Hughes' 'listening' tour will only pay off if the US hears what Muslim audiences are saying
Karen Hughes has taken on the most thankless task in the Bush administration - the effort to improve America's image in the Arab world - and already it's clear that the job that previously defeated two extraordinarily smart professional communicators (advertising veteran Charlotte Beers and former ambassador Margaret Tutwiler) has not gotten any easier in the past 18 months.
It's been that long since Tutwiler moved on to a job at the New York Stock Exchange, and the fact that the position has been vacant for so long is, perhaps, an indication of how seriously the Bush administration takes public diplomacy. Nevertheless, when Hughes announced that the primary purpose of her first tour of the Middle East would be listening rather than talking, there was cause for optimism.
But in Egypt, Hughes was asked by an opposition leader why President Bush mentioned God so frequently in his speeches. Her answer was that previous Presidents had also referred to a deity, and that "our constitution cites 'one nation under God.'" The answer might have been reassuring, but it was also false - there's no reference to God in the constitution - and it left the impression that as a PR person, Hughes still has a lot to learn about her client, which is a little alarming, given that she's lived here her whole life.
In Saudi Arabia, she spoke to 500 female students about the right to "fully participate in society," including the right to drive. She was promptly challenged from the audience. One woman told her, "The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn't happy. Well, we're all pretty happy." Others assured her that not every Arab woman was yearning to drive. It was a resounding reminder that not all Muslim women are eager to embrace American values.
Finally, in Turkey, Hughes decided to go with a presumably less controversial, more universal message: "I am a mom and I love kids." But she was challenged by those who believe American foreign policy in the Middle East favors Israel and others who wondered why the US did not consult with Turkish officials before taking action in a region that the Turks presumably know better than officials more than 5,000 miles away.
It was not an auspicious beginning. Some of Hughes' comments reinforced the perception that America has already made up its mind what Muslims want to hear, while some of what she heard clarified that the problems have more to do with substance than perception. But if Hughes really was there to listen, and if she can persuade others in the administration to factor what she heard into their decision-making process, perhaps things will start to get better.
- Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 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.