Off message: Shy sovereigns should speak for themselves

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The latest market turmoil could finally persuade emerging market countries to become more proactive in communicating with global financial markets.

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I had the good fortune to work for a Citibank vice-chairman by the name of Bill Rhodes when I started out in investment banking PR all those years ago.

It was the early 1990s, and Rhodes had embarked on two huge missions for Citibank. First, he was wrapping up the Latin American debt crisis by nailing down restructuring deals with both Brazil and Argentina. As if that was not enough, he was also spearheading the bank’s drive into what was then called the Commonwealth of Independent States.

It was an amazing time, spent between meetings in New York with the bank advisory committees and flights to Warsaw and Prague to get the Citibank business off the ground in these 'frontier’ markets.

Regardless of what hemisphere we were in, one of our primary tasks was to communicate to the markets on behalf of the countries involved.

Bill Rhodes 1996-R-600
Citibank vice-chairman Bill Rhodes at a news conference in February 1996

Whether in press conferences or one-on-one interviews, Rhodes always came out front and centre in putting a positive spin on what was going on in the countries we were dealing with. For the Argentinians and Brazilians, the message was simple: once a debt deal was finalized, they could return to the capital markets as a way to fund sustainable economic recoveries.

When we travelled through central and eastern Europe, our story centred around the progress countries were making in adopting the necessary structural adjustments to move to an equal footing with the rest of the world.

I was struck then by the fact that it was always the bank that did the talking, not the sovereigns themselves. True, we had the contacts among the investor base and we had the relationships with the financial journalists, but I always felt that ultimately the countries should step up to the plate to speak for themselves. After all, it was their ambitions, their goals that were at stake. To let someone else communicate those on your behalf simply didn’t make sense.

I always felt that a mark of maturation for emerging markets would come when they felt comfortable enough to do their own PR.

That was 25 years ago, but the truth is that today the banks are still doing most of the talking for the majority of the emerging markets.

Let’s take a look at a random sample of countries to see what I mean.

Poland has just come through an election that has brought a euro-sceptical, nationalist party to power. In the aftermath, all sorts of speculation has arisen over whether the country will now veer from a more traditional economic policy to one that turns its back on pension reform and starts subsidies for its coal industry.

Virtually all of the commentary so far has come from western pundits. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone within the government itself – say the finance minister – came forward and addressed the issues that are gathering in storm clouds over the country?

Elsewhere, Indonesia is a good example of a country that would be well served telling its story beyond the pages of the national newspapers. While its economic growth rate has been adjusted slightly downward, it remains a beneficiary of external investment, particularly from the banks and funds of the Middle East keen to follow the Islamic trail to the east. Yet a scan of the international publications that cover the country indicates that it is still western analysts – from banks and credit agencies – at the forefront of telling the Indonesian story.

An exception…

An exception to this rule is India, which appears much more comfortable in discussing with the wider world what it’s up to on the economic front. At the recent Davos meetings, India’s finance minister Arun Jaitley kept himself busy in various sessions and interviews, getting the point across that the country was open for business for investors who wanted to help rebuild its infrastructure.

But if India is an example of a sovereign that can speak for itself, its neighbour and rival China would do well to take some lessons.

As the Chinese market meltdown continues, as growth figures are constantly pared and controversy surrounds the management of its currency, this is a country that desperately needs to come forward and be far more transparent about what is going on behind the curtain.

If the Chinese were more comfortable discussing how they intend to transition their economic footing from investment-led to demand-led, if they weren’t so heavy-handed in controlling their markets, if they were comfortable with letting the renminbi float freely, then we might not have so many headaches in the global economy today.

It may be true that the Chinese situation is not primarily about communication, it’s more about policy management. But if the Chinese felt they needed to do a better job of explaining themselves, then it could be a case of sensitivity to PR matters bringing about a shift in approach.

John Anderson is a freelance writer who spent more than 20 years as a senior corporate communications official at a number of leading global financial institutions. He welcomes comments at john.anderson293@googlemail.com.