A little over a year ago, Donald Rumsfeld—then U.S. Secretary of Defense—issued his verdict on the country’s communications effort. The United States was faring poorly in the war of ideas, he said, because of a failure to communicate effectively.
“If I were grading I would say we probably deserve a ‘D’ or a ‘D-plus’ as a country as to how well we’re doing in the battle of ideas that’s taking place in the world today,” he told a questioner after a speech at the Army War College. “I’m not going to suggest that it’s easy, but we have not found the formula as a country” for countering the extremists’ message.
Price Floyd, who until recently was director of media affairs for the State Department, disagrees with Rumsfeld and what has become the conventional wisdom about America’s public diplomacy effort. According to Floyd, “To turn a famous Hollywood movie quote on its head: What we don’t have here is a failure to communicate.”
Floyd resigned from the State Department several weeks ago in protest, and is now director of external relations at the Center for a New American Security, an independent research organization dedicated to promoting “pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect American interests and values.”
In an op-ed published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Floyd explained the reasons for his departure, outlined the problems facing the U.S. in its public relations campaign against Al-Qaeda and others, and suggested some practical changes to improve America’s declining international reputation.
“Since 9-11, the State Department has undertaken an unprecedented effort to reach audiences both in the U.S. and overseas to explain our foreign policy objectives,” says Floyd, whose former office there arranged more than 6,500 interviews in the past six years, about half of them with international media. On any given day, he says, senior department officials, including the secretary of state, were doing four or five interviews.
“Yet during this time, poll after poll showed an alarming trajectory of increased animosity toward America and this administration in particular, both here and abroad.
“This contradiction—reaching a larger audience than ever before to explain our foreign policy goals and objectives, while the support for those policies fell—underscores the gap between how our actions have been perceived and how we want them to be perceived.”
The reason, according to Floyd, is that America’s actions communicate far more effectively than its words, and those actions have demonstrated the nation’s disregard for the environment (pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change); its contempt for the rule of law (efusing to take part in the International Criminal Court); and its disdain for arms control (pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty). The prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib and the continuing controversy over the detainees in Guantanamo have also tarnished America’s reputation as a bastion of freedom.
Says Floyd: “Collectively, these actions have sent an unequivocal message: The U.S. does not want to be a collaborative partner. That is the policy we have been ‘selling’ through our actions, which speak the loudest of all.”
Floyd served at the State Department for more than 17 years, through the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, numerous episodes of the Middle Eastern peace process and discussions in North Korea on its nuclear programs.
“During each of these crises,” he says, “we at least appeared to be working with others, even if we took actions with which others did not agree. We were talking to our enemies as well as our allies. Our actions and our words were in sync, we were transparent, our agenda was there for all to see, and our actions matched it.
“This is not the case today. Much of our audience either doesn’t listen or perceives our efforts to be meaningless U.S. propaganda.”
In a telephone interview with Jack Kaplan of Slate—one of the few major media outlets to pay any attention to the departure—Floyd complained: “I’d be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House. They’d say, ‘We need to get our people out there on more media.’ I’d say, ‘It’s not so much the packaging, it’s the substance that’s giving us trouble.’ “
After warning his bosses that their actions were more credible indicators of America’s true values than his words, they “started telling me to shut up. They didn’t want to hear this.”
Floyd’s criticisms echo the findings of a 2004 Rand Corporation report, which warned: “Misunderstanding of American values is not the principal source of anti-Americanism.” Rather “some U.S. policies have been, are, and will continue to be major sources of anti-Americanism.”
Those criticisms also underscore one of the fundamental tenets of public relations, which is that relationships are determined by the actions of an institution rather than by what it chooses to say about itself. A brand is not what a company—or in this case, a country—says about itself, but rather what others say about it after it has left the room.
That’s why successive heads of public diplomacy in the current Bush administration— advertising executive Charlotte Beers, former press aide to James Baker Margaret Tutwiler, and longtime Bush aide Karen Hughes—have been able to make any headway in the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East and beyond.
It’s also why recent efforts to engage the public relations industry in the public diplomacy effort, which culminated two months ago in a plan by the PR Coalition that focused on “developing business practices that reflect public diplomacy; promoting understanding of American society, culture and values; and building relationships based on trust and respect” is likely to have only a marginal impact on America’s declining image.
“We need a president who will enable the U.S. to return to its rightful place as the ‘beacon on a hill’—a country that others want to emulate, not hate; a country that proves through words and deeds that it is free, not afraid,” says Price. “We need to demonstrate that we are willing to help out our neighbors and to do what is necessary to ensure that our country and its citizens are safe.”
On a practical level, “we need to greatly increase the number of people-to-people exchanges. We need to bring more officials from foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations to the United States—not just to Washington but to Middle America, small-town America, even the inner cities of America.”
My only quibble with Floyd—and with Kaplan—is that he sees this as “the real work of public diplomacy, not public relations. It seems to me that this is public relations on its most fundamental level: it goes to the heart of the relationship between America and the public and understands that relationship is determined primarily by actions not words. It makes the case—as effectively as any case study I can think of—that public relations can only be effective when it has a role in shaping policy, rather than merely communicating it.
But Price is right about everything else, including the fact that there will be no quick fix to the problem of America’s declining image in the world.
“Given where we stand in the eyes of the world, the results of these efforts will take years, possibly decades, to reap any positive benefits. But this change is vital to U.S. national security. It is also a moral obligation that we owe to the world.”