Coming from a small country can sometimes be frustrating. First of all, nobody can pronounce your name. To foreigners, I am Maaarit, Marriot, Married, Marita, Maree or sometimes - just Mary. Not everyone was born to pronounce a typical Estonian name correctly.
And this small point may have big ramifications. Studies suggest that people with easy-to-pronounce names are more likely to get jobs, get promoted or get elected in parliaments around the world. Not only that - if your surname starts with letters nearer to the beginning of the alphabet, you're more likely to win a Nobel Prize than if your name starts with, for example, an S or a P or a W. Looking at these stats, I'm pretty doomed, at least on an international level.
Undoubtedly where you come from influences what your future will be like, and will follow you wherever you go or whatever you do. And Estonia follows me everywhere. The first thing people hear is, my eastern European accent when I speak English, and the second stumbling block is my difficult-to-pronounce name. The typical next step is to then explain that I come from Estonia, which opens up a whole other can of worms.
Yes, I patiently reply, Estonia is a country. The blurb goes on from there. We are located just below Finland and on top of Latvia, with Russia on the right. Estonia is about the size of the Netherlands but only has 1.3 million people, and we speak Estonian, which is close to Finnish.
Many people I've met are familiar with some of all of the basics, but many have no clue. When I first moved abroad five years ago, I was very enthusiastic about explaining the background of my country, but after a while it gets tiring. And by now I've learned not to blame the foreigners that they don't know what or where Estonia is. Rather, it's the fault of my own country's leadership for failing to ensure that its voice is being heard at a global level.
Reading the local Estonian news on a daily basis, I often find little nuggets that would make perfect international news coverage, but it rarely, if ever, breaks news outside of Tallinn (our capital, if you were wondering!)
I struggle to understand why this is - there are lots of talented, well educated Estonians, people who definitely have the skills to bring our reputation to a whole new level, but this is not done. VisitEstonia is a great site with lots of info, but tourism alone is not enough. For instance, in the section 'What is so special about Estonia?' the site mentions forests, wild animals, birds. There is definitely a lot more to see and do than wander in a forest and watch wild animals and birds!
I wonder if we just haven't found our special USP yet, the kind of image or activity that would capture to world's imagination - like the Sydney Opera House for Australia, the Eiffel Tower for France, Oil for Norway, and the fashion and food of our Italy. Therefore, all Estonians living abroad are responsible for projecting the image of Estonia to foreigners. I worry about this approach - as it is never wise to give up control of the task of reputation management voluntarily. Some Estonians do an excellent job in promoting the country abroad and being good cultural ambassadors, but inevitably, others risk bringing it down.
How should Estonia fix its reputation conundrum? Building a positive image and reputation takes time, but should start from the inside. There seems to be no coordinated outreach on the pan-European level - otherwise we would make it to the international news with more interesting stuff instead of 'Estonian bus drivers' wages' or how some students in Estonia decided to move in to medieval houses in the winter to try out how it was living during the iron age. No strategic thinking here...So where should our national messaging begin?
If Estonia does not want to leave its reputation management up to the diverse group of Estonian expats living abroad, something needs to be done. Applying some of the basic principles of reputation management, I would suggest we:
First of all, start with stakeholder audit. Find out how the country is perceived today by other countries and influencers. Knowing where we stand will help in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of Estonia's reputation.
Reputation is owned by everyone - not just the communicators. Building country reputation should not be the task of any one national tourism organisation. The government, businesses, arts, education and media should cooperate with them in deciding upon the strategy and key messages.
In corporate reputation management we often say that it is essential to get 'internal buy-in from the employees' before starting influencing external stakeholders. So, before starting reaching out, it will be essential to ensure that the local people are happy with the image that is being communicated.
Country branding reputation strategy is not easy, I know. And in the meantime I don't mind continuing my work as one of Estonia's most passionate cultural ambassadors. My call to action to my fellow citizens is to start thinking about the reputation management of our great country more strategically in order to achieve growth, and build a more positive recognition at the international level. Who is bold enough to act?