State Department Seeks Private Sector Help on Public Diplomacy
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State Department Seeks Private Sector Help on Public Diplomacy

Opinion among those who attended last week’s Private Sector Summit on Public Diplomacy appears to be equally divided. Some believe the summit represented a genuine effort to generate ideas that might improve America’s image. Others are convinced it was little more than an attempt to co-opt the private sector.

Paul Holmes

Opinion among those who attended last week’s Private Sector Summit on Public Diplomacy appears to be equally divided. Some believe the summit, organized by the Public Relations Coalition in partnership with the State Department’s public diplomacy, represented a genuine effort to generate ideas that might improve America’s appalling image in the rest of the world. Others are convinced it was little more than an attempt to co-opt the private sector as an extension of the Bush administration’s propaganda efforts—at least one chief executive of a top tier public relations agency refused to attend on those grounds. Nevertheless, the summit attracted a crowd of 150 industry leaders, including such agency luminaries as Harold Burson, Lou Capozzi of Publicis Public Relations & Corporate Communications, Al Golin of GolinHarris, Jeff Hunt of GCI, Aedhmar Hynes of Text 100, Michael Kempner of MWW, Ray Kotcher of Ketchum, Helen Ostrowski of Porter Novelli, and Mark Penn of Burson-Marsteller; academics such as Paul Argenti of Dartmouth and Donald Wright of Boston University; and corporate communicators such as Nicholas Ashooh of American International Group, Robert Feldman of Dreamworks, Harvey Greisman of MasterCard, Thomas Martin of ITT, Gary Sheffer of GE, and Loretta Ucelli of Pfizer. Regardless of whether one’s view of the summit is profoundly cynical or hopelessly naïve, two conclusions appear irrefutable. The first is that America’s image is a significant concern, not only for the current administration but also for American companies. The second is that none of the solutions presented at the summit—which concluded with agreement around 11 “action steps” that might help—is likely to reverse the decline of U.S. reputation without significant changes in the behavior of both America and its leading institutions, including American corporations. According to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the only western country where a majority views the United States favorably is the United Kingdom (56 percent favorable), while America’s favorability rating in France is 39 percent, in Germany 37 percent, and in Spain just 23 percent. Not surprisingly, ratings are even lower in the Middle East: 30 percent favorability in Egypt and Indonesia (where U.S. aid in the wake of the 2005 tsunami helped somewhat); 27 percent in Pakistan; 15 percent in Jordan; 12 percent in Turkey. By way of comparison, Japan, France and Germany are all more highly regarded than the United States among the countries of Europe—even the British and Canadians have a more favorable view of these three nations than they do of America. Even China now has a better image than the U.S. in most of the European nations surveyed. The war in Iraq continued to draw broad international opposition and the United States and India were the only countries surveyed in which pluralities believed the removal from power of Saddam Hussein had made the world a safer place. But the war is not the only issue driving mistrust: in the wake of the Bush administration’s attempts to undermine the Kyoto agreement on global climate change, fewer than one in 10 Western Europeans surveyed trust the U.S. to do the right thing in protecting the world’s environment. And if international perceptions of American foreign policy are largely negative, perceptions of U.S. corporate behavior is little better. Dick Martin, former executive vice president of public relations at AT&T Dick Martin writes in his new book Rebuilding Brand America, that the deterioration of America’s image abroad “is due in no small part to foreign perceptions that U.S.-based companies are so obsessed with their stock price that they will mistreat employees, mislead consumers, and bend the accounting rules to wring an extra penny a share out of their financial results. Executive compensation that verges on corporate looting reinforces perceptions of America as a materialistic, narcissistic society in which the powerful exploit the weak. “The reputation of U.S. companies and the country itself are so intertwined that rebuilding Brand America must be a joint undertaking of government and business. Both have a lot to learn from each other and, in the end, they will only succeed if they share the burden because they already share the same brand.” Martin offers five reasons why American corporations should be playing a role in U.S. public diplomacy efforts. “First… American companies are part of the problem. They have a reputation for practicing a brand of selfish capitalism that the rest of the world deems unseemly at best and inhuman at worst. “Second, if anti-Americanism is allowed to fester, American business will eventually pay the price. The United States may command unmatched military power, but anti-Americanism hobbles U.S. efforts to expand global markets and assist American business abroad…. “Third, unless U.S. businesses get involved, they risk suffering a backlash from the government’s own efforts. Tightened immigration laws have already made it more difficult for U.S. businesses to hire foreign-born technical talent… Some of the best talent is now going to competitors in Asia and Europe. “Fourth, although they’re often hammered for focusing on short-term financial results, American businesses are actually more skilled and experienced in making long-term investments, particularly in new markets. Politicians come and go with every election cycle, taking their programs with them. Business can give what will be a generation-long undertaking more continuity than any elected official can. “Fifth, and perhaps most important, American global companies are in a better position than government to help solve the problem. They have more people in the trenches around the world; they have, for the moment, greater credibility; and politics being what it is, they have greater flexibility.” James Murphy, the global managing director of marketing and communications for Accenture and chairman of the Public Relations Coalition, obviously agrees that the private sector needs to get involved in public diplomacy. A little over a year ago, in fact, he made that issue the focus of a speech he gave to mark his election to the Arthur W. Page Society Hall of Fame, telling attendees: “Beyond the basic reason that friendly relations among nations promotes peace is the fact that anti-Americanism is bad for business. “From security costs to an inability to recruit the best people to the outright rejection of our products and services, I believe U.S. companies increasingly face the potential loss of our competitive edge. Business-led initiatives can still build new bridges of cooperation, respect and mutual understanding across cultures and borders. Where the efforts of government are met with skepticism, American companies with our entrepreneurial spirit, pragmatism and enthusiasm can bring to life the true values we believe in…. The public sector cannot win this battle of ideas alone.” One major reason private sector help is needed is that the historic public sector mechanisms for promoting American values abroad—the U.S. Information Agency and the Voice of America—were hastily dismantled at the end of the Cold War. In that same speech, Murphy complained that “we made some very bad decisions after the end of the Cold War regarding our public diplomacy apparatus…. We dismantled the country’s most effective PR function… We also moved public diplomacy out of a policy role and we spread its responsibilities around to other functions and slashed the budgets.” According to Murphy: “What we did was unilaterally disarm ourselves of the weapons of diplomacy and communications. In more familiar terms to those of us in corporate life, we shut down the PR department and cut everyone’s budget.” In its heyday, the USIA employed 2,500 public diplomacy officers overseas, and its director reported directly to the President of the United States and served, by law, as his principal advisor on matters of strategic communications. The distinguished broadcaster Edward R. Murrow was the director of the USIA under President John F. Kennedy. According to Martin, the agency “had unparalleled capabilities to disseminate information around the world and to foster understanding through educational and cultural exchanges. The agency was flexible and responsive. It had the human and technical resources to reach into every corner of the world as required. Agency staff members were assigned to every embassy; they were full members of the country teams and served as senior advisors to their ambassadors.” But following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the staff of the USIA was cut in half almost immediately. In 1998, Congress passed the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act and the USIA was absorbed into the State Department. Most of its employees, including those responsible for media and public opinion research, were reassigned to other State Department bureaus. So when Charlotte Beers, a veteran of senior leadership roles at both J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, was named to lead U.S. public diplomacy efforts in September of 2001, she inherited a much-weakened organization—and considerable skepticism on the part of those who worried, like William Drake of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that she would attempt “to sell Uncle Sam like Uncle Ben’s.” Perhaps more troubling, she found that within the State Department it was “anathema… to talk to the people” of foreign countries who would be on the receiving end of American public diplomacy efforts. Beers commissioned additional research and began meeting with prominent American Muslims as well as leaders in the Arab world as part of a “listening” campaign. She launched a small scale, $15 million effort called “Shared Values,” which showed that while Americans and Muslims were far apart on values such as modesty, obedience and duty, they placed similarly high importance on values such as family, faith, and education. The campaign featured five short videos showing the daily life of American Muslims, to show their co-religionists in the Middle East how Islam was practiced in a tolerant, ecumenical culture like the United States. Early in 2003, the Shared Values campaign was—some disagreement remains about whether the initiative was a failure or had merely run its natural course—and a couple of months later Beers resigned for “health reasons.” To some, the fact that the Bush administration did not appoint a successor until the middle of 2005—some 18 months later—was an indication of its disregard for the entire subject of public diplomacy. Karen Hughes, a Bush administration insider who had served as director of communications for the President since his days as Governor of Texas, was sworn in as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy in September of 2005, and quickly undertook her own tour of the Middle East to meet with Arab leaders and ordinary people. At last Thursday’s meeting, Hughes and assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs Dina Powell ran though some of the public diplomacy efforts initiated in recent months. (According to one observer, “half of the day was entirely consumed by self-congratulatory stories about all the great things they’re already doing.”) Hughes says she is focusing on three areas. The first is communications. Her group has launched a new “Rapid Response Unit” that monitors world news from a state-of-the-art broadcast center and produces a morning summary of what is driving news across the world and what our message is on those issues that is distributed to every military commander, every ambassador, every cabinet Secretary, to all the key leaders in government. “One of the beauties of it is not only that it gets our message on the same page, but it also focuses the attention of policymakers in Washington on what is important to audiences across the world, what is making news across the world and what is our policy position on that news.” She has also encouraged U.S. government officials to appear on television, establishing three regional media hubs in Dubai and Brussels and London. “I’ve told [my team] the first person who comes up with a good plan to put TV cameras in the hands of some of our exchange students, so that they can do little postings to YouTube, I’ll fund it.” And the State Department is also recruiting and deploying special American public diplomacy envoys, such as world champion skater Michelle Kwan, who is traveling with Hughes to China this month. The second area of focus is exchanges. “I am absolutely convinced, without a doubt, that our exchange programs have been our single-most effective public diplomacy tool of the last 50 years. Everybody that you talk with who has participated in an exchange says the same thing, that their lives were forever changed. And what better way to tell the story of America than to bring people here and let them see for themselves.” The third area of focus is what Hughes calls “the diplomacy of deeds…. We’re partnering with NGOs on things like the Malaria Summit that was hosted at the White House, both to improve our effectiveness but also to improve our ability to communicate about what we’re doing to wipe out the malaria that kills 3,000 children a day…. We’re partnering with Nancy Brinker and the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the people who run the Race for the Cure, too…. We’re partnering with journalism schools and the Aspen Institute…. “I recently saw some research that showed that after the Navy hospital ship USS Mercy went to Bangladesh, polls showed the favorable opinion of the United States rose to 87 percent. Now, that’s not the reason we do these things; we do these things because that’s who we are because we believe deeply that every life matters and every life counts. But as we do them and as the world sees that that’s who we are, it also comes to the benefit of our country.” Hughes also outlined three strategic priorities against which public diplomacy efforts would be measured. “First, America must offer people across the world a positive vision of hope that is rooted in our deepest values, our belief in liberty, in justice, in opportunity, in respect for all…. That’s why we speak out for democracy and against human rights offenders and for a free press and against those who would stifle religious freedom, for equal treatment for women and minorities and against sex trafficking because America believes that every person has worth and dignity and value and we proudly stand for human rights and human freedom everywhere. “Our second strategic imperative is to isolate and marginalize the violent extremists that we are facing and confront their ideology of tyranny and hate. We have to undermine their efforts to betray the West as somehow in conflict with Islam because Islam is a part of America. As a government official, I represent an estimated seven million American Muslims who live and work and worship side by side with us here in this great country. And one of the things I’ve worked to do is to empower their voices and to demonstrate respect for Muslim cultures and contributions…. I’ve spent a great deal of my time as Under Secretary reaching out to Muslim Americans because I believe they’re an important bridge to Muslim communities across the world. “Our third strategic imperative is to foster a sense of common interest and common values between Americans and people of different countries and cultures across the world.” The private sector, she says, can help in numerous ways. “Your companies come at this experience from a very different perspective than government does, but I think we have a lot of interests in common and you have the ability to be so vital to what we do. You have employees all across the world who have an incredible reach into their societies. Your operations touch millions of lives every day…. When you donate computers to a school overseas, you are not just helping your company; you are also helping your country. And we’re very grateful for that and you have a unique role to play.” To encourage companies to play that role, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a new annual award to honor private-sector organizations that promote the image of the United States abroad, presented by the State Department. The Benjamin Franklin Award was developed to urge corporations and other private-sector groups to play a bigger role in public diplomacy. By the end of the meeting, the 150 public relations professionals present, working with State Department leaders, had identified 11 action steps for greater private sector involvement and support for U.S. public diplomacy. They include developing business practices making public diplomacy a core element of international corporate public action, with specific recommendations to name a corporate officer responsible for public diplomacy and incorporate U.S. business practices consistent with U.S. values of respect for the individual, opportunities and entrepreneurship. Under the heading of promoting understanding of American society, culture and values, U.S. companies should become part of the local community through employee volunteerism, strategic philanthropy, and greater engagement with responsible NGOs; create “circles of influence” through relationships with organizations, chambers of commerce, journalists, and local business leaders; create local opportunities to win internship opportunities in the U.S.; and provide English-language training and overseas studies for disadvantaged students. To build relationships of trust and respect, American companies should support the creation of a corps of private sector “foreign service officers” made up of academics and business people with specialized expertise who could work abroad on short term assignments; provide incentives for non-U.S. workforce to visit U.S. and for U.S. work force to travel overseas; sponsor international short-term assignments for U.S. employees; have private sector public diplomacy summits in key geographies; and provide financial support for some State Department educational and cultural exchanges. The key recommended actions will be published as part of a Public Relations Coalition report on the Summit, which will also include other actions that the private sector can adopt in its continuing effort to improve public diplomacy. It is encouraging to see leading corporations and public relations firms engaging with an issue that is vitally important to corporate America and to the global society in which it operates. But it is unlikely that the 11 actions suggested—in the unlikely event that they are adopted enthusiastically by a significant number of leading multinational companies—could have much of a restorative impact on America’s global reputation without a major overhaul of American foreign policy. It must have taken either a strong stomach or a total immunity to irony for Hughes’s audience to swallow her claim that “we [the United States government] speak out for democracy and against human rights offenders and for a free press and against those who would stifle religious freedom.” It will be difficult to persuade the rest of the world that America is committed to being a good global citizen as long as its government continues to block efforts to combat what the rest of the world sees as the greatest challenge facing the planet: not terrorism, but the threat of continued global climate change. It will be difficult to persuade the rest of the world that America truly holds the values it espouses as long as it continues to act in ways that undermine those values. America cannot credibly claim to believe in democracy, for example, while at the same time seeking to undermine democratically elected governments it does not like (such as the anti-American Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) and allying itself with undemocratic governments in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. America cannot credibly claim to be interested in freedom of the press while it is paying firms to subvert the free press in Iraq. To the best of my knowledge, the Bush administration continues to pay the black propaganda outfit The Lincoln Group, which two years ago was found to be planting articles written by American troops in Iraqi newspapers and paying Iraqi journalists to provide positive coverage of American reconstruction efforts in the country. And finally, America cannot credibly claim to be promoting human rights at a time when it has turned its back on the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration continues to insist on its right to hold individuals without trial, without even being made aware of the charges against them; to use torture to extract information from detainees; to tap the telephones of its citizens without warrants; and most recently to intimidate lawyers who defend civil liberties by calling on corporate clients to withdraw their business from those firms. As long as these behaviors persist, it’s hard not to take a cynical view of any attempt to enhance public diplomacy efforts.
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