INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - 'The most credible communications tool is behaviour'

In his first fortnightly column on American PR issues, leading US commentator Paul Holmes says values-based PR only works if you back up words with actions.

When Muhammed Abdel Hadi, editor of Al-Ahram Weekly, left his meeting with Charlotte Beers, he complained that the US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs seemed more interested in talking about 'vague American values rather than specific US policies'.

There's nothing wrong with talking about values. Many great brands have been built on the basis of the values for which they stand. Communicated properly, values can be the cornerstone of corporate credibility.

Contrary to the snide sniping of critics, there's no reason why the laws of good brand-building cannot apply to the US, just as they apply to cosmetics or ice-cream.

But the thing about building a brand around values is that it's not enough to go out and tell people what your values are. After all, Enron had values - communications, respect and integrity were among them.

You also have to be able to demonstrate how your company - or country - is living those values.

That's where the Beers plan for promoting the US brand overseas appears to be breaking down.

America can talk all it likes about democracy, liberty, equality, and security, but as long as it continues to pick its allies and enemies on the basis of pragmatism rather than shared values, it will not be able to build a brand around such concepts. The way the US behaves in the world is driven by economics or domestic political concerns rather than by lofty idealism.

What we're seeing from the reaction to Beers' Middle Eastern tour is a result of putting someone with an advertising mind - albeit a good advertising mind - in charge of a PR problem.

Advertising people believe in the power of image and that if they deliver the same messages over and over again, those messages will eventually form the product's image.

That can work if there's nothing happening in the market to contradict the ads. But if people's experiences with the brand are significantly different from the ad message - if a company is caught dumping toxic waste into a river at the same time it is touting itself as environmentally friendly - then turning up the volume on advertising is going to make matters worse, not better.

PR people, on the other hand, understand good communication is rooted in reality, that the most credible communications tool is behaviour. If America is going to talk the talk on values, sooner or later it is also going to have to walk the walk.

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