Hughes' legacy goes under microscope

As Karen Hughes exits State Department post, pundits question if PR efforts withstand policy

Imagine overseas visitors arriving in the US after their tiring plane rides and, as they queue up to have their passports examined and their luggage inspected, they see a Disney-commissioned film and display of hundreds of still images. The images are meant to "showcase the diversity, friendliness, and optimism of the American people," as described in a recent Disney press release. The new pilot program is on display at Dulles Airport in Washington and Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

Can a happy video do much to foster warmer thoughts around the world toward the US, given that various studies, including the oft-quoted Pew Global Attitudes Project, show that the reputation of the US continues to decline around the world?

This is the kind of question Karen Hughes has constantly grappled with during her two years as the State Department's under secretary of public diplomacy and public affairs, a post she will be leaving in mid-December to return to her home state of Texas.

As for the answer to the aforementioned question, foreign policy experts say maybe a little, just as exchange programs help bring people together and Arabic-speaking US reps can speak more directly to TV audiences in the Mideast about US policy. But such things are hardly enough to make much of a short-term difference, observers say, or reverse ill-will based on US foreign policy.

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution and a founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, notes, "You can't sell something that is unsellable, no matter how good your sales techniques are. We can surround our message with a lot of rock music before and after, but none of these techniques are going to work if people are tuned out to the messenger and find the message lacking in credibility."

The State Department itself has been cautious in describing what effect new public diplomacy efforts - including the creation of new exchange programs; establishment of "media hubs" in London, Brussels, and Dubai; and development of "rapid-response" media teams to more quickly comment on developing news - may have in changing global attitudes toward the US. Adjusting attitudes takes a long time, officials say.

People in other countries may never come around to liking the US because of certain foreign policies, as Hughes has often noted during her stint as public diplomacy czar.

During a recent interview (PRWeek, July 23), she said, "Some people disagree with some of our public policies - no question about that. People will always disagree with some actions."

With Hughes' announcement that she will be leaving her post in mid-December, various newspaper editorial writers, foreign policy experts, and political bloggers have offered assessments of what good the more media-savvy State Department's overseas operations may do to reverse America's generally acknowledged poor global reputation.

Opinions are mixed. Diamond says none of the recent efforts can compensate for the decision at the end of the Clinton administration to incorporate the US Information Agency into the State Department, or the reported loss of independence at the Voice of America, or the US government-backed Persian-language Radio Farda.

Paul Nathanson, an SVP and MD in DC for Moscow-based PBN, agrees that public diplomacy can't do much in the short term.

In Russia, for instance, the US image has taken a hit due to negative news reports in the state-run media and heated exchanges between the White House and the Kremlin over Iran, missile defense, and other issues.

But Nathanson says exchange programs can have a great impact in the long-term, noting a program created in the 1990s by US Librarian of Congress James Billington and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) that so far has brought more than 10,000 current and future Russian leaders to the US.

"You get a Russian who comes over on an exchange program and they remember it for the rest of their life," he says.

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