WASHINGTON: The State Department's public affairs division has gone on the offensive to combat last month's reports that its Shared Values initiative was faltering after the disappearance of its centerpiece, a $15 million advertising campaign.
The spots, which had aired in several Arab countries and were intended to help ease anti-American sentiment, featured Muslim Americans talking about their positive experiences living in the US. The reports, originating in The Wall Street Journal and used as the basis for articles in several outlets, including the January 20 issue of PRWeek, claimed that the commercials had been pulled in favor of pursuing more traditional diplomatic efforts.
A State Department spokesman confirmed that the ads had been pulled from the air in December, but gave a different reason for their disappearance: "Those spots were only intended to run during the month of Ramadan, and they were completed successfully on schedule," he said.
According to several State Department sources, including press secretary Richard Boucher, the commercials are now being rescripted in order to remove references to Ramadan and possibly "extend their use" beyond the handful of Arab countries where they had been airing since October.
Coupled with a variety of speaking tours, town-hall meetings, print publications, radio broadcasts, and Arab outreach programs (all of which State Department spokespeople were eager to promote last week), the commercials make up the post-September-11 street-level diplomacy campaign known collectively as Shared Values.
"We want to clarify the record, and make sure that everybody knows Shared Values is going forward," said deputy press secretary Rob Tappan.
Undersecretary for public diplomacy Charlotte Beers, the driving force behind Shared Values, is taking her own steps to defend the integrity of the campaign. The former Madison Avenue CEO sat for interviews with PBS' Jim Lehrer and CNN's Aaron Brown, where she discussed and defended the viability of advertising as a foundation for public diplomacy.
"My point of view would be that (the ads show) a real person telling their story in their own words, which is as close as you can get to visiting with them," Beers told Lehrer. She added, however, that the real impact of the commercials will come later, when Muslim Americans starring in the ads visit the regions in which the ads aired.
"They're going to be available for questions and answers, and even those countries that didn't have it on their national channel will get these speakers. They'll be covered by the local press; they've become stars because they have such high coverage and awareness."