PR heavyweights discuss public diplomacy at PRSA symposium

NEW YORK: Industry legend Harold Burson, founding chairman of Burson-Marsteller, was not entirely in sync with the PRSA International Section's symposium, titled, "When the World Stopped Listening...Hearing...Talking: Communicating Across Great Divides."

NEW YORK: Industry legend Harold Burson, founding chairman of Burson-Marsteller, was not entirely in sync with the PRSA International Section's symposium, titled, "When the World Stopped Listening...Hearing...Talking: Communicating Across Great Divides."

"I really challenge the premise," said Burson, a speaker at one of the symposium's panel discussions held last week at the United Nations. "They did not stop listening or hearing...[and] the talk is just not the talk we want to hear."

Burson's panel, entitled "The Private Sector's Role in US Public Diplomacy," was the last in the two-day conference. Tom Martin, director of corporate relations at ITT and president of the Arthur Page Society, and Robert Tappan, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs, joined Burson to discuss ways in which the government's international communications efforts could benefit from private sector input.

Burson, drawing on his experience as chairman of the US Information Agency's PR advisory committee during the Reagan administration, advocated establishing a similar group today to provide independent counsel to US officials. He also emphasized that communications follows policy. "Public diplomacy cannot set an agenda," he said.

Tom Martin warned that action must be taken now, because the situation has grown drastic. "The opinion of the US [abroad] has possibly never been at a lower point," he said.

Martin noted that the plummeting approval ratings of the US, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, were contributing to a "significant" drop in the strength of US brands in those regions.

Tappan described the State Department's most pressing communication issues as countering anti-Americanism and "radical elements" that seek to spread terrorism and hatred abroad. He said his department is reaching out to media outlets worldwide in order to increase understanding of American policies, as well as developing in-house capabilities, particularly in television, to spread the administration's message.

Tappan also said that the administration plans "a lot more engagement with Hollywood" in the coming years. "We need the best minds in entertainment" on the government's side, he said.

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