ANALYSIS: Can the private sector lead public diplomacy efforts?

As marketing and PR pros enter into public diplomacy in earnest, Douglas Quenqua surveys their prospects of significantly altering the US' maligned global image.

As marketing and PR pros enter into public diplomacy in earnest, Douglas Quenqua surveys their prospects of significantly altering the US' maligned global image.

America's public diplomacy experts have been ringing this bell for years. They've said over and over again that US attempts to improve its image in the rest of the world will go nowhere until corporate America makes it a priority. It's a chorus that's only grown louder since September 11, 2001, and has been repeated in every report, white paper, and speech made by diplomatic experts in the last two years. Last week, the news suggested that someone has decided to take them seriously. Or more accurately, it seems that someone didn't really need to be told in the first place. Keith Reinhard, chairman of Omnicom ad firm DDB Worldwide, announced the formation of the Task Force to Mobilize American Business for Public Diplomacy, a collection of marketing and PR experts who've come together to help American corporations improve America's image in foreign lands. Much of the world gets to know America through its businesses operating overseas, so the task force hopes that impression could be improved if US corporations learn how to be more culturally sensitive to their host countries. But the group itself is just the first of Reinhard's efforts to poke his head above water. It turns out he's been at this for a while now. His interest in the topic began after seeing President Bush give a press conference in October 2001 in which he expressed dismay over how anyone could hate the US enough to attack it. Wanting to know the answer himself, Reinhard formed an ad hoc task force within DDB to do some research. The group fanned out across 17 countries, compiling data on foreign attitudes toward American companies. By January of 2002, they put together a white paper explaining their findings (although he admits, "it probably wouldn't stand up to academic standards"). Their research found that the world overwhelmingly shares the same four negative perceptions about US companies: 1. They exploit workers; 2. They're a corrupting influence, promoting values that are in conflict with local customs; 3. They are grossly insensitive and arrogant; 4. They practice hyper-consumerism; increasing profits is the only priority. While not exactly shocking, the results nonetheless served as a wake-up call to Reinhard. "I looked at the data and I said, 'They're talking about companies and brands that mean business to me. McDonald's, Dell, Johnson & Johnson, all these big multinational companies, these are our clients,'" he remembers. "Our own company gets 61% of our revenue from outside the US. So I thought we could organize and address some of these perceptions." That was nearly two years ago. Since then, Reinhard has been organizing, quietly bringing aboard other marketing executives with experience in public diplomacy and international relations. Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick, Steve Blamer of Grey, Saatchi & Saatchi's Tim Love, and Joe Plummer of McCann-Erickson are among the first members. They've been meeting for months, even bringing in Carl Eggspuehler, a former assistant to ex-undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy Charlotte Beers. Hoping to learn from past errors But Reinhard says he's learned from the mistakes of Beers, herself a one-time Madison Avenue icon whose brief foray into government produced a $15 million ad campaign aimed at overseas Muslims that's been universally derided as wrong-headed and counterproductive. "This isn't about making ads," he insists. "It's not even about making any kind of prepared communications. It's going to be about classic brand work. First understanding the root causes of these perceptions, then modifying whatever behavior needs to be modified in order to address the issues and then clear up misperceptions." To be sure, it's hardly the first time the private sector has tried its hand at public diplomacy. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson tapped journalist George Creel to lead propaganda efforts in Europe, and his massive team consisted almost exclusively of private sector practitioners. And in the wake of the 2001 attacks, Presidential advisor Karl Rove flew to Hollywood to talk to studio chiefs about an offer to help in any way they could. But the days of Creel, when the private sector was still comfortable with propagandizing for their country, are long gone, and nothing came of Rove's West Coast meetings. So you'd think the US government would be beside itself with joy over a serious effort by a group of professional communicators who want to get involved. Well if they are, they're not letting on. "We applaud all efforts of the private sector to further the public diplomacy goals of the US," is the only thing State Department officials will say on the record about Reinhard's task force. Why the reticence? One spokesman pointed to the pending Senate confirmation of ex-ambassador to Morocco Margaret Tutwiler as Beers' replacement - no one wants to say something that could delay or complicate the process. Still, one might expect more from the State Department given that just last month a congressionally appointed panel of experts recommended, among other things, that a Corporation for Public Diplomacy (CPD) be created as a place where the private and public sectors could come together to speak to foreign audiences. It's an ambitious recommendation that only a handful of industry people seem to be taking seriously. To get off the ground, it will require at least as much ambition as Reinhard has shown with his task force. Still, there are more than a few experts out there who think the very idea of tackling US image problems with a private/public partnership is at best absurd, at worst harmful. "I agree with the idea of bringing real-world marketing expertise to US public diplomacy efforts; it is sorely missing in the current inside-the-beltway construction," offers Michael Holtzman, a former public affairs advisor to the US trade representative under President Clinton and EVP at PR firm Brown Lloyd James. "But the fact that their premise is to use US business to fly America's flag is wrong-headed. Multinational businesses pay ad and PR firms to make them blend into their local surroundings, not act like mini-State Departments." In Holtzman's view, the private sector needs to stand back and let the bureaucrats do their job - and vice versa. "Government must do better at explaining its policy decisions through official channels," he says. "The private sector needs to do a better job at making ordinary people in the Arab world hate us less for those government policies - or better, like us more despite our policies. Distinct mandates." Optimism in face of reluctance Yet, not everyone is quite so pessimistic. Jack Leslie, the only PR executive on the task force thus far, has particularly high hopes for the group. As a longtime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he's one of a handful of people who are trying to get the CPD off the ground. Although he's cautious not to suggest he's looking to hijack Reinhard's effort, he nonetheless hopes the task force may be the seed from which that ambitious organization could sprout. "The [CPD] is something the Council on Foreign Relations has been talking about for a while, and now the idea is out there. So among those of us who are trying to get it going, there's a real interest to see if there's some way we can tie [the task force] into that," he says. Regardless of whether Reinhard's initiative ever gives birth to something as lofty as the CPD, Leslie cuts to the heart of the matter when he explains why he accepted his colleague's invitation to join. "This is a great way for the private sector to get involved in public diplomacy," he explains. "Even if all it does is serve as the catalyst to get American business together to think this through and be more responsive, that in itself will make this a good, worthwhile undertaking."

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