Romania at the point of lift-off

In Bucharest for most of last week, visiting Chelgate’s office there. We’re in new offices – our third move in the past five years, and they are a delight. Comfortable, elegant and close to almost everything that matters.
People are often surprised when I say Bucharest is one of my favourite cities. But perhaps the charm of the place is that you have to dig a little to find its beauty and its secrets. But, one early evening, sitting in the sun in the wonderful, restored old town, sipping a glass of cold Ursus beer, I realised that all the people around me were Romanians, enjoying the rediscovered charms of their city. The tourists will come. There is too much beauty and too much fun in the city for them to stay away much longer. And they’ll spread across the country, to the ski resorts or the lakes, then swarming through the unspoiled, astonishing beauty of exquisite ancient towns like Sibiu and Brasov. But they are not there yet, and this is the time to enjoy this extraordinary country.
Perhaps the biggest change since we first opened an office some five years ago has been in the use of English. Back then, fluent English speakers were very, very rare. Now it seems to be easier to find an English speaker in a bar, shop or restaurant in Bucharest than it would be in Paris. (Not, of course, that this is saying a great deal!). And business meetings seldom need an interpreter any more. The nightlife, too, has seen a transformation. Six years ago, the best restaurant in town was a grim, post-Ceauşescu hotel dining room, with a sad faced waiter wearing a soup stained shirt. Today, you can discover wonderful restaurants all over town, tucked away in back streets, nestling in cobbled squares, often giving new life to one of the crumbling and ornate old mansions that are so much part of the charm of Bucharest. On all sides, too, elegant bars and clubs are opening up, filled with live music and cheerful customers. We had an almost perfect evening at the Arts Jazz Club, tucked away behind the Senate House, listening to legendary American bassist Ari Roland and his quartet. In June Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood hit town. Ceauşescu really is very, very dead.
But as this new member of the European Union begins to look to the world around it, there is a recognition that not all is right with the country’s international image. Here is a country with a bright, highly educated, hard working population, where wage costs are low, and the workforce is committed and hungry to succeed. And membership of the European Union has made available billions of euros in structural funds, helping move Romania into the 21st century. Yet international investors are not (yet) beating a path to the Romanian door. Everyone knows, and everyone will tell you, Romania has an image problem.
For a couple of years now a heated debate has been raging in the PR world of Romania about the “re-branding” of the country. But the truth is that Romania isn’t ready for rebranding yet. First, before you even think about brand, you need to think about the product. And as yet, the product isn’t right. The problem of corruption is not just an image problem. It remains a sour reality, contaminating huge areas of commercial life. And that fact frightens away investors and partners who should be eagerly pouring into Romania by now. Government bureaucracy, too, remains a real obstacle. While the private sector has been moving ahead vigorously, improving its skills, sharpening its competitiveness, all too many government departments seem stuck in the last century, or earlier: inefficient, lethargic, under-skilled and under-qualified, sometimes corrupt, often dishonest. The good news , though, is that this is changing. A growing number of ministries and departments are seeing a real transformation, led by bright, well-qualified professionals with genuine integrity and a real vision of where their country needs to be heading. And the national leadership recognises the problem, too. Gradually, the corrupt, the inefficient and the ineffectual are being squeezed out of the system. Romania is very nearly ready for “lift-off”.
For Chelgate in Romania this is an exciting and rewarding time. More and more international businesses are exploring the opportunities offered by this new market. And they realise that they’ll need PR help from the outset. Not just in media relations. Not just in planning events and promotions. But also community and cultural relations. And perhaps above all, in Government Relations, at all levels, where they need to be very sure about the integrity and professionalism of the service they are employing.
But, for myself, I simply can’t wait to be back in the Arts Jazz Club, clutching my ice cold Ursus beer.
Terence Fane-Saunders

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