White House: Better PR can reverse anti-American sentiment

Austin-American Statesman, Aug. 1, 2003
http://www.statesman.com/
By Michelle Orris, WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON — With anti-American sentiment rising worldwide, Bush administration officials say they are stepping up efforts to market America throughout the world.

Polls indicate that international opinion of the United States has plummeted in the last year, and worldwide sympathy for the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has all but dissipated.

The Bush administration spent more than $70 million after the attacks to expand broadcasts of U.S.-sponsored international news services, but such expenditures have returned to previous levels and critics say they are not enough to counter the growing tide of anti-American sentiment.

Harold Pachios, a member of the congressional Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy since the Clinton administration, said new strategies like a U.S.-based Middle East television network are in the works, however, and more funding for diplomacy is expected to come when such programs are finalized.

Pachios blamed U.S. public relations problems for the soured international opinion.

“I do believe some people in the administration conveyed a message that was not helpful about America’s ability to go alone (in the war in Iraq),” Pachios said. However, he said the White House emphasis on troops from other nations in Iraq, which stands at barely 9 percent, demonstrates a sensitivity to the issue.

A 2003 Pew Research Center study found that international opinion of the United States has fallen significantly in the past year. In only seven of the 49 nations polled did a majority of respondents say they have a favorable opinion of the United States, echoing a drop in worldwide support for American efforts to fight terrorism after U.S. troops invaded Iraq. A majority of people in seven out of the eight Muslim countries polled feel the United States is a military threat to their countries and their Islamic faith.

Mark Helmke, an aide to Senate Foreign Relations committee chair Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said inadequate funding has hampered the U.S. voice abroad, and diplomats need better training to learn to face cameras and influence diverse cultures.

He said “blazing headlines” in the U.S. media have cultivated worldwide misunderstanding, because diplomats have not bothered to condemn inflammatory views. For example, when Rev. Jerry Falwell publicly declared in 2001 that “Islam teaches hate” and a U.S. senator proposed in May to fund Iranian exiles opposed to their government, Helmke said foreigners thought such positions represented general U.S. views.

“We met with Palestinian journalists, and one asked me why didn’t your government correct this?” Helmke said. “We need to put more people on the ground everywhere in the world so they can explain how complex the American political decision process is. … We don’t have enough people with the language skills and the media savvy for each one of those countries.”

Pachios said the United States suffers from a reduction in public diplomacy programs in 1999 when the Clinton administration downsized its public diplomacy office by a third and merged the U.S. Information Agency, which handled all U.S. propaganda abroad, into the State Department.

Stan Silverman, former comptroller of the USIA, said the merger was a blow to foreign relations, but not because of inadequate funding. Spending allocated annually to public diplomacy programs in 1999 before the merger totaled 1.1 billion, dropping slightly to .9 billion after the merger.

Foreign public relations spending has not changed dramatically throughout the last decade. Congress allocated 1.1 billion allocated in 1990, peaking at 1.4 billion in 1993 and sliding back to 1.1 billion by 1996 which has lasted until 2003.

Silverman said USIA workers retained their jobs in the State Department, which is why the merger did not result in better financial efficiency. He said the merger was an arbitrary political decision granted in a deal between Madeleine Albright and the Senate Foreign Relations committee chair at the time, who thought the USIA was wasteful and wanted State Department jurisdiction over the duties. Public relations offices are now scattered throughout State Department agencies with little coordination or effectiveness, Silverman said.

While he said public relations abroad could be greatly improved, Silverman did not believe U.S. marketing schemes would work on foreign audiences.

“Clearly the Arab world is so wrought up I can’t imagine any kind of public diplomacy-making that palatable,” Silverman said, adding that the United States’ recent Madison Avenue branding techniques are too simplistic to be effective in other cultures.

Secretary of State Colin Powell called in 2001 for a change from just selling the United States to “really branding foreign policy.” An advertising executive hired by the department ran a “Shared Values” advertising campaign, which depicted Muslims gushing about life in America and appeared last year on television throughout the Middle East. It was largely mocked by its target audience.

Pachios said the resurgence in public relations abroad could curb widespread anti-American sentiment.

Stuart Holliday, the State Department official who oversees U.S. public relations abroad, said throughout the war in Iraq, the department monitored global news networks 24 hours a day to find mistakes or bias in coverage and at times made efforts to correct them.

Consequently, Holliday’s department has become increasingly aware of the power of images and the anti-American bias in Middle Eastern media sources like Al-Jazeera.

He said the State Department is now broadcasting pictures of soldiers working to rebuild Iraq and tailoring news broadcasts to appeal to distinct audiences, accompanied by editorial programs to explain and promote U.S. policy.

The office also promotes public diplomacy by offering international students and professionals trips to the United States and sends American lecturers around the world, Holliday said.

Funding for broadcast stations like Voice of America that provide news and official U.S. positions has remained around $400 million and $550 million since 1990, but it may get a boost if Congress approves a proposed Middle East Television Network.

The 24-hour network was devised to counter anti-American news sources, said Holliday. American journalists would run the network, which would be available over satellite television to the Middle East in Arabic-speaking countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq.

Congress has appropriated $30 million for the venture and is considering allocating $60 million more.

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