While the Propaganda Czar Departs, the Product Pitching Remains

Just last Thursday, Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, gave testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about American public diplomacy and Islam. She reported a "steep learning curve" after September 11th associated with building a positive image of America in the Muslim world, one that was being overcome through increases in radio (Radio Sawa, Radio Farda), television (a planned Middle East Television Network), and through author tours like Ken Pollack's State-Department junket to tout the pro/con Iraqi invasion book, "The Threatening Storm." Guess which side of this very dangerous equation he might favor? Also mentioned was the ill-fated "Muslim Life in America" advertising campaign, those two-minute commercials that ran in a few Muslim countries, but which for the most part, were soundly rejected as self-serving propaganda products at worst, and paid political advertisements at best. In describing the campaign's test market in Indonesia, Beers went into brand-speak:

"Focusing on Indonesia, we then went in and tested what these messages were accomplishing. We did exactly as you would for a major campaign for some of our brands that travel around the world. The `recall' is one number and the `message retention' is another. The recall of these messages was higher than a soft drink can achieve in six months of advertising. It broke the bank in terms of recall."

Beers told the committee, "The products we produce these days are very different from a few years ago. It requires good detective work...to find the story, one that's not being written in the headlines." That story, er product, includes State Department booklets like "Iraq: From Fear to Freedom," and a very recent program, "Iraqi Voices for Freedom," co-produced by Beers and the National Security Council. In film pitching parlance, a "ready, aim, inform" meets military invasion. Pardon me, I meant liberation to free the Iraqi people.

Which makes yesterday's announcement--her resignation for health reasons--all the more sudden and surprising. One can only wish her the best and hope that her health improves, whatever the cause. I, for one, will miss the irony of America's maven of Madison Avenue handling the daunting task of marketing a country as product. Despite the many legitimate criticisms to be raised of public diplomacy's failings, most notably our government's inability to address policy problems straight-on, credit Charlotte Beers for raising the visibility of America's image problem, not only in the Muslim world, but nearly everywhere these days. She alone, in her mysterious limited press interview manner, did much to secure her legendary status as the woman behind the State Department curtain, applying her advertising acumen to public service. We will likely never take for granted or dismiss to the margins the importance of public diplomacy in American statecraft, nor the mandate for every citizen of the United States to engage with the world. Which brings me back one more time to Charlotte Beers. Her high point was this bottom line conclusion: "The point is, we must engage." Let's hope the American engagement she means is more human communication and contact, understanding, active listening, and dialogue. It's the better way to improve our image in the world.

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