The FP Memo

The FP Memo: How to Sell America

The new U.S. public diplomacy guru must get the United States on local TV, make U.S. foreign aid more visible, and show the Arab world how diverse American opinion really is.

TO: Karen Hughes,
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy
FROM: Ramez Maluf
RE: Rebranding America

You have accepted what must be one of the hardest jobs the U.S. government has to offer: coordinating American public diplomacy and improving the image of the United States in the Arab world. The post has already chewed up several of your predecessors, including high–flying advertising executive Charlotte Beers. It’s a particularly difficult portfolio because you have to operate within the parameters of a foreign policy that is deeply unpopular in the Arab world. Events such as the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan are helpful, of course, and progress on Middle East peace would be a boon for relations. But you’ll probably struggle to improve the image of America in the face of hostile Arab public opinion.

It’s a daunting but essential undertaking — and not just for Americans. Enmity between the United States and the Arab world does Arabs no good; Arab ambitions can only be achieved through the development of a positive and constructive relationship with the West in general, and the United States in particular. Here are some suggestions from the Arab side of the fence.

Create an Alternate Reality: For too long, Americans have thought of Arabs primarily in terms of regional conflicts. Arabs, in turn, have looked at the United States mainly through the prism of its policies on such divisive issues as Palestinian rights. To Americans, the word "Arab" conjures images of war, terrorism, and political Islam. To Arabs, the "United States" connotes a pro–Israel superpower that is occupying Iraq and imposing political and cultural changes. These stereotypes now run deep, and changing them is a long–term project.

There exists in some minds the notion that the United States can improve its image by somehow "winning the argument" over U.S. policy. Don’t buy it. Defending American policy will always be an important element of your work, but if your office confines its activities to justifying U.S. policies, its success will be limited and you’ll burn out in no time. This head–on approach actually restricts dialogue and cements the existing counterproductive imagery. Instead, your work must focus on issues over which you have some control, and where U.S. policy can do the least harm.

Don’t waste your time disputing the stereotype. Move the argument elsewhere and introduce other images. The United States needs to change its "brand" in the Arab world, and the focus should be on images relevant to Arabs in their own context. Just selling an image of Americans as a freedom–loving and democratic people attentive to human rights within the United States will not do. Initiatives such as the $15 million "Shared Values" advertising campaign, which showed Muslims living in a tolerant and diverse United States, only reinforce the perception that Americans care little about the rights of peoples outside their borders.

The new U.S. brand should be relevant to the target audience and should vary from country to country. In Lebanon, support of the anti-Syrian movement was welcome and strengthened America’s image. The United States is also strongly identified with Lebanon’s educational institutions — an association that you should seek to amplify. In other countries, support for certain political movements could benefit the U.S. image, but there is plenty of room to make progress on nonpolitical issues, such as greater Internet accessibility for the young (in Syria, for example, such an initiative would be welcome), irrigation of desert areas (as in Egypt), and better schools (North Africa).

The United States already supports many such programs, of course, but there is no real attempt to forge an image. To their credit, U.S. development agencies assess need and then parcel up aid in disparate projects accordingly. This practice has the effect of diffusing the public relations impact of U.S. aid. However important, a sewage treatment facility in the desert doesn’t carry much PR punch. A more focused approach would be wiser. Imagine, for example, a publicized campaign to build children’s parks in large Arab cities. The idea is to have public landmarks that are beneficial, friendly, and undeniably direct contributions from the United States.

Avoid a Pan-Arab Strategy: It’s tempting to try a blanket approach for dealing with the Arab world. Arab countries, after all, have many shared values and a sense of common identity. But the 22 countries that make up the Arab world are distinct. Whatever their unifying historical traits, Arabs have been living under different regimes for decades, each with its own fault lines. If you choose to deal only with pan–Arab issues, you will be at a disadvantage; it is at that level that the U.S. image is weakest. Public relations is a nascent profession in the Arab world, but PR firms do exist in Beirut, Dubai, Cairo, and Riyadh. Seek their expertise on local strategies.

Don’t Neglect Local News: Arab media have transformed themselves in the last decade. Ten years ago, Arabs had no alternative to state–controlled television. Today, many if not most Arabs have access to dozens of satellite stations from around the globe. Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, and Hezbollah’s Al Manar are just a few of the 200–odd stations available. These stations are spread along a wide political and cultural spectrum, but they are all pan–Arab and cater to an audience interested in pan–Arab political, cultural, and entertainment programming. You obviously cannot ignore these outlets, but keep in mind that they often downplay and misread local news and politics.

Local television is a promising alternative. Loyalty to any particular network is weak in the new Arab media environment, and local stations are becoming bolder and more relevant. Local media offer a route that bypasses the often rigid and unbalanced perspectives of the regional networks. Lebanon is a case in point. In the wake of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in February, the pan–Arab networks focused on a predictable storyline — Syria’s being cornered by Europe and the United States. Most local channels in Lebanon, by contrast, showed the population struggling for free and fair elections without outside interference. Unfortunately, U.S. public diplomacy has almost entirely neglected local television in the Arab world. Addressing that neglect should be one of your most urgent priorities.

Sponsor Arab Oprahs: One of the Bush administration’s signature initiatives in public diplomacy is Alhurra, a U.S.–sponsored television network targeted at the Arab world. Media ratings are notoriously unreliable in Arab countries, but those that are available suggest that Alhurra is foundering. In a poll conducted last year, Alhurra scored poorly as a primary source of news, and only 2.3 percent said it was a secondary source. Al Jazeera ranked first, with 52 percent.

Don’t expect Alhurra to compete with Al Jazeera for evening news. Instead, Alhurra should focus on other programming, including Free Hour, the talk show hosted by television personality Ziad Noujeim and others, that addresses controversial issues, both within the United States and the Arab world. Recent discussions have included the role of Islam in politics, the Syrian regime, and religious education. This talk–show format exists on other stations, but Alhurra is particularly bold in inviting people from all sides to join the debate. A sign the show is succeeding is the quality of people who now appear on the program. Initially, anti–American politicians and religious figures shied away from the U.S.–funded network. Today, that has changed. And if the participants are interesting, people will watch, whatever their initial misgivings about the network.

Alhurra should continue to diversify its content. A colleague of mine recently proposed airing a reality show that over a period of 13 weeks would choose the best Arab political "candidate." The idea was to select 12 people from different Arab countries between the ages of 20 to 30. Each would be selected for their ability to give speeches, perform community service, generate funds from sponsors for worthwhile causes, and answer political and social questions from a journalist. One person would be voted off the show every week, until they were left with the best Arab candidate. The show would have been a hit, and Alhurra should have jumped at the offer. An administration interested in Arab regime change should be particularly keen on a program that shows people being voted out, after all.

Capitalize on Michael Moore: When I lived in the United States, one of the aspects of American society that fascinated me most was the diversity of opinions on all subjects and the dynamism of public debate. Most Arabs live in societies where popular expression, other than in support of the government’s agenda, is almost nonexistent. The Arab world generally sees only the results of American political debates in the form of U.S. government policy. But Arabs love to watch Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, or hear actor Sean Penn rail against the war in Iraq, or read that a senator or congressperson argued in favor of a more equitable policy in the Middle East. This dynamic, and its electoral and social complexities, is not sufficiently advertised outside the United States. Try a hard-hitting documentary on the 2004 U.S. election. Odd as it may seem, your office should take pride in making opposition to its policies known. It’s one of the beauties of the American system.

Mind the Messenger: Find charismatic speakers to be on television. Stuffed-shirt officials will not win hearts and minds, however profound their thoughts. If the speakers are fluent in Arabic, all the better. But the most important thing is that they be affable and comfortable talking to Arabs. Many U.S. officials seem unsure of how to deal with their audiences and more concerned about what people in the State Department will think of them than about genuinely engaging with viewers. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, for example, had a folksy style that translated well on Arab television; State Department official for near eastern affairs David Satterfield does not. The way to engage an Arab audience is to be close to it in spirit. Much is made of the fact that American viewers fail to connect to Arabs on TV because of their accents, the way they dress, their beards, and because they are too passionate. The same applies the other way around. Americans do not need to wear kaffiyehs, but they should at least be agreeable. Humanizing your spokespeople will help get people to listen.

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