Political Communications: A banner year for Brand America

Andrew Hammond looks at the impact of Barack Obama's first year in office on the wider Brand America and why public diplomacy and strategic communications are pivotal.

A year into Barack Obama's presidency, the assessment of his performance is already well under way. As the recent Republican victory in the Senate election in Massachusetts indicates, his domestic popularity within the US has taken a hit. However, one key success has been his contribution towards the resurgence of 'Brand America'.

Opinion polls

Several opinion surveys show that anti-Americanism is generally on the decline, especially in Western Europe.

Although many viewed Obama's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize as premature, his efforts to redefine the US world view and reconceptualise US global policy are beginning to have a real impact.

Favourable perceptions of the US have increased by about 30 per cent in some countries, according to the Pew Global Attitude Projects.

According to Pew, the underlying driver of the surge in US support is primarily the global populace's confidence that Obama will 'do the right thing in world affairs'.

Other surveys point to wider factors, such as more favourable perceptions of US people and culture since Obama's election.


The turnaround in fortunes has not only been welcomed in Washington, but also in corporate America.

This follows concerns during George W. Bush's presidency that US-headquartered multinationals were becoming a focus for commercial backlash from anti-Americanism.

So, is the worst now over? The short answer is probably 'yes', but brand America will not be able to live long-term off Obama's reputation alone, especially if expectations fail to be fully realised.

The transformation in fortunes has been very strong in some countries, but there remain nations, including Turkey, where favourability towards the US is still lower than it was before the Bush presidency.

While the task ahead is large and long-term, the administration is not starting from scratch and can learn from the Bush team's successes and failures.

Outright hostility towards the US may never be eliminated in some countries.

A logical goal in these environments is to work towards mutual goals to undercut support for common enemies, such as the mutual interest of Islamabad and Kabul to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Previous administration

But it is the failures of the Bush administration's public diplomacy that remain most obvious.

It is for this reason that the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) listed 'improving the US image abroad' as one of the urgent priorities facing the Obama team and Congress.

As a GAO report in May recommended, what is now needed is a more comprehensive strategy to underpin public diplomacy and strategic communications, comprising:

- Clear purpose, scope and methodology

- Detailed discussion of problems, threats and risks

- Desired goals, objectives, activities, and outcome-related performance measures

- Resources, investments and risk management

- Delineation of government roles, responsibilities and co-ordination mechanism

- Description of the strategy's integration among and with other entities.

In addition to larger expenditure to fund this new approach, integration and co-ordination are particularly important, as the most successful country communications strategies have broad-based stakeholder alignment in which overall objectives, goals and messages are in harmony.

Long-term strategy

It remains to be seen whether Obama will decide long-term that co-ordination is best achieved through an existing body such as the White House's Global Engagement Directorate, or yield to those in Congress who favour creating a new institution responsible for public diplomacy and strategic communications.

Rearranging the government architecture will not be wholly successful without a coherent strategy, especially one lacking bipartisan support.

There are at least three other key integration and co-ordination issues to address.

Firstly, public diplomacy during the Bush era was dominated by the Pentagon. The State Department's budget and influence must now increase in the overall strategic communications and public diplomacy effort.

This should help herald a less adversarial approach that transcends the campaign against terrorism to seek genuine global engagement and dialogue.

Other key players

Secondly, it must be remembered that a significant part of US reputation is a consequence of sport, commerce and Hollywood, and that Washington cannot remake or manage Brand America alone. Private and third sector expertise will be key to seeking innovative ways to communicate and engage directly with foreign publics.

Thirdly, the strategy should adopt a truly holistic reputation management approach to the problems that have afflicted Brand America.

Some estimates indicate that the number of international travellers to the US may have fallen in 2009 by as much as ten per cent.

While this has partially been driven by the economic downturn, it may also reflect the perceived attractiveness of the US thanks to issues such as extended visa processing times for some foreign travellers.

Overall, while Brand America has rebounded, investment and reform of US public diplomacy and strategic communications must remain a priority, underpinned by a strategy that can secure bipartisan support.

- Andrew Hammond is a director at ReputationInc, a former UK Government special adviser and geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in