Friends came back to the UK with Tibetan prayer flags to decorate their halls of residence, and ‘Free Tibet’ stickers for their parents’ cars. Some of these friends went on to become human rights activists, teachers and barristers, getting involved in politics at home and abroad at a variety of levels.
Well I then got to thinking about the Dalai Lama, who announced his retirement from politics in May 2011. This is someone who, from where I am sitting, has had one of the most successful positive PR campaigns ever, and sustained it over many decades. He has played an internationally lauded role as a religious leader, a political leader, an environmental campaigner and an advocate of human rights: seeking to establish the rights to life, liberty and security and the freedom of expression, religion, culture and education for the Tibetan people. He has won many international plaudits, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and has quite brilliantly promoted his message through charismatic international networking and speaking.
The Dalai Lama ‘brand’ has a unique strength in the global media and the Dalai Lama himself is internationally revered and respected. One does not seem to hear negative press about the Dalai Lama, and despite China’s increasing reach and muscle on the world stage, he and his people largely have a universally sympathetic audience:‘PR gold’, and impressive ‘positive press’ and ‘reputation management’, deliberate or not.
What, then, has been the impact on the Tibetan ‘campaign’ of the Dalai Lama stepping down from his role as the Tibetan Government in Exile’s political leader? Even though he remains the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and the religious head of Tibetan Buddhism, it is no longer his prime role to seek to rehabilitate Tibetan refugees and restore freedom and happiness in Tibet. This political conch has been handed over to the democratically elected prime minister: Lobsang Sangay.
Yes, Lobsang Sangay must certainly raise his own profile around the world. As Dean Nelson of The Telegraph put it, he is “the first non-reincarnated man to succeed a Dalai Lama”. He must use the momentum His Holiness has won for the Tibetan cause and propel it forward in a new, secular way. He needs to draw the attention of the world to himself, as the Dalai Lama’s political successor, and make it continue to want to listen to the message. What a challenge!
The good news for the Tibetan cause is that this is an individual who is eminently reputable, has a highly credible CV and who has started well. He is a Tibetan exile, a Harvard academic, a human rights lawyer, an environmental lawyer and in the last twelve months he has toured the world introducing himself and speaking on behalf of the Tibetan Government in exile. Will these strengths prove less effective than holding a unique spiritual title?
Here is a PR campaign we can all watch and learn from.