Academic website of Dr. Juha Halme

Lectio praecursoria 04.12.2020

Mr custos, Mr opponent, ladies, and gentlemen,

There is a well-known theorem in social sciences which states that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In other words, the interpretation of the situation causes action. One such definition in contemporary regional development is that the regions are engaged in competition with other regions from residents, companies, investments, tourists, students, and so forth. In order to survive in this competition, regions are urged to positively separate themselves from each other, promote their strengths, and increase their attractiveness for external audiences. Indeed, both of these, the regional competitiveness and attractiveness have become highly prevalent discourses, which now dominate the discussions around regions in the level of theory and practice. For example, a report published by the Ministry of Economic Affairs already in 2011 warned that if regions do not find ways to specialize, they risk their competitiveness, resulting in negative consequences for the economic development of the regions. To respond to the perceived state of competition, regional actors have adapted various means for increasing the attractiveness of the regions. One of such has been place marketing, which refers to a set of marketing and communicational tools, such as advertising and branding, which are used to attract economic and human resources to regions. In recent decades place marketing practices have gotten popular especially in the framework of EU’s regional policy, which have urged the differentiation of European regions by their economic, cultural, or geographic assets through various strategies such as Lisbon and EU 2020. In this regard, regional place marketing initiatives have been actively supported by funding instruments such as European Regional Development Fund.

In this framework, regional place marketing is carried out as a collaborative activity, where local in-region stakeholders participate in the funding, managing, and providing content for marketing activities. Indeed, recent place marketing literature has underlined that stakeholder collaboration is a key element in the success or failure of the place marketing activity. This is because local stakeholders can provide essential input for the content, and in doing so improve the representation of the place, and also establish democratic legitimacy of the place marketing practice. However, stakeholder collaboration has been also found to be affected by tensions, such as conflicting interests, power struggles, and biased representation of stakeholder groups. The crux of these tensions is the essentialist nature of the place marketing practice, where certain symbolic or geographic assets from the region are selected as “spearheads”, while others are omitted, in order to improve the clarity of the promotional messages. This selective process is contentious by its nature as places are complex entities with a plurality of voices that is difficult to capture with a single message. In this regard, questions such as who, and whose interests should be represented from the pool of possibilities, are common sources of struggles and conflicts in the place marketing collaborations.

In this doctoral dissertation, I set out to study the communicative processes that can facilitate or undermine place marketing collaborations. Towards this end, I applied a discursive approach which emphasizes that the meanings that are produced during discursive activity, such as collaboration, are not unique, but are embedded in the broader societal context in which collaboration unfolds. The relation between the broader societal context and the dynamics of the collaboration emanate from distinct discursive and non-discursive resources, which are available for the actors of the collaboration. From this perspective, collaboration can be understood as a discursive struggle between different accounts that construct social reality from diverse and potentially conflicting positions. In this struggle, actors can align themselves with, or strategically mobilize certain discourses, to attain backing for their construction of the world, and so influence the collaboration in a way that serves their interest. However, the embeddedness of collaboration in a broader context also means that particular uses of language hold more constructive power more than others, and certain discourses support certain subject positions or voices more than others, thus empowering some constructions of the world or ways of talking over others.

With this theory, I analyzed how wider societal discourses underpinning place marketing collaborations are connected to different communicative processes that participants of the regional place marketing collaboration engage in. These processes included negotiations on the problem that the collaboration aims to respond to, the interests that participating organizations have towards this problem, and the representation of participating organizations. The empirical work of this study focused on two regional place marketing projects which were carried out in regions of North Karelia and Northern Savonia between 2011 - 2015. The main source of data was documents collected from the projects and the interviewees of the steering groups of the projects. Steering groups consisted of the high-level representatives of the participating organizations. The main function of steering groups was to evaluate and provide guidance for the projects, but they also had strategic responsibility for steering the decision-making.

The findings presented in this dissertation were published in three scientific articles from which the first one addressed the discourses underpinning place marketing activity, and the second and third one the negotiation processes in the projects. The synthesis of these findings indicated that the discourses that were found underpinning the place marketing practice, i.e. discourses of regional competitiveness and attractiveness had clear implications for the negotiation processes in the projects. The relevance of these discourses was illustrated by a unanimous acceptance of the state of competition between regions, as being one of the primary motivators for doing place marketing activity, and the prediction that not doing it would endanger the competitiveness of the region in relation to other regions that are already engaged in place marketing activity. Similarly, the interest which united the participants was to improve the attractiveness of the regions. In this regard, these discourses provided building blocks for common ground between the participants.

While on the surface level these discourses formed this common ground, there was also contestation identified regarding the interests of the participants. These conflicts were related to the geographic and symbolic focus of the place marketing activities. The conflicts regarding geographic focus related to the strong position of the regional centers, which was contrasted by the fact that projects were specifically a regional scale and had a representation from different parts of the region. Another type of conflict which emerged related to the symbolic content that was promoted in the place marketing activity. In this discussion, there existed a wide gap between the aspirations of the tourism sector towards more laid-back, tourism-oriented image, and business development and educational sectors that desired a more dynamic business-oriented image.

In these conflicts, there were power dynamics identified, where the interests and positions of regional centers, and actors in the proximity of regional centers, were found to be dominant. This was not simply a matter of actors from the regional center extorting a power over organizations outside of the regional center, but rather was the result of an agreement by the actors outside of the regional center grounded on the assumption that ultimately there were no alternatives, and the strong regional center would also eventually benefit the attractiveness of the whole region. However, there remained doubt regarding how much this selection would finally benefit the interests of actors outside of the regional centers. These findings underlined that the voice of the regional centers is currently dominant within current discourses around regional competitiveness and attractiveness that underpin place marketing activity. This was not a surprising finding in the sense that in current policy trends in Finland and Europe, these discourses are populated by voices emphasizing the role of growth centers as drivers of development and economic growth.

In this regard, this study raised questions regarding future regional place marketing collaborations, that will be carried outside of the EU’s structural fund framework. The structural funding enabled relatively wide participation from different parts of the regions, as the participating organizations had less need to invest their funding for the projects. However, without this external funding possibility, it is unlikely that the common ground between regional centers and stakeholders outside of regional centers would remain the same, as the gap between the possibility to allocate resources will inevitably widen. In this regard, maintaining the common ground between regional centers and actors outside of it, and tackling the conflicts of interests and power struggles, becomes a vital matter for the success of the collaboration. The success or failure of this will determine whether the regional place marketing heading towards city marketing, or continue to be regional marketing.

This dissertation underlined the importance of discourses regional competitiveness and attractiveness for the dynamics of place marketing collaborations, which can both support them, but also produce conflicts and power struggles. However, it needs to be stressed that such discourses do not determine how these dynamics play out. Indeed, participants can question, criticize, and bring alternative discourses into the collaboration, which can subsequently lead to different dynamics. For example, as we have seen in the current unfortunate pandemic situation, there have been early signs of growing attractiveness of rural areas in media discourse, which might eventually become part of the discourse of regional attractiveness. However, this can only come into fruition if these viewpoints are properly represented in collaborations such as the ones in this study. In this regard, this dissertation hopes to opens the discussion for alternative discourses to emerge in the context of regional place marketing, and therefore contribute to the creation of democratic and inclusive place marketing practices. Coming back to the Thomas Theorem which I started this lection with: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.

I now call upon you, Mister Ilari Karppi as the opponent appointed by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business studies to present your critical comments on my doctoral dissertation.