WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, fearing that it might lose the public relations war in Muslim and Arab nations to Osama bin Laden, is turning to Madison Avenue for help.
The State Department is talking to the Advertising Council, a New York-based nonprofit group that develops advertising strategies for national causes, about crafting a "public diplomacy” campaign on the military action in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.
Overseeing those talks is Charlotte Beers, the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and a former J. Walter Thompson advertising executive who started in the industry marketing Uncle Ben's Rice. Beers was named to the post by President George W. Bush early in his administration and was sworn in Oct. 2.
The United States lost the public relations war in the Muslim world a long time ago. They could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations and it wouldn't help.
Her job is to sell America, a difficult task in some Arab and Muslim countries where citizens are protesting the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"I think the fact is, there is a battle for hearts and minds,” said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman. "There's a lot of disinformation. ... The difficulties we face in getting our message out are quite clear.”
Several advertising executives and media analysts say the administration's increased efforts will do little to sway Muslims and Arabs overseas, many of whom say their distrust of the United States goes beyond the situation in Afghanistan.
The U.S. handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for example, fuels Arab and Muslim anger and prompts many to tune out the rationale for going after bin Laden in Afghanistan, said newspaper owner Osama Siblani.
"The United States lost the public relations war in the Muslim world a long time ago,” said Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, a weekly newspaper in Dearborn. "They could have the prophet Muhammad doing public relations and it wouldn't help.”
That apprehension increased after Sept. 11 because of what Siblani and some advertising executives called the administration's muddled public relations strategy. Two weeks ago, the White House went on an information defensive, with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urging television networks not to air any more statements by bin Laden live and unedited. The networks, which showed a taped message of a defiant bin Laden from the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera network on Oct. 7, refused, but pledged to view the tapes first.
Secretary of State Colin Powell unsuccessfully lobbied Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to "tone down” what he considered inflammatory, anti-American rhetoric on the government-financed Al-Jazeera. When Powell's complaint was shrugged off, administration officials launched an Al-Jazeera offensive. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rice found themselves defending America's position in exclusive interviews on the network that's becoming the CNN of the Arab and Muslim world.
Beers told Advertising Age last week that she would consider buying air time on Al-Jazeera to get America's message across to a foreign audience.
The State Department and the council, which has done pro bono public service campaigns for the government, are discussing the possibility of putting together a campaign for foreign consumption. Several advertising executives and media analysts expressed skepticism about the administration's strategy.
Jeff Odiorne, chairman of Odiorne Wilde Narraway and Partners, a San Francisco advertising firm, questioned the benefit of top administration officials doing Al-Jazeera interviews.
"Can you imagine being an 18-year-old Arab kid, going to religious school and being taught to hate Americans and we put on a pasty, 60-year-old white guy to tell you that what we are doing is just?” Odiorne asked. "Talk about reaching your target audience. Doing the stuff that we're doing is only adding salt to the wounds.”
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