It's hard to believe it's already been three weeks, but 19th-21st May, I was part of a conference in Mexico on Soft Power and Public Diplomacy with Wilton Park, a UK government-related agency that organises thought-provoking and timely conferences around international topics. The conference itself was excellent – a tribute to the organisers who managed to carry the informal, fierce-minded culture of their English home to the warm mountain environment of the Hacienda Cantalagua in Michoacán.
As is often the case at such conferences, I can't attribute comments – it operates under the Wilton Park Protocol (a notable variation of the Chatham House Rule). One participant who excused himself from that rule – indeed encouraged attribution of his comments – was the always-dependable, ever-youthful Simon Anholt. His upcoming TED talk in Berlin will be interesting to watch – the latest evolution of his evidence-based approach to international relations leading to the Good Country Index. (He is still best known for Nation Branding, but that severely undersells his work.)
It's the first time I've been back in Mexico City since a project a few years ago that we carried out looking at the culture of Monterrey for a commercial client looking to improve its Corporate Social Responsibility activities – there was a very paternalistic attitude to caring for employees and their families. As it turned out, a brief stopover in Mexico City prior to travel to the Hacienda was highly illuminating – and relevant to the conference.
When it comes to perceptions of nations – the often-discussed "grand narrative" – most people's perceptions are based on the accumulation of lots of smaller micro-narratives. The stories they've read in the papers, the portrayals they've seen in films or mass media, the anecdotes that friends have told on returning from holidays – these are the things from which emerges a perception of the country.
Where Mexico is concerned, much of my perception was determined by my experience on the last project. At the time, the client and project partners were concerned with my welfare – as is often the case when you're travelling. So they were protective to the point of paranoia – large, heavy cars to collect at the airport, blanket bans on leaving the hotel, being chaperoned at every opportunity and constant scare stories of what violence was happening around us. In fairness, this was at the time when things were difficult in Monterrey.
That perception carried over when I visited Mexico City on that project – by then, I'd heard so many stories of problems and risk that the narrative applied to that city as well. I spent a few days in Mexico City, working with the team and with the client, never leaving the hotel unless I was in a large black car. Ridiculous in retrospect – but utterly coherent with the stories I'd been told and the specific stream of data I'd been fed up to that point. (I also had a newsfeed running – any notable news story in Mexico was emailed within 30 minutes to my inbox. They were rarely positive.)
On this more recent trip, however, I had no such scare stories ahead of the visit. Instead my Mexico City hotel were extremely relaxed when I asked if it was a safe environment to go for an early morning run. (No, it doesn't happen often, but I managed it on this occasion.)
My experience this time, coupled with the conversations at the conference, made it very clear to me that Mexico is no more dangerous than most other cities around the world. Like London, like Glasgow, like New York and like Hong Kong, there are parts of the city that are gloriously wonderfully safe for anyone with a lick of common sense, while there are also parts to be avoided or at least careful.
So what do we learn from this? That if you want people to see you in a positive light, don't tell them stories that will scare them. That if you continuously talk about difficulties and problems, then listeners will accumulate a narrative that is strongly negative.
And that grand narrative strategies and branding/advertising campaigns will not shift that, but lots of small interactions and examples will.
I'm now much more attuned to Mexico – watching for stories and examples that contradict my earlier impression. So I was more than a little disappointed to hear a UK radio review programme talking about a new film from Mexico that's being released in the UK: Heli. Described as "account of life in Mexico, which earned instant notoriety for its deadpan depiction of torture, kidnapping and hellish corruption" it taps straight back into the old patterns, reinforcing the negatives.
Here's hoping that next year's Year of Mexico in the UK focuses on lots of small, positive examples that might generate enough personal interaction to start to shift that narrative – Mexico is, in my experience, a great place. I'm looking forward to finding more excuses to go back there – the possibility of some narrative work emerged at the conference and I'm optimistic and eager!