The PR Man: Savvy New Leader Aims to Tackle Albania's Image Problem

08/06/2013 11:59 am ET | Updated Oct 06, 2013

For Albania's newly-elected prime minister, Edi Rama, much of the fame outside this small Southeast European country has come from his painting. More than a decade ago, when the former artist became minister of culture and, later, mayor of the capital, Tirana, he took to painting bright colors over the depressing gray facades of the country's communist past. He gave Tirana a facelift, demolished illegal buildings on city parks and returned green spaces -- and hope -- to the public.

In the process, Rama managed to become a rare breed for a Balkan politician -- one that attracted positive interest among Western audiences -- the type that gets a flattering profile in The New Yorker magazine, gives a TED talk about how to improve the mood of a city through art and wins an international price for local governance.

Though Rama's efforts and abilities to communicate with international audiences are not entirely understood inside Albania -- and were not the main reason he was elected prime minister -- his careful communications strategy with foreign audiences had made him Albania's chief PR man abroad long before he landed the country's top executive position in an election in late June, when the leftist coalition he leads won in a landslide.

Rama, 49, is now set to work again on the country's image, which still needs a makeover to recover from its, mostly unfair, association with backwardness and crime.

By the time Rama announced his new cabinet a few days ago, it became clear the image makeover would start from the people who will serve as cabinet ministers. The new government is filled with fresh faces, most of whom have not held top government posts before. In addition, there are more women in the new cabinet than any other government in modern Albania's 100 years of existence. The new cabinet has six female ministers, or 30 percent of total. By contrast, the previous government had only one female member.

Mimi Kodheli, for example, will now become the country's first female defense minister, a post that involves representing Albania in NATO meetings, since the country joined the alliance in 2009. She won't be NATO's only female defense minister, but Albania will be in the unlikely company of only two other NATO members with female representatives -- Norway and the Netherlands -- which in terms of the economy and image abroad outrank most European nations.

Many in Rama's new cabinet are also young by the standards of recent governance in Albania. The powerful interior minister position has gone to a 33-year-old. The new foreign minister is 35.

And, as the country is working hard to join the European Union in the next decade, the all-important role of minister of European integration has gone to a 30-year-old British-educated woman, Klajda Gjosha, who represents a growing generation of Albanians who remember little or nothing of the country's communist past and grew up with the promise of making Albania a full member of the European family.

But that promise won't come easy, and Rama's work will be an uphill battle to fight deeply entrenched corruption and deal with the economic woes associated with the European financial crisis that have hit Albania particularly hard due to its strong economic and human ties with neighboring Greece and Italy.

Rama will also have to deal with internal opposition to his image-driven progressive streak as he fights for what he calls "a systemic change" of how things are done in Albania. He will have to avoid the pitfalls which have sabotaged the work of previous governments, including his immediate predecessors, a center-right coalition that was dealt a punishing loss in the most recent elections, when Albanian voters showed they were fed up with the type of government that is perceived to be corrupt and arrogant and led by a perennial strong man.

Rama's public relations abilities and global outlook will be a definite asset for him to overcome such pitfalls, however. He has already signed a deal to bring former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in as an adviser, apparently at no cost to Albanian taxpayers, gaining a lot of favorable press at home and abroad.

There is little doubt Rama will also continue to use his image-setting skills in the next projects he and his government embark on, making the country's better image an important goal in all projects, an effort that has clearly already started with the diverse makeup of Albania's new government.