When Muhammed Abel Hadi, editor of the influential Al Ahrem left his meeting with Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, he seemed frustrated. He said that Beers seemed more interested in talking about "vague American values rather than specific US policies. No matter how hard you try to make them understand, they don't."There's nothing wrong with talking about values. Many great brands are built on the values for which they stand, or for the values for which the companies that make them stand. The Body Shop comes to mind, or Ben & Jerry's. Communicated properly, values can build strong emotional bonds between companies and their stakeholders, and can be the cornerstone of corporate credibility.
And contrary to the snide sniping of some critics, there's no reason why the laws of good brand building should not apply to the US, just as they apply to cosmetics or ice cream.
But the thing about building a brand around values is that it's not enough to go out and tell people what your values are. After all, Enron had values - communications, respect, integrity, and excellence were among them.
You also have to be able to demonstrate the ways in which your company - or your country - is living those values. That's where the Beers plan for promoting the US brand overseas appears to be breaking down.
America can talk all it likes about democracy, liberty, equality, and security, but as long as it continues to pick its allies and enemies on the basis of pragmatism rather than shared values, it will not be able to build a brand around such concepts. The way America behaves in the world is driven by economics (as demonstrated by its friendly policy toward China) or domestic political concerns (its support for Israel), rather than by lofty idealism.
What we're seeing from the reaction to Beers' Middle Eastern tour is a result of putting someone with an advertising mind - albeit a very good advertising mind - in charge of a PR problem. Advertising people believe in the power of image. They believe that if they deliver the same messages over and over again - reach and frequency - those messages will eventually form the product's image.
That can work if there's nothing happening in the marketplace to contradict the image the ads are conveying, but if people's experiences with the brand are significantly different from the advertising message - if the company is caught dumping toxic waste into a river at the same time it is touting itself as environmentally friendly - then turning up the volume on the advertising is going to make matters worse, not better.
PR people, on the other hand, know that good communication is rooted in reality - that the most credible communications tool is behavior. If America is going to talk the talk on values, sooner or later, it is also going to have to walk the walk.
Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management.
He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.