The Latvian Institute in its second year

The Latvian Institute (LI) was created in 1998 in order provide Latvia with a public information agency that would help promote Latvia’s image abroad. Like the Swedish Institute, the U.S. Information Agency and other government-supported ‘state PR agencies’, the LI provides information on all aspects of Latvian life: history, culture, politics, business, tourism, sports, nature etc.

With no office space, a miniscule staff and a small budget, the LI was put on its feet during its first year by its first Director, Dr. Vaira Vīke-Freiberga. Dr. Vīke-Freiberga was elected State President in June of 1999, and I was appointed new director in August. Since I was Latvia’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time, finishing out my 7th year in Washington, I didn’t assume my duties at the helm of the LI until January 2000.

During the first 7 months I have focused on 3 goals for the LI: 1) Develop a long term strategy for marketing Latvia to the world, 2) Build awareness for the LI within Latvia (to ensure financial support and enlist the involvement of Latvian society, 3) Create a data base of information (first in English, then it other languages) on all aspects of Latvian life.

When Latvia has been the center of controversy in the world press, most Latvian have complained that ‘the world doesn’t understand us’. One reason for that is that we haven’t tried to explain ourselves in a language the world can understand. One of the LI’s goals is to develop a body of information in a multitude of languages on the Internet, in print, on CD-ROM’s, films, video and every other media, that can help fill the information gap.

As a former ad man I know that the most brilliant promotional campaign will flop if it doesn’t reflect the real product behind it. The product has to be the star, and Latvia has a lot to shine about. A country’s image is created by it society, culture, geographical setting, politics and economics. Latvia has its own take on each of these features, and its is the combined effect of these elements that creates its image. Those of us who live here can feel it. Those who live elsewhere are only beginning to discover it.

While the LI itself writes and produces brochures and other publications about Latvia, most of the information about Latvia in the world today comes from other sources. One of our goals is to work closely with those sources and help them tell the full story. To a businessman or commercial artist, what others say about your business is much more important than what your promotional agent writes.

One of the LI’s chief responsibilities is organizing foreign press visits to Latvia. Our staff sets up schedules, interviews and accompanies journalists to sites around the country. Since January we have organized over 15 such visits for journalists from the U.S, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Sweden, Finland, France and Germany. We have worked with French and Finnish television, German and US (NPR) radio and the CNN World Report.

As a communications consultant, the LI works with the State president’s and the State chancelleries, the Cabinet of Ministers and various government agencies such as the Latvian Development Agency and the Tourism Development Agency. We work with museums, academic institutions, associations and the private sector. We are even on the advisory board of the Postmark Committee. If there’s a group or agency in Latvia producing information that goes abroad, the LI is working with them in some capacity.

We are particularly interested in working with the Latvian arts community, because it is their work that best reflects Latvia’s rich and varied culture. We not only promote the works of artists, writers and filmmakers, but hope to work with them to create new works about Latvia itself. Somewhere in Latvia’s 3,000 year old treasury of folk songs and dances there is a Riverdance ready to explode.

The pop group Brainstorm has become Latvia’s currently best known musical export, although classical composers such as Peters Vasks and Imants Kalnins have an established international audience. Our opera singers, ballet dancers and classical musicians are already world class. The post-traditional folk fusion group ILGI are respected veterans in the ‘world music’ market and there are others waiting in the wings.

While we don’t take any credit for Latvia’s hockey success in the World Championships, we are working with the Latvian Olympic Committee and other organizations to bring attention to Latvia’s outstanding athletes. Latvia has a growing number of  players in the NHL (including all-stars Sandis Ozolins and Arturs Irbe), although we can’t compete with Lithuania’s numbers in the NBA. But watch for young Latvian stars in the women’s basketball leagues.

The LI has many projects on the horizon, which will be realized as financing is resolved. Videos, CD-ROMS and other multi-media projects are anticipated. One of our longterm goals is to find funding to translate classic Latvian literature – particularly historical novels – into English. While it is difficult to do justice in translations to Latvia’s rich heritage of poetry, novels, fairy tales and children’s stories could find an global audience if the marketing is handled right. Visma Belsevics’s autobiographical series on the young girl ‘Bille’, reads like a Latvian version of Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’. For every Scottish William Wallace, Latvia has a Namejs, and Ireland’s Cuchulain is a North Sea cousin of Latvia’s Lacplesis. And if you want to know who the Danish Vikings feared a thousand years ago, you need to read the novel ‘Kurish Vikings’.

My hope is that the Latvian Institute will find the means to bring this art, literature and history to a broader audience, along with information about that is happening in politics, economics and society at large. Thanks to SVEIKS.COM and other interactive Latvian home pages around the world, the job of getting the word out has become a lot easier.