Today, the U.S. will once again have an embassy in Havana after 54 years. On a recent trip to Cuba, I saw the pole on which the American flag will soon be raised being refurbished after half a century of disuse. I also saw something else: the immense impact the change in American policy is already having in unleashing the immense entrepreneurial energies of the Cuban people.
The change is evident less in the mass markets being opened to global trade -- as important as those are -- than in the small marketplaces of Havana, where street vendors are selling mangoes they have grown themselves, private galleries are showing local artists, restaurants are opening under private ownership and taxi drivers are refurbishing vintage Chevys to offer rides whose profits they, for the first time, get to keep. In the case of Cuba, engagement has begun through public diplomacy, but it neither ends nor even reaches its highest potential there. In this new business environment, corporate organizations entering the Cuban market will understandably be focused on business opportunities. But a larger, longer opportunity also awaits -- if we have the patience to build it.
We have the opportunity to partner in building a new economy by leveraging the tools and opportunities presented by today's new era of engagement.
Communications is the corporate world's most powerful catalyst for long-term success in and for Cuba. Marketing communications pertaining to products and services may end up doing more to determine the shape of U.S.-Cuban relations in the decades to come than diplomatic dispatches pertaining to politics.
In the era of engagement, communication is interactive rather than top-down. Audiences must be talked with rather than talked to. In this environment, social media trumps print or broadcast media. The amateur videographer documenting an event on Vine may reach a larger audience, and do so more persuasively, than the professional journalist on cable news; a product may perform better being pinned on Pinterest than being covered in a major daily. These are the moments -- dispersed, private, person-to-person -- in which real friendship and long term relationships will be built.
This, of course, is aspirational as we are still early in a long process of change. Success will demand careful attention both to cultural sensitivities -- some Cubans will watch carefully for any evidence that global corporations seek profit without partnership -- and to communications infrastructure: Estimates vary, but most say no more than five percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, for example, and broadband access costs more than it does in the United States despite an average income of $20 a month. However, those challenges are also opportunities. Engagement on a largely offline island will not be as simple as tweeting or Facebook posts, but it may also be more personal and therefore more enduring.
To be sure, companies must not make the mistake of assuming that because Cuba lacks some of the communications channels to which they are accustomed, its people are unsophisticated. Far from it. Cuba is a highly educated and skilled country. It is brimming with potential partners. It will simply require a creative investment in marketing communications that discovers unique channels and audiences. The small entrepreneurs will be especially important to reach.
This will be neither quick nor inexpensive. American companies eager for opportunities in Cuba need to understand that these prospects must be based on relationships, and after a separation of more than half a century, relationships -- genuine, engaged relationships -- will take time to build. It will take investment and patience to find the right partners and the right ways of communicating. There will be misfires and backfires. Up-front research and constant sensitivity will minimize both.
But communicators who have built relationships based on engagement and social responsibility in other countries know that doing so means more work and more investment but also, in the long run, more loyalty and depth. Engaged audiences stick by brands. They are more enthused about what partners offer one another and more forgiving of mistakes. That kind of engagement is the basis on which not merely new diplomatic relations, but a genuinely renewed friendship, can begin today. Communications can -- indeed must -- be the key to a new era of engagement in Cuba.
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