Burson Marsteller's Bob Pickard is your Asia-Pacific ThinkTank commentator until the summer. He will be responding to events in the region on a weekly basis, offering a provocative view of the PR issues at stake. You can reach Bob on [email protected]

If you think Japan has an image problem these days, consider the plight of Pakistan. Japan has suffered the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, but Pakistan has endured devastating floods, political instability, terrorism and now the burden of being the country that has hosted Osama Bin Laden.

The parallels don’t end there. In the same way that inconsistent communications between the Japanese government and the TEPCO utility has famously undermined trust, so too the different messages emanating from the Pakistan government and its military severely compromise the country’s credibility.

But there is one important difference. With Japan, I suspect that most people believe the country will recover and eventually turn things around, but with Pakistan, there is a sense of foreboding and hopelessness that is very corrosive to the national image.

If you go to Google and search Pakistan’s name plus key words like ‘basket case’ or ‘failed state,’ the quantity of results is unfortunately very large. From a PR perspective, is there any hope of building a decent image for a country which seems to have such a doomed reputation?

At first blush, you might think ‘mission impossible,’ right up there with making cigarette smoking fashionable again or restoring the good name of colonialism. After all, even the most skilled public relations practitioner knows that no matter how good their communications campaign, if a client’s reality is negative then there’s no ethical way to create a falsely positive image.

I’m bullish on Pakistan because, in many areas of national measure, there is such an extreme gap in reputation and reality; this is a country that has the power to surprise and therein lies its PR potential. Based on the unremitting negativity of media coverage, you would think that Pakistan’s economy has collapsed. Actually, it is growing. Pakistan may not be expanding at a torrid ‘Asian Tiger’ pace, but its GDP went up last year. Who would have thought that?

When I speak to people who live in Pakistan or do business there, I hear a much different story from the one I see in the lurid news headlines. Apparently many multinationals are doing reasonably well there, including my own company and other marketing organizations which are also growing. Pakistan is a country with some serious problems, but rather than deny them and spend all the time in defensive dialogues, I think they should introduce new of threads of discussion to redirect attention to more favourable topics.

Take foreign direct investment; today, as I write this, the US Ambassador to Pakistan said that there are huge opportunities for FDI in Pakistan and actually there have been some notable BRIC investments recently. I don’t think the world’s fastest growing economies would be investing in Pakistan’s infrastructure if they didn’t see the long-term opportunity there. From a negative past there can be a temporal communications shift to a positive future and ‘the way ahead.’ The long shadow of Bin Laden will soon be lifted and with that massive distraction behind them, other stories can command centre stage.

There has been much talk about how – in contrast to inept crisis communications during their country’s national disasters – the magnificent character of the people of Japan is their greatest reputation asset. Compared to the caricature the world media has painted of them, I think that communicating the reality of the people of Pakistan – their cultural diversity, their zeal for education, their entrepreneurial spirit, their friendly welcome to foreign capital – provides more than ample opportunity for PR improvement compared to where the country is today.

When it comes to the prospect of better PR for Pakistan, I am reminded of that famous John Templeton quote: “The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy.”