Mexico's image can improve is if there is a palpable positive result to President Calderon's strategy of fighting the drug cartels and organized crime. So far this has not been the case. Both Mexicans and foreigners are continuously bombarded with horror stories and gory descriptions of the latest targeted attack on army convoys and the police, or by tragic consequences to innocent bystanders. 

The government mistakenly believes that Mexico's image will improve by insisting on the dubious argument that most of the violence has been between members of the cartels fighting among themselves, or by touting the fact that Mexico has fewer murders per capita than do several other countries around the world. None of these strategies will lead to a successful campaign to better the country's image. If President Calderon truly wants to raise our image abroad he desperately needs to point to clear successes in his public safety strategy. Otherwise, any resources expended in futile public relations campaigns will be totally wasted." 


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This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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