Ever since Felipe Calderón Hinojosa became president in 2006, Mexico has waged a determined battle against organized crime — a war against drug trafficking that has cost the lives of 23,000 people. Mexico’s image abroad has deteriorated not only because of this battle, which has involved troops and police sent into areas controlled by drug cartels, but also because of the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, or “swine flu,” in  April 2009. In February, the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Tourism declared that Mexico was projecting an image of insecurity and unhealthiness. That led Calderón to announce in June the launch an unprecedented public relations campaign to clean up the country’s image, and to promote Mexico as a destination for foreign investment and tourism.

According to the World Tourism Organization, Mexico attracts more foreign tourists than any other country in Latin America. But in 2009, its tourism revenue declined by 15%, notes the country’s Tourism Ministry. In 2010, the country expects 22.6 million tourists, versus the 21.4 million who visited in 2009. The projected figure would bring tourism back in line with the numbers seen in 2008. Yet violence and drug trafficking are eroding Mexico’s image as an idyllic vacation destination, experts say.

Fausto Pretelin Muñoz, professor of international marketing at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, notes that because of intense media coverage, many people believe that nothing occurs in Mexico but shootings and beheadings, and that negative image has a sharp effect on tourism. According to Pretelin, Mexico’s inability to develop a clear communications strategy to support the army’s battle against organized crime means that outbreaks of violence will only cause fear among visitors.

Carlos Chávez, professor of communications at Anahuac University and a political communications consultant, says that Mexico is negatively impacted whenever a foreigner has a bad experience there and then spreads the word at home. “Dirty, polluted beaches; robberies and assaults on public roads or in public transportation; sudden appearances of demonstrators, criminals and armed forces at a hotel; physical disturbances and confrontations during traditional celebrations such as the Guelaguetza” in Oaxaca state are the bad impressions that visitors mention most often, he notes.

News about violence and drug trafficking can similarly increase risks to foreign direct investment. Chávez says it is undeniable that suppliers of capital — both foreign and domestic — must evaluate the costs and benefits of their investments, as well as the risks involved. “They must decide if the financial returns they expect to derive justify running a certain degree of risk if their managers are kidnapped, their offices and vehicles are attacked, and their goods are robbed. If the risk is very high, it is more likely that they will direct their investments to another country.” Nevertheless, Chávez says, “Investors are concerned about the level of security in a country, but what matters more when making decisions are the financial issues: profitability, tax regimes, legal certainty.”

A degree of disinformation exists about Mexico’s reality, so a campaign to correct that perception is needed, Pretelin, Chávez and other experts say. “A public relations agency committed to this project would try to explain the harsh nature of the war against drug trafficking,” Pretelin notes, “and explain what organized crime consists of, since the manifestations of this situation are different in Mexico than they are in other countries and situations.”

Enlisting the Best PR Agencies

When President Calderón made his PR campaign announcement during a working trip through the state of Baja California, he noted that Mexico’s image needed to be relaunched in every respect — not only for traditional tourists, but also at travel exhibitions and conventions, and in the international communications media, specialized magazines, and non-tourism publications. He didn’t offer specifics, saying only that he would put the best PR agencies to work in the near future.

“It is not just about placing [stories about] lots of beaches and pyramids in the communication media around the world,” Calderón said. Rather, it means “explaining the problems that we have, and how we deal with them.” According to Chávez, such a campaign will not only boost tourism, but could also “help improve the image of the government itself, and more specifically of President Calderón, in an effort to win international respect and credibility."

Pretelin says a campaign of this sort could also target decision-makers such as business executives and politicians. He suggests that a PR campaign is more effective when it has an element of surprise, and people have few preconceptions about what you’re doing. “The fact that in this case they have announced a launch says this is an extreme situation that is very complicated and must be addressed. You have to explain to people what the government requires people to know, rather than be limited by the agendas of the communications media. Terror has spread, generated by the reaction to organized crime, and the social perception could exist that these [criminal] groups have no limits, that they are prepared to do anything to protect their interests.”

Pretelin argues that such a campaign is intended to send an official message, and not necessarily what the media want to hear from the government. “Since it is a public relations campaign, its message is not as obvious as one in an advertising campaign. The agency hired is in charge of getting closer to opinion leaders and other global media, and asking them to communicate the official version.” He adds that it is important to clarify that the official version is not necessarily a lie or a manipulation; it is simply the view of the facts that is closest to the interpretation desired by the federal government. It enables everyone to formulate their own views. “The message attempts to soften the way information is perceived. Published photos and images speak for themselves, and they may need some nuances that explain the violence and terror that they present.” He warns, however, “If the official version, whether presented in advertising or in PR campaigns, is not close to reality, then the campaign will be completely useless.”

Pretelin says it is still an open question what kind of impact Mexico’s image of insecurity is having on foreign investment. He believes people should look into what would have happened to foreign direct investment levels “if this crime wave had not broken out.” The only relevant data are from the Ministry of the Economy, which forecasts US$18 billion in foreign direct investment this year, compared with US$11.42 billion in 2009 and US$18.60 billion in 2008.

A Prototype, from Colombia

Colombia’s campaign to reverse an atmosphere of insecurity linked to drug trafficking can serve as a prototype for Mexico, Chávez says. Its goal was to gain credibility in the eyes of the U.S. public and its leaders during the administration of President Bill Clinton, from 1993 to 2000. Colombia wanted to persuade the U.S. government not to impose economic sanctions, and obtain more assistance in the battle against drug trafficking.

That Colombian campaign was aimed largely at the print media. Full-page advertisements appeared in such newspapers as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, El Nuevo Herald and El Diario La Prensa (the last two of those in Spanish). Headlines said, “America: We are going to clean up our country for the benefit of our children, not just for yours.” In text, 10 of the 17 paragraphs explained the drug problem, and what the Colombian government was doing to improve the situation. Experts stress that the Colombian government wasn’t trying to attract foreign tourism, but to win the sympathy of Washington.

Chávez notes that communications campaigns have already been undertaken for numerous goals in Mexico: to attract foreign tourists; to become the site of an international sporting event or conference; and simply to improve the country’s international image. But the violence and insecurity have reached unprecedented levels.

What Mexico is living through is comparable to what the United States experienced during Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, when gangs smuggling alcoholic beverages fought each other, argues Chávez. “For more than ten years, American cities experienced a war in the streets. There isn’t any record of the U.S. government having undertaken a specific image campaign; rather, what it did throughout that period was to strengthen the idea that it was doing the right thing for the health of the American people. From that point on, the country emerged as a great economic power. The United States did not need to clean up its image for anyone, either in the battle that it waged against the gangsters of alcohol, or much less to attract tourism.”

The Ideal Campaign

Pretelin believes that Mexico needs to figure out where to distribute its message that “Mexico is a safe place to visit.” He believes it makes sense ideally to run a campaign targeted at those countries that send a larger number of tourists to Mexico. “A market research agency must find out how people in those countries react when they hear the word ‘Mexico.’  Very probably, the answer is ‘violence,’ ‘insecurity’ and/or ‘drug trafficking.’ They must undertake their campaign using that information; they have to find a way to break that [mental] association.”

Pretelin adds that “advertising campaigns are superficial, while PR campaigns are a craft, and they go very deep. If the government seeks to improve its image before the end of this six-year [Mexican presidential] administration, then only an advertising campaign could help. A solution involving a public relations campaign will take a long time since it would not have any results during the current administration,” which runs until 2012.

Chávez proposes two campaigns and one process. First, he suggests “a ‘surgical’ campaign for promoting foreign tourism in Mexico. [It would be] oriented generally at potential visitors; above all at companies, agencies, organizations, institutions and groups associated with tourism that is recreational and historical in nature; linked to medicine, the arts, the environment, business, conferences, sports and entertainment. It would be worthwhile to take into account to what degree [these groups of tourists] can be differentiated in terms of their activity, age, areas of interest, place of origin, size, and importance for the tourism sector.”

Second, another campaign should be targeted at opinion leaders in the international media, as well as at governments in general. “This would be designed to gain credibility, trust and respect for the government of Mexico in its battle against organized crime, especially against drug traffickers.”

Finally, Mexico needs to undertake “an educational and cultural process targeted at all Mexicans, especially those who live in areas where there is a lot of tourism. That way, whether they work in the hotel industry or they don’t, people become aware of the role that they can — and must — play as hosts for foreign visitors. That way, they can visualize what they and all Mexicans can gain” from tourism, he says.