A Gannett News Service special report Posted July 14, 2002

History of public diplomacy

The State Department's "Washington file" for the public, in English, French, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

The State Department's official public diplomacy page.

U.S. relations with the world


Tell us if you found this report useful

Bush administration struggles to build U.S. 'brand' abroad

WASHINGTON — The public relations war against terrorism is being waged from Iowa farmer Bob Osborne's barn.

That’s where a “Good Morning Egypt” crew filmed anchorwoman Shereen el Wakeel as she interviewed the Shellsburg, Iowa, dairy farmer.

“I wanted to address some of the stereotypes we have of Americans from TV and movies — people in fancy clothes, girls in tight pants," she said.

The portly Osborne glances sheepishly at his well-worn insulated coveralls. "Don't think I'd fit," he says. Later in the segment, which aired in May, Osborne and others argue that Americans are just like everyone else, and el Wakeel agrees.

Broadcasts like this, produced through a federally funded exchange program involving Arab and American journalists, make up a public diplomacy effort that many see as a key in the administration’s war on terrorism.

The State Department effort is designed to reach the general public in foreign countries — as opposed to government officials in those countries — through broadcasts, exchange programs, speaking tours, articles in foreign papers and the Internet.

Public diplomacy became a top priority after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Bush administration pledged to dispel mistaken impressions of America and challenge anti-American views, especially in the Muslim world.

"In general, public diplomacy has been undervalued over the years," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told Gannett News Service. "The need to communicate better with the Muslim world has not been fully understood."

Return to top of page | Return to contents

Results disappointing

But even supporters of the new effort, which is headed by Undersecretary of State Charlotte Beers, say the results so far are not encouraging based on private polls, anti-American protests and surveys financed by the State Department.

"Weak, very weak," is how University of Qatar political science professor Louay Bahry described the public diplomacy effort. It is reaching only the elite, who tend to support the United States anyway, he said.

“There's more anti-Americanism now” than before Sept. 11, he said. “That's not good. You have to do something about it.”

Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, recalled that top administration officials did make themselves more accessible to his station and its 45 million viewers in October during the onset of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, but for only about a week. U.S. officials complained that the exposure didn’t sway enough of the audience, he said.

“Don’t expect the whole Arab world to wave the U.S. flag” because Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld give Al-Jazeera one interview, said Al-Mirazi, a former Voice of America and BBC reporter. "You have to keep at it, just like you are doing on the Sunday talk shows every week.”

Many Muslims still question Osama bin Laden's involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“America has not yet satisfied us it was Osama bin Laden. We have not yet seen clear evidence,” said Nigerian Al-Shieck Ahmad Lemo, who was in Washington this month for a goodwill tour by top Muslim leaders.
Imams continue to deliver anti-American diatribes that go unanswered. And articles in state-run papers still question American culture and the motives behind U.S. foreign policy, said Charles Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco and frequent guest on Al-Jazeera.

“If we are to turn the tide in the war on terror, we ignore this cascade of hatred at our peril," he said.

Part of the problem is the State Department’s sluggish reaction time, said Harold Pachios, chairman of the government's Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy.
"The State Department is a very slow bureaucracy, and it will take a while to change the culture." Pachios said.
But he credits Beers with an innovative strategy.

“She has ideas,” he said. “She has new approaches to things."

Return to top of page | Return to contents

Selling the 'brand'

Beers, a former advertising executive, concedes that America's "brand" is proving a tough sell in the Islamic world, where the United States is increasingly seen as an indifferent and arrogant bully.

As a first step, Beers’ marketing campaign uses polls and focus groups to learn how foreigners see the United States and what their impressions are based on.

"The way to open a door so firmly closed — as we learned in years of message-building in advertising — is to know and like the audience," Beers said. "Talk from their point of view, not yours. Think in terms of the response wished for, not what you want to say.”

So far the Bush administration has:

— Invited journalists from Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, to tour the United States and explore how Americans and American Muslims live. The result: More than 60 articles, many quoting American Muslims talking about their ability to practice Islam freely in the United States.

— Worked with California-based Globe TV to fund an exchange of Arab and U.S. journalists, including the anchorwoman from "Good Morning Egypt."

— Produced short videos profiling Muslim Americans in professions such as teaching and firefighting to show that the United States is open and tolerant. The programs were tested in Jakarta and Cairo, where focus groups asked to learn more, and will be shown in nine predominantly Muslim countries this fall.

— Begun a search for the thousands of foreign professionals, students and artists who participated in government-sponsored exchange programs, in the hope they will agree to become mini-ambassadors.

— Opened an Arabic-language broadcasting service — Radio Sawa — that reaches across the Middle East.

Judging from embassy reports and gushing e-mails from listeners, Radio Sawa is the government's most successful public diplomacy venture. Created by Westwood One founder Norm Pattiz, the broadcast service is aimed at Arab listeners under age 30. It broadcasts music, sports, weather and twice-an-hour newscasts.

"Give people music and sports, they'll listen to it," said Mohamed Elsetouhi, a correspondent for Nile TV, an Egyptian station.
But listeners may be ignoring Radio Sawa’s newscasts — the core of the public diplomacy mission.

"The chances are the Arab youth will split the strategy: take the U.S. sound and discard the U.S. agenda," the respected Cairo-based weekly Al-Ahram wrote in a May editorial.

Critics of the public diplomacy effort say no amount of spin-doctoring will change the minds of savvy foreign audiences angry about America’s support for Israel and other unpopular policies. Others say the United States should not be in the propaganda business.

"I think public diplomacy is doing more harm than good," said Sheldon Rampton, editor of the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch, a liberal nonprofit that investigates the public relations industry. "Sometimes this approach is referred to as the 'hypodermic' model — an attempt to inject your message into the minds of others."

Return to top of page | Return to contents

Lawmakers back effort

Congress is also playing an active role in promoting the public diplomacy effort.
In April, the House International Relations Committee passed the Freedom Protection Act introduced by committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill. The measure would boost spending on public diplomacy by about 12 percent a year over this year's budget of about $1 billion, a figure that includes all exchange programs and broadcasting.

Advocates of public diplomacy say it proved its effectiveness during the Cold War. Polish President Lech Walesa called the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe his nation's true "ministry of information."

"We who have lived in closed societies know the value of a radio transistor that receives VOA in our mother tongue," said Veton Surroi, chairman of a Kosovo media group, about Voice of America.

But the United States largely dismantled its public diplomacy effort after communism collapsed, said Barry Fulton, director of the Public Diplomacy Institute at George Washington University. The independent U.S. Information Agency was abolished in 1999 and a new public diplomacy unit was created in the State Department at a cost savings of between 20 percent and 50 percent.

Since Sept. 11, public diplomacy is again a top priority, and not just where the Muslim world is concerned. In China, for example, the State Department publishes a weekly report in Mandarin. In Africa, it uses puppets and street theater to fight AIDS. In Cuba, it provides press kits for journalists.

Beers plans to boost polling and focus groups in the Muslim world, the Philippines, Thailand and Latin America. She acknowledged that some of her programs may not succeed but said the only real failure would be to cede the debate to anti-U.S. extremists.

"The worst thing we could do" she said, "is yield to silence."

U.S. relations with the world


Return to top of page | Return to contents

©2002, Gannett News Service



Shereen el Wakeel, left, anchorwoman for "Good Morning Egypt" talks with
dairy farmer Bob Osborne at his Shellsburg, Iowa, farm in this image from video. Shereen el Wakeel traveled across the U.S. to address some of the stereotypes "we have of Americans from TV and movies," she said.
(GNS/Globe TV photo)















U.S. Undersecretary
of State Charlotte Beers has been praised for her innovative ideas about public diplomacy by Harold Pachios, chairman of the government's Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy.

Gannett News Service
photo by Heather Martin