Businesses unite to help Brand America

By teaming to reverse the US' poor image abroad, domestic companies also hope to help themselves

By teaming to reverse the US' poor image abroad, domestic companies also hope to help themselves

That the US has something of a bad image around the world these days is increasingly acknowledged in the US itself, including by domestic companies that see anti-Americanism abroad as a threat to their bottom lines in the form of lower sales, consumer boycotts, or even physical attacks against property and individuals.

At least two business coalitions that have formed in recent years have concluded that Brand America is in bad shape, and they have some ideas about how to fix it.

The Discover America Partnership, for instance, which includes executives from major hotel and travel companies, is pushing for changes in visa application processes and improvements in the efficiency and courtesy of US immigration officials.

Business for Diplomatic Action, whose leaders include DDB Worldwide chairman emeritus Keith Reinhard, has developed a "foreign media relations guide" for US companies. It's also promoting exchange programs between, for example, "young Arab leaders" and US multinationals.

This type of cross-cultural exchange is also at the heart of solutions put forth by the Public Relations Coalition and the State Department following a January 9-10 summit of PR and business leaders and government officials in Washington. The summit's recommendations include, among other things, naming a corporate officer for public diplomacy and creating private sector "foreign service officers" - people in academia or business - who would work on short-term projects abroad.

Foreign policy experts say that private-public diplomatic efforts are not new - the Fulbright Program was created in 1946, for example - and can be effective. But if you suppose people overseas based their impression of the US mainly on government policies, then more intensive communications between US corporate entities and overseas groups or individuals won't do enough to improve perceptions of the US, says Bruce Gregory, director of George Washington University's Institute for Public Diplomacy.

"I frequently tell my students that good public diplomacy doesn't trump the flawed political policies of weak leadership and much that societies project is beyond government's control," he adds. "Results can take years and [may] never be achieved. Contested interests can matter more than shared understandings, and cross-cultural communications can actually reinforce hostilities among competing countries."

That said, communications matter, notes Gregory, and should be undertaken whether or not government policies exacerbate resentment of the US overseas.

Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees that America's perception in the world is certainly affected by US policy, but that promotion of America's image is still nevertheless a good use of time and something that US businesses can aid.

"I think one of the problems for the government is that it's hard to [change perceptions] by itself because, in a sense, the government is part of the problem," he says. "If people have come to distrust the US government, and in many parts of the world they have, it doesn't help to send the local ambassador out more often to make statements because he's the person they don't trust."

The very public 2005 "listening tours" of the Mideast and Asia by President Bush's longtime confidante Karen Hughes, the State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, got awful media coverage: groups and individuals she spoke with generally criticized US policy harshly and seemed unimpressed by her frequent praise of Bush administration policies.

But the emergence of business groups advocating public diplomacy perhaps a bit more vocally than they might have in recent years, for fear of seeming politically partisan, is at least generating some positive reaction among overseas media, says Hirofumi Goto, an SAE with Fleishman-Hillard'', which is assisting both the Discover America Partnership and Business for Diplomatic Action with media relations.

"Most people laugh if I mention this whole thing about America's image," Goto says. "[America's poor reputation] is not news really. What does seem new [to the media] is that organizations are trying to do something about it."

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