State Dept., PR Coalition summit targets US private sector support

WASHINGTON: The US State Department and the Public Relations Coalition on January 9 to 10 are co-hosting a summit at the State Department that will look at how businesses and other private sector organizations can support and improve US public diplomacy.

WASHINGTON: The US State Department and the Public Relations Coalition on January 9 to 10 are co-hosting a summit at the State Department that will look at how businesses and other private sector organizations can support and improve US public diplomacy.

About 150 corporate communications executives, PR agency heads, State Department and other government officials, business leaders, academics, and others will participate in the event, which begins tomorrow with an evening reception at the White House. At the State Department on Wednesday, participants will first discuss various "best practices" of government-private sector, then divide into smaller groups to discuss other ways the private sector can aid public diplomacy.

Karen Hughes, undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, and Dina Habib Powell, assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs, will lead the State Department's presence.

"We've really made reaching out to the private sector a key priority," Powell said. "Ultimately, it will be through forging partnerships with the business community, academia, non-government organizations, and Americans who host exchange students that we can amplify our mission of promoting mutual understanding."

The PR Coalition, which has about 50,000 members and includes about 20 different organizations, proposed the summit, noted PR Coalition chair Jim Murphy. Every few years, it hosts a summit on a topic of general interest, such as corporate governance and diversity.

"I had been talking to [Hughes'] staff off and on just about general stuff... and said this topic seems to have a lot of interest in the private sector and [asked] could we do something about the image of America around the world," said Murphy, who is also global MD of marketing and communications at Accenture.

One goal of the summit, whose participants will include Burson-Marsteller founding chairman Harold Burson and Young & Rubicam's former vice chairman and CEO Tom Bell, is the identification of 10 "action steps" that companies can take to support US government public diplomacy efforts, which have been criticized in recent years for failing to stem negative perceptions of the US abroad.

A worldwide study earlier this year from the Pew Research Center found generally unfavorable views of the US by most countries in the Middle East and Asia, though the popularity of the US and Americans has actually improved in recent years in India, France, and other countries.

The State Department in the past 18 months or so has gotten involved in several projects with the private sector, Powell said, including a mentoring program involving top US female business executives, such as Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore; a journalist exchange program involving the Aspen Institute and six US journalism schools; and a recent tour of Asia involving US university presidents and the State and Education departments.

The US private sector has of late initiated various efforts on its own to address anti-Americanism, including the creation in September of the multimillion-dollar Discover America Partnership, which includes a number of top hotel and travel executives and is promoting ways to increase visits by overseas businesspeople, students, and tourists. The partnership's argument is that visitors typically return to their home countries with more favorable views of America.

Geoff Freeman, executive director of Discover America Partnership, said he will be attending the summit and hoped that a key topic of discussion will be specific actions that not just the private sector, but also the government can take, including shorter wait times for visas and making airports more welcoming to foreign travelers.

After the close of the summit, which will include a press conference on January 10, a few initial conclusions may be shared publicly via press release, to be followed 10 days to two weeks later with a full report on the proceedings. Murphy said the findings would be disseminated in various ways, including on the Web sites of the State Department and PR Coalition members.

"We'll identify best practices, discuss a whole bunch of options, and have the groups prioritize what they think are the best things people should consider," Murphy said. "What we'll do is try to put a spotlight on the topic and encourage others to do what some people are doing already."

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