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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Being deceived at first, the mass media doubted the trustworthiness of VisitDenmark’s intentions to the point that discussions on mainstream media became a space for expressing discontent. The data presented in this paper are not sufficient to assess the actual influence of the media on VisitDenmark’s decision to remove the video from YouTube and to apologize to its different stakeholders. However, as other studies pointed out, the media have a great potential to exert powerful influences on public policy definitions, choices, and outcomes (Cobb & Elder 1981).

One point of interest is that the only negative evaluative content that news media reported as VisitDenmark official source was VisitDenmark's admission that the video may have offended people.

In order to understand why people were offended by VisitDenmark's campaign, we need to look at the images that the video has created in people’s mind. Gold (1994) argues that the image of places, people and issues are based on knowledge, and the more knowledge a person has, the more accurate his/her perception of the place or issue generally will be. As other studies show when an individual has no information about a distant place that he/she has never visited, the media provide the basic information that constructs that place’s stereotype and image (Dahlgren & Chakrapani 1982; Gold 1994). However, if this knowledge received is ‘altered’ by specific commercial purposes, also the image of places, people and issues are fallacious. From our analysis, it appears that more Danish media than international one reflect upon the consequences of the campaign's symbolism on the country image. By underlining how VisitDenmark's campaign has affected the country image and the image of Danes abroad as well as how it has offended the people that it intended to represent, the national media express their disapproval of VisitDenmark's actions. In this respect, the Danish media were not only aware of Denmark’s image problem, but were actively engaging within their sphere of power to solve it. The video also had an impact on VisitDenmark's stakeholders because of the mass media's engagement in discussing the issue. Since more than 90% of the coded news articles dealt with the video, VisitDenmark and the campaign, it is not a surprise to find that the government and the general public became more aware of the campaign because of its increased visibility in mainstream media. In this respect, the media as stakeholders were more active in engaging in communication behaviors that raise the awareness levels of latent and aware publics, thereby helping to elevate at least some politicians and citizens to become activists in this affair.

With the purpose of identifying the salience of VisitDenmark's stakeholders we consider Mitchell et al.’s stakeholder salience model (1997) before and during the first month of campaign, when media coverage was most extensive. The primary stakeholders of VisitDenmark are the Danish government and the population of Denmark, both of which are interested in the creation of a positive country image and the efficient use of tax money, and tourists, whose trips to Denmark represent a return on the government's expenses for running VisitDenmark.

848 Secondary stakeholders include, inter alia, partnering companies and all other companies in the tourism sector, all of which are interested in an increase in incoming tourists. In addition, there are employees, whose stake is their job, and the media, which are interested in newsworthy stories. As a government agency that has entered into partnerships with the private sector, two stakeholder groups have legitimacy: the government and the partnering companies. Power can be attributed to the Danish government, which can withdraw or reduce funding; tourists, who may or may not come to Denmark; and the media, which can report negatively about VisitDenmark.

The other stakeholder groups do not have power to an extent to which they can threaten the existence of VisitDenmark. In general terms, no stakeholder group has urgency, as long as VisitDenmark does what it is supposed to do. If it faults on that, any stakeholder group can have urgency.

After VisitDenmark launched its campaign and the media unfolded the story behind the campaign, three stakeholder groups had claims that required immediate attention and therefore represent urgency. These three groups were the Danish population, which was offended by and angry about the campaign, and the Danish media, whose continued coverage of the case eventually led to Dorte Kiilerich's departure, and the Danish government, who did not approve of the campaign and therefore also put pressure VisitDenmark, although the extent of this pressure is not known. It seems that VisitDenmark underestimated the power of the media in setting the public agenda in Denmark. While international news coverage was modest, the news coverage in Denmark was quite substantial and mostly negative. Given that the goal of any stealth marketing campaign is to create conversations, VisitDenmark has achieved this both on YouTube and in the mass media. However, journalists turned the affair into a story where VisitDenmark was presented as a liar and where the independence and freedom of Karen were interpreted as promiscuity. Although VisitDenmark may have achieved its goal of increasing awareness of Denmark, as the 770,000 hits on YouTube (Ekstrabladet 2009b) suggest, it nevertheless alienated the Danish population by projecting a country image that is not consistent with the favorable country image desired by the population. Clearly, VisitDenmark had never gotten this kind of attention on YouTube, if its video had not been so novel, unique and engaging. A video broadcasting Denmark’s beautiful landscape would obviously not have garnered the same level of attention on YouTube. Therefore, VisitDenmark seems to have consciously sacrificed ethics and stakeholder trust for international attention.

A final note should be given to the use of social media for stealth marketing activities.

While VisitDenmark's strategy for branding Denmark is to use YouTube as a platform to foster stakeholders’ discussions and awareness into their campaign – thus considering the dialogic aspect that social media can provide in communicating with publics – the choice of a stealth marketing approach turned out to be detrimental to the organization’s image. Clearly, VisitDenmark has not embraced social media as a new way to interact and engage in mutual and beneficial relationships with its different stakeholders, but rather as a tool for merely getting attention and transmitting ‘publicity’.

The implications of this approach are twofold: first, by using stealth marketing VisitDenmark has encountered great ethical problems vis-à-vis to its primary stakeholders.

People’s expectations of public institutions are to serve public interest (Hoggett 2006).

Accordingly, VisitDenmark campaign did not meet this interest since it used ‘tax payers’ money’ for being irresponsible and untruthful – by showing a misleading portray of Denmark in a deceived way -, without being necessarily successful in economical terms. Second, there is a 849 substantial problem in the approach towards social media in the tourism sector which encompasses the role of marketing communications and public relations. Social media are conceived in public relations as environments for dialogue, where great attention is given to personal engagement and ethical aspects, such as disclosing the relationship between persons interacting in social networks and their belonging to specific organizations (Kent 2008). Whereas in marketing communication terms social media are another tool for publicity. In this viral environment sensationalization, polarization of ideas, amplification and rumors are some of the strategies to brand a product, service and even a country. Accordingly, the ‘ends justify the mean’. This is probably what Grey, the Copenhagen’s agency in charge of the creation of the video, thought about when developing this campaign for Denmark.


This case highlights how using social media in branding a country through a stealth marketing approach is not the best strategy for a public institution. When using social media with the intention of generating publicity and getting attention at any cost is the primary goal, organizations like VisitDenmark can encounter severe disruptions in their stakeholder relations.

VisitDenmark has sacrificed its positive relationship with the Danish government and the population of Denmark for an increased awareness of Denmark. The consequences of this decision were dear in that the executive director lost her job and Denmark was perceived to have made a fool of itself. Further, the mass media, which were initially fooled by VisitDenmark's stealth marketing campaign and reported Karen's story, turned against VisitDenmark and reported negatively about the case, perpetuating arguments that questioned VisitDenmark's competences and eventually led to the departure of the executive director.

Although the case was not chosen to illustrate the particular situation of a public relations campaign launched by public bodies, it also illustrates the constraints under which public organizations operate, in that they have a different set of stakeholders than companies. The case demonstrates the importance of a careful analysis of stakeholders and their stakes before public relations campaigns are launched. In particular, the power/urgency/legitimacy model (Mitchell et al. 1997) can assist organizations in identifying potentially critical stakeholders also in the tourism sector. Further research in the field of tourism and social media is needed in order to understand better the practices and implications of social media in this industry.



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