It's tough duty fighting for people's minds at home and abroad, all
the while looking toward Capitol Hill, where fresh strategies for
getting "America's story" across are demanded but rarely welcomed. And
already one of them - Charlotte Beers, a certified advertising genius
willing to "use any format" to get America's messages across - is
ducking flak from powerful foes just weeks after officially taking over
as under secretary of state for public diplomacy.
Beers, a southern charmer who headed JWT and Ogilvy & Mather, was
dismissed by The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt as "a former ad executive
noted for the Uncle Ben's rice account" who has not come to grips with
the reality "that America is getting clobbered in the psychological
propaganda war in the Islamic streets."
The notion that Beers' appointment was a frivolous pre-September 11
action taken by an administration that has viewed the public diplomacy
mission as largely marginal reflects Washington's talent for mislaying
memory on command. Few now seem to remember the bipartisan insistence
that led to the dismantling of the US Information Agency in 1999 and the
bequeathal of its vestiges, such as the Voice of America, to states'
public diplomacy offices. The Cold War was over; why maintain a massive
Now the chant is, "Why weren't we ready for this?"
Beers thus finds herself in a seemingly untenable position, doing battle
not only with the likes of Al Hunt but with the "old boys" transferred
over from the USIA. They fought for years to be seen as "public
diplomatists," not propagandists. So serving under an advertising pro
isn't their dish of tea. Nor is "doing PR" as they perceive it. When
they leave federal employment, however, their resumes suddenly bloom
with years of PR expertise.
Beers' fellow commanders in the war for minds are Susan Neely, named
late in October as comms director for the Office of Homeland Security,
and Torie Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs -
both have extensive PR experience. Condoleezza Rice, the President's
national security adviser, seems to be keeping an eye out for anything
amiss in the propaganda trenches. Presidential communications counselor
Karen Hughes is, at Bush's request, pitching in, trying to come up with
ways to improve the US' image in Muslim countries.
All are going to be tested in battle, their every command questioned in
a time when the Chicken Little syndrome is epidemic. Support them.
Wes Pedersen is communications director for the Public Affairs
He spent 30 years with the USIA, is former president of the National
Association of Communicators, and is an award-winning former VP of a
Washington, DC PR firm.