Fixing US' image requires human touch

Can the rising tide of worldwide anti-US sentiment be rolled back? New answers are overdue.

Can the rising tide of worldwide anti-US sentiment be rolled back? New answers are overdue.

The endemic proportions of spreading resentment are surprising, even to our crusty, savvy, skeptical Business for Diplomatic Action group of more than 50 veteran PR pros and academics. It is spearheaded by DDB chairman Keith Reinhard, his associate Cari Eggspuehler, Roper's Tom Miller, and Harvard's Joe Nye. Based on our findings, derived from Pew Research and Zogby International, a favorable view of the US plummeted in two years from 63% to 37% among respondents in France, 61% to 38% in Germany, and a similar pattern elsewhere.

What seems to amaze incredulous Americans most is that nothing's working. How can a nation so dedicated to spreading democracy, freedom, and tsunami relief - even at the selfless sacrifice of its own blood - be so reviled? What about our foreign aid? Rescue missions? Direct philanthropy? Expensive propaganda programs? Cultural exchanges of films and music?

Last month, a group of 50 pros of mixed nationality gathered at the Robert McCormick estate in suburban Chicago to spend three days taking an extensive, fresh look at the riddle. They included veteran diplomats from the UN, US, and UK; academics from Stanford and Northwestern; media like the BBC; and even dispirited survivors of Voice of America and the US Information Agency. The conference, part of which I chaired, was hosted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR), England's Ditchley Foundation, and the McCormick Tribune Foundation, and was led by UK Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and CCFR president Marshall Bouton.

"They may never love us again, but we must convert active dislike into passive dislike." That conclusion sums up the reality that this group believes we face. The consensus was that US public diplomacy - the process of going beyond the diplomats and speaking directly to the worldwide public - has been a colossal failure, but it doesn't have to remain so. It must be focused, above all, on renewing credibility. This means a new US posture of humility, transparency, and of being a softer voice to the world.

Many of us felt that the forthcoming arrival of veteran communications pro Karen Hughes as the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy might help change the climate. We felt her White House access might lend a true voice to public diplomacy in actual policy formulation, not just its communication.

Alas, altering world attitudes is an awesome, daunting task. Where do we start?

In that regard, I found some willing ears when I outlined an initiative that I believe pursues the goal in a direct, proactive way. The proposal is for a new Top/Down, Bottom/Up strategy of revitalizing rapport with the world, in very human terms.

Top/Down means actively speaking to citizens of the world in one sitting, on a regular basis: the first global quarterly fireside chat. It's not as far-fetched as you might think. I believe that if we could persuade Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - an extremely disarming, articulate minority female - to address not other governments, but their citizens in a 30-minute live broadcast on each quarter's first day, this personal connectivity could resonate like nothing else. (Witness her one-woman triumph at the Sorbonne.)

Obviously, her posture would have to be humble, citizen-to-citizen, with straight talk explaining rationale for US policy in the coming quarter. And she should not preach, but instead reach out for the listener's understanding. Today's technology makes this highly workable. For years we've had corporate CEOs speak to investors around the world in streaming video webcasts and teleconferences. Rice could have the added reach of satellite TV networks and global radio, digital and otherwise. Her words would be translated by the live assistance of an interpreter from each Washington embassy so that her charismatic delivery could be combined with fully understandable narrative in more than 50 languages, coordinated with the various networks.

My fellow attendees from the BBC and former VOA veteran Barry Zorthian agreed the plan was feasible. This was further confirmed in my conversation with longtime CBS White House correspondent Peter Maer.

Meanwhile, the Bottom/Up segment would leverage the remarkable new power of the web in bringing together America's best potential ambassadors, our 35 million teens, with the 1 billion-plus teens abroad in a Global e-Pal Program. If a central website could help match volunteer teens seeking a global partner with the simultaneous translation technology of Google, what could better melt hostility than this dialog between tomorrow's leaders and influencers?

Compared to huge ad campaigns or propaganda films, the cost of these efforts would be peanuts. Unorthodox? Yes. But let's face it. We have little esteem left to lose.

  • Ted Pincus is a director of Business for Diplomatic Action, the business columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, an independent journalist/consultant, and former CEO/owner of The Financial Relations Board.

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