de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Stop Blaming the BBC & Co.! LMD. January 2007. Page 150. Volume 13, Issue 06, ISSN 1391-135X.
Sri Lanka is bad at good publicity and good at bad publicity.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on our failure as a nation to gain good publicity

Before the last financial year had ended, I had warned some of my colleagues in tourism that this would the toughest year yet, following on from the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. I had not anticipated that the deterioration of the cease-fire would result in a year as bad as the year 2001 when the LTTE attacked the airport. Irrespective of the slide towards war, tourism was in for a very bad year. This was because as a nation we fail to understand how important positive publicity is and what steps we have to take to facilitate a conducive environment for it.

Positive publicity for Sri Lanka is important for anyone who is exporting goods or services overseas. The brand strength of Sri Lanka influences the perception of buyers. Whether they are commodities or software, we are more likely to win business if we have a positive image. If all the outside world gets to hear is of corruption, child prostitution and war, it does not do much to those selling in overseas markets.

There are many channels through which a country is publicized. The printed media (magazines, books, newspapers), television and the internet are amongst the most important. We don’t seem to quite understand how some of these work. Take for example television. We are forever criticizing the BBC for a bias towards the LTTE and blaming the negative publicity in the English speaking world on the BBC. A more constructive attitude would be to accept that Sri Lanka is hardly ever likely to get a positive story on foreign news channels. Why should it be otherwise? When was the last time television news bulletins carried a positive story on Germany, the UK, Japan, Lithuania or the Gabon? Positive stories on other countries are seldom material for prime time news coverage. Unless it is the football or cricket world cup, we don’t run positive stories on foreign countries and neither will they.

Even if Sri Lanka wins the cricket world cup, it is unlikely that the German and French prime time television news will carry it. But something terrible, such as a terrorist attack or a bombs falling onto a refugee camp or orphanage, whatever the background facts may be, will make it to prime time news.

If we resign ourselves to the fact that there is very little reason and likelihood for Sri Lanka to feature in a positive story on prime time news in foreign countries we can address where we can score. It is not in the 10 seconds or less on prime time news, but in the lengthier feature films of half an hour to an hour where we can score. This August I was in London and Amsterdam I attended two consumer fairs. Flicking though the television channels in the hotel room, Sri Lanka featured regularly as country which seemed to be plunged in war. Meanwhile channels such as National Geographic and Discovery were running programs on the Malaysian rainforest. Similar documentaries on Sri Lanka would have diluted the war coverage or at least shown an alternative side to Sri Lanka. The USA is the world’s strongest economy. Nevertheless several states offer a range of incentives to entice film crews not only to film in the USA but to continue with the editing and production. Tax credits can even be sold through a tax broker. In contrast in Sri Lanka we don’t make it easy for professional journalists and television crews. The result is fewer favourable documentaries on Sri Lanka make the air waves.

It is similar with the printed media. The investment and tourism promotion authorities of Malaysia for example under-write coffee table books on the country by publishers such as New Holland. The result is that whether you walk into a Borders bookshop in New York, London or Singapore, there are eye catching books to tempt you to visit Malaysia. The national parks authority of Tanzania has done an attractive book to a selection of its parks which is circulated at key tourism fairs. When we published a similar or better publication, we found only a few people prepared to support it. Nevertheless a lot of money is spent on promotional projects which don’t understand the psychology of the western traveler. Unlike us Sri Lankans, the travellers from the first world have the money to choose where they will travel on their next foreign holiday. Only the bottom end of the market is driven solely by price and special offers. The mid and upper end are motivated by a desire to travel to a destination because of what they have read or seen on television. This is why a destination benefits from a steady flow of favourable documentaries and coffee table books.

If we don’t get this right when times are good, we are hit doubly hard when times are bad. If as a nation we can’t afford full page advertisements in the glossy travel magazines and a steady stream of commercials on television, it helps to get some of the free publicity right by setting up an environment where we make it easy for the foreign media to come and get the positive stories. Or we can continue to blame the BBC’s alleged bias towards the LTTE and not our own incompetence as to why we fail to secure as much positive publicity as we could.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.