Turkey has long been described as a country of contrasts. Ever since Ottoman times it has managed an image that has skilfully blended the best of the East with the strong points of the West. There have been peaks and troughs but Turkey has overcome them all and emerged stronger. Until now, when the country faces what may be its biggest challenge yet, one that may see it losing favour in the eyes of the West.
On the evening of July 16, 2016 there was a coup attempt in Turkey. Military officers took over Istanbul and Ankara and for the space of a few hours the world watched with bated breath, unsure what the outcome would be. In the end, the people overcame the putschists and the coup was foiled. Throughout that fraught night, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, addressed the Turkish public, calling for unity and a show of strength against the coup. The people rose to the occasion with panache.
In the wake of this dramatic event, there have been a number of repercussions affecting Turkey’s reputation. According to the 2016 Most Reputable Countries report from Reputation Institute, released just last week, Turkey’s reputation has dropped the most this year out of all the 70 countries surveyed in the report.
This dark shift is reflected in Turkish tourism, an industry that over the last year has reported some of its worst figures in decades. Foreign visitor numbers fell by 41% in June this year, according to data from the Turkish tourism ministry. It was the worst drop in tourist numbers on record. The July coup attempt has surely done further damage. But this incident is only the final straw in a series of events over the last 12 months that have combined to cause significant damage to Western perceptions of Turkey.
Since summer 2015, Turkey has experienced terrorist attacks, ongoing civil war in the southeast, government crackdowns on press and academic freedom, loss of certain civil liberties, and been the subject of a constant stream of negative reporting in the international media. It is no wonder the country’s image has been damaged so severely.
In general, there are two main strands that contribute to forming overall negative perceptions of Turkey; the first, perceptions of the country as unsafe (due to numerous terrorist attacks during 2015/16), and the second, perceptions of its leadership as increasingly authoritarian.
It is worth noting here that Turkey and its government still enjoy widespread popularity among much of the non-Western world, where Erdoğan is still viewed as a strong and successful leader. In addition, recent polls have shown that anti-Western sentiment among Turks has flared up after the coup, with 70% of Turks believing America to have been involved.
If the Most Reputable Countries poll were to be conducted in the Middle East and Africa, we would probably see very different results for Turkey. Nation branding is first and foremost a Western construct, where countries tend to be judged according to Western standards of freedom, democracy, and tolerance. This is worth keeping in mind, lest our perceptions risk becoming too ethno-centric.
But in practice, the Western world holds most of the power. It controls much of the flows of tourism, foreign investment, talent, and diplomacy that determine the success or failure of any nation.
In light of all this, what’s next for Turkey? In a recent article, Efe Sevin writes that the current brand image crisis “should be seen as a prolonged crisis”. He stresses that an active communication campaign would be the best, and perhaps the only, way for Turkey to get its image back on track.
At present, the Turkish government is fully engaged in promoting an image of the country as unified, in opposition to outside forces that would seek to damage the nation. There is much talk of Turkey’s commitment to democracy, yet the West remains unconvinced. In fact, it grows ever more sceptical by the day. In particular, the post-coup response, which involves widespread purging of suspected ‘Gulenists’ from within the judiciary, military and academia, is hindering the ‘democratic’ image of Turkey.
The Gulen movement, or Hizmet, headed by reclusive US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, has now become public enemy number one, blamed for the coup attempt. But just a few years ago Gulen and Erdogan were close allies, and the global network of Hizmet schools were responsible for promoting a positive image of Turkey around much of the world.
In order to move forward post-coup, Turkey needs to acknowledge other factors causing its image problem and not simply resort to blaming everything on Gulenists (as Gulen’s followers are known), as this piece in the Hurriyet newspaper attempts to do. As Sevin points out, the Western media has largely made up its collective mind about Turkey and its government.
To salvage its image in the medium-term, Turkey’s best hope is to decide which audiences matter most, and figure out ways to reach them and get the desired message across.
About the author
Samantha North is a journalist and strategist based in Istanbul. Her work focuses on topics at the intersections of global soft power, public diplomacy and national reputation. In 2012, Samantha founded Placesbrands to explore these issues in more depth.