Roberto Newell Garcia of the Woodrow Wilson Center has published a great report titled “Restoring Mexico’s Reputation.”

The basic premise of Newell’s argument is that Mexico is facing a number of problems, but that the one that gets far and away the most coverage – organized crime/drug-related violence – is not necessarily the most important. Citing successes across issues as disparate as improved health care/life expectancy and economic conditions that should be the envy of the BRICs, he implies that in many ways, things in Mexico are going well.

What is not going well, the author argues, is how Mexico has managed the onslaught of negative media surrounding the body counts and gruesome killings of the drug war, which he implies does have a real negative economic impact on the country. This is not to suggest that the violence, impunity, and lawlessness are not a major concern (follow any social media on the drug war and you will hear of horrific atrocities being committed on a daily basis), but rather to say that it is one that receives a disproportionate amount of coverage.

There are numbers behind this. One of the most fascinating points in the report is a study conducted on the content of articles published in the NYT and WSJ between 1987 and 2010. Newell points out that between that time period, not only has coverage of the country shrunk, but the focus of attention has shifted almost exclusively to organized crime, undocumented immigrants, and corruption. In 1993 13 percent of articles focused on these three issues, by 2010 84 percent did.

The recent explosion of news articles focusing on the narco-tanks serves as a good example for the overall debate. That story was picked up by dozens of English-language media, while very few analyzed its overall significance (or lack thereof) in the grand scheme of issues Mexico must confront. Newell’s report strikes a similar tone, suggesting that narco tanks are not the issue, but rather:

…the need to dramatically improve the quality of law enforcement and the judicial system. The country also needs to improve and reform vital regulatory institutions, especially those that regulate telecommunications and the energy sector, and create the conditions that will stimulate labor productivity growth. There is also a need to reduce the dependence of public finances on oil revenues. Steps should also be taken to improve the quality and pertinence of higher education.”

Newell argues for a coordinated communications campaign that runs through the president himself, and talks about the importance of recapturing Mexico’s brand to restore faith in the international community. While I agree that it is important to present a more balanced account of everything that is happening in the country and that Mexico would benefit from ‘reclaiming its brand’, it is important to recognize a few major issues with this strategy:

  • That people, especially journalists, decision makers, and opinion influencers will recognize a government flack campaign as hollow and disingenuous at best and deceptive and manipulative at worst
  • The drug war is a popular story, and apparently, according to the afore-linked critique from the Mex Files, one that editors constantly seek out that could lead to selective pitching
  • Simply trying to change the brand will not be enough. The reality must also be changed. Companies dealing with supply chain issues or violence at maquiladoras along the border and people in towns where fear of talking is pervasive are facing realities that require immediate action that messaging alone does not solve

So how do you reclaim brand Mexico? To me, it starts with changing the organized crime narrative that has characterized coverage of Mexico in the mainstream media for the last five years.

This is obviously no small order, and one that no amount of PR, even led by the president (Calderon’s pithy remarks about at a recent tourism industry summit in Las Vegas included) will be able to change. So it has to change with the gatekeepers of information themselves. Broaden the scope to include other issues. After all, selective attention is a real phenomenon, and sometimes, as a result, the big picture slips through the cracks.