Selling Brand America

The government -- and the U.S.'s new propaganda chief -- plot to create a friendlier image overseas, and combat decades of vicious P.R.

Published November 2, 2001 11:51PM (EST)

Around the same time on Wednesday that Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was giving an interview to Al Jazeera television -- the Qatar-based cable news network seen throughout the Arab world -- another message was coming to Muslim audiences via AM radios in Afghanistan.

"On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of people were killed en masse in the United States," said the voice, speaking in Pashtu. "Among them was a 2-year-old girl. Barely able to stand or dress herself. Did she deserve to die? Why was she killed, you ask? Was she a thief? What crime had she committed? She was merely on a trip with her family to visit her grandparents. Policemen, firefighters, teachers, doctors, mothers, father, sisters, brothers all killed. Why?"

The voice was being transmitted from a U.S. Air Force Special Command plane called Commando Solo II, broadcasting news and information on the AM radio frequency once held by the Taliban radio stations bombed weeks ago.

The Pashtu voice was part of the U.S. government's increased effort to improve its propaganda campaign targeted at Afghans, and both the Arab and Muslim worlds in general. Myers is just the most recent U.S. official to give an interview to Al Jazeera -- Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice have all done so as well. These interviews and assorted other P.R. efforts come after an increased public recognition that the job being done so far has been unsuccessful. Some even argue that the task is so daunting, one shouldn't expect much by way of success in the communications arena. One U.S. senator, a war supporter speaking on condition of anonymity, questioned why the Bush administration was taking so long in its P.R. offensive, wondering if the White House had considered sending American Muslim leaders to speak as surrogates on Al Jazeera.

The individual designated by the Bush administration to make this U.S. case to the Arab world is Charlotte Beers, a successful Madison Avenue advertising executive with much experience in preserving successful brands, and none in diplomacy. In March, Bush nominated Beers to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She sat in confirmation purgatory until the Sept. 11 attacks expedited her October confirmation. Asked what Beers' PR campaign will entail, State Department spokeswoman Kristen Hickman says, "We're in the planning phases right now. We really aren't offering up any information about the actual campaign that is going to be formalized."

She's got a steep challenge. Experts agree that the efforts being conducted so far have garnered the United States little, if any, support in the Arab and Muslim worlds. If lies travel halfway around the world before truth has even had time to put on its shoes, Taliban lies and anti-Semitic Internet myths have become part of Arab and Muslim street lore long before the U.S. even cleared its throat. A nation with unprecedented freedoms and tolerance is attacked by a ragtag team of surreptitious, murderous thugs who call themselves "the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders" -- and the thugs are winning the P.R. battle. A review of many Arab newspapers reveals that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are all but forgotten.

"At first glance, this seems incredible: How could a mass murderer who publicly praised the terrorists of Sept. 11 be winning the hearts and minds of anyone?" wrote former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke in Sunday's Washington Post.

President Bush has expressed similar amazement. During his Oct. 11 press conference, Bush -- employing what he called "an old trick" -- asked himself a question. "How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?" he asked. "I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed. I'm amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about, that people would hate us. Like most Americans, I just can't believe it. Because I know how good we are, and we've got to do a better job of making our case."

As for Beers, "I wouldn't want to sign up for her job at this point in time," says Col. Michael R. Kershner, who teaches at the United States Army War College and served as deputy commander of the Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg. "We've completely ceded the initiative to the people who've hated us for decades. People ask: 'Why are we so hated?' It's because the people who hate us -- who are now targeting us and our people -- have been pushing an informational campaign agenda for decades and we have not responded to it."

Kershner points out that such U.S. silence continues today. The falsehood that 4,000 Jews didn't report to work at the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks was widely disseminated throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds as proof that the Israelis were truly behind the attacks. "So there's this big conspiracy theory that this is really a plot by Jews to get America to go to war against the Muslim world," he says. "And the Arab street is convinced of that. And there was no response by the U.S."

But such an insane conspiracy theory -- one that flies in the face, of course, of Osama bin Laden's praise of the attacks, and al-Qaida's threats of similar attacks -- illustrates the immense challenge of launching a P.R. campaign targeted at the Arab and Muslim worlds. How do you disprove stories that are on their face ludicrous, that contradict other widely believed myths? If the Arab street is willing to believe that the attacks were the work of Zionist conspirators, while simultaneously believing that the attacks were good and the U.S. had it coming, then clearly irrationality is at play. How can a P.R. campaign counteract that?

"I don't make light of how difficult the task is," Kershner says. "You can find people in Africa today who are convinced that AIDS started because it was American biological warfare that went wrong. That was one of the big lies published during the Cold War by our new friends the Russians. And it's hard to prove that you're not guilty of what you're not guilty of."

This will be an information campaign that will take 30 to 40 years, Kershner says. But we need to at least get in the game. That Saddam Hussein has managed to sell the deaths of Iraqis as the fault of U.S. sanctions is evidence that "we aren't even trying" to counteract such enemy propaganda. "He consciously put his people on the tip of that spear, and managed to translate it into a propaganda coup," he says.

There are those who argue that we shouldn't have too many expectations for the informational task at hand. Michael Gunter, a professor at Tennessee Technological University and former advisor to the U.S. State Department on issues having to do with the Kurds, agrees that things are "not going as well as one might hope. But on the other hand, we have so many disadvantages maybe we're not really doing all that badly. I mean, we could not expect doing that much better."

Given all the conspiracy theories throughout the Middle East, as well as deeply held anti-American feelings, Gunter says, "We need to realize that we're not going to do that well in the propaganda front and we need to not agonize over that."

After all, hindering our task are most governments in the Arab world, not one of which is a democracy with a free press. When criticism of the government is not allowed, the United States and Israel become natural whipping boys. Pro-democracy, would-be allies in Arab and Muslim countries are often jailed, and thus Islamic extremists are frequently the only ones given the microphone other than the government. If anything is going to seriously change in terms of the anti-American propaganda sanctioned by Arab governments -- including and especially our friends in Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- much larger changes are going to have to be made as well.

But in the short term, a full-out effort is underway. An effort to fund a Radio Free Afghanistan is making its way through the Congress. And first and foremost are the military P.R. campaigns targeted within Afghanistan.

But for these campaigns, and the larger, long-term project, there is the bigger dilemma of precisely how to sell the United States to the Arab and Muslim worlds. In his Post Op-Ed, Holbrooke wrote that "Islamic experts I have consulted believe that so far the American public information campaign is a confused mess." The messengers, too, are, problematic, Holbrooke charged -- too inexperienced or fossils from the Cold War.

That's where Beers is supposed to come in. (Though, tellingly, the Arabic-language State Department Web page announcing Beers' nomination "contains characters that cannot be correctly displayed" on many computers.) The State Department's official job description says that the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy "helps ensure that public diplomacy (engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences) is practiced in harmony with public affairs (outreach to Americans) and traditional diplomacy to advance U.S. interests and security and to provide the moral basis for U.S. leadership in the world."

In the Clinton administration, the job was given to Evelyn Lieberman, a former senior aide to the secretary of state and former director of the radio station Voice of America. Beers is pure Madison Avenue. Beers started as a market researcher in the Houston office of Uncle Ben's Long Grain and Wild Rice. After becoming the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency's first female vice president, Beers eventually ran the immense multinational firm Ogilvy & Mather. She retired in 1997, but two years later came out of retirement to chair J. Walter Thompson.

"I wanted one of the world's greatest advertising experts, because what are we doing?" Powell explained in a speech earlier in the year. "We're selling. We're selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy. It's the free enterprise system, the American value system. It's a product very much in demand. It's a product that is very much needed."

So far, Beers has yet to announce any formal plans, but gleanings from here and there reveal some of the directions she wants to go in. Speaking with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, Beers said that she wanted the United States to "broaden the channels of distribution. We do so much to reach the elite. We have to take the message down to a broader and younger population." Beers told the House International Relations Committee that she'd rapped with the "Ad Council last week to discuss a series of public service announcements, here and overseas, that distill the values and virtues of American democracy and the many good things we have achieved on the international front."

Kershner supervised some of the American propaganda efforts during the air war in Kosovo, and he argues that they weren't very effective. "You need to snag some people who are smart about the Middle East," he advises Beers. "The last thing you want to do is try to sell an item that's something people will just not buy."

Thankfully, Beers seems to be hip to some of her weaknesses. In one of her few interviews, Beers told Advertising Age that she was going to form an advisory panel of Arab-Americans and Muslims to help shape communications. "In addition to what our policies are, what we haven't felt the need to communicate is what is the value system" of this country, Beers said. "What are our beliefs? What do the words 'freedom' and 'tolerance' mean? We are having people who are not our friends define America in negative terms. It is time for us to reignite the understanding of America."

After the message is formulated, Beers said she will then focus on methods of transmission. "I will choose any channel of distribution, any format that will get the job done," Beers told Advertising Age. "This is probably what I bring to the party. I have seen how such messages and such formats work  I know how to do that. It may be imperfect. It's not like I can call up a channel and run it. But if I have to buy time on Al Jazeera, I would certainly consider it."

After all, as Rumsfeld has griped, "We know that Al Jazeera has a pattern of playing Taliban propaganda over and over and over again." And they don't even have to pay for the ad time.

But while Beers considers advertising on Al Jazeera and other matters, the Afghanistan campaign has begun. Defense Department spokesman Major Tim Blair says that Commando Solo II is conducting twice daily missions "transmitting the truth about the fact that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks killed more than 6,000 Americans, about the partnership of nations taking action against terrorism, and assuring them that the actions we're taking are not against Muslims or the people of Afghanistan."

Additionally, other planes have flown slowly across the land with loudspeakers booming various messages in local tongues, some aimed at Taliban soldiers. "If dying for this form of Islam is noble, why doesn't Mullah Omar go to the front?!" one taunts. "He is enjoying his luxurious quarters and his wives while you are asked to die."

Other messages focus on innocent civilians, begging them to stay inside. "We have no wish to hurt you, the innocent people of Afghanistan," insists the voice coming from the plane's loudspeaker. "Stay away from military installations, government buildings, terrorist camps, roads, factories or bridges."

Other planes drop leaflets featuring photos of member of the Taliban beating women in blue burqas. "Throw out the foreign terrorists from your land," the leaflet exhorts.

"We're also letting them know that we're bringing aid to the people of Afghanistan," Defense Department spokesman Blair says, referring to the more than 1 million food packets dropped into the country as of Wednesday.

But the challenge of the larger campaign looms. And this United States is in desperate need of credible Muslims and Arabs to help us make our case -- roles that U.S. "allies" like Hosni Mubarak and the Saud family are unwilling to fill, frightened of igniting the passions of Islamic extremists in their own lands.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set up an Islamic media in his Downing Street headquarters where Arabic- speaking U.K. officials give regular interviews to Arabic media, including Al Jazeera. Perhaps the U.S. could at least take a page from Blair's book. Perhaps the Muslims and Arab-Americans on Beers' pending advisory panel can help.

No matter how well Beers sets about her task, however, there's one matter that everyone agrees on. "The best propaganda victory we can have is to accomplish our mission," says Gunter. "I mean, we'll probably never win the propaganda battle over these guys. They're Middle Easterners; we're outsiders. We'll do a lot better after we win the military showdown."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------