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How to Sell America to People who hate us by Gannett News Centre

How to sell America to people who hate it

Gannett News Service October 14, 2001, Sunday
LENGTH: 1349 words
BYLINE: CARL WEISER; Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON -- Fighting the anti-American fury that fueled the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will require more than bombs, intelligence and diplomacy.

This is a job for the public relations industry.

"How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?" asked Rep. Henry Hyde, the House International Relations Committee chairman, at a recent hearing on the State Department's public relations efforts. "The question facing us is, what can we do to correct this problem?"

Gannett News Service put the question to public relations, advertising and marketing experts. What kind of campaign would they create to convince the parts of the Islamic world that hate the United States that this nation is not the Great Satan, but good and generous?

"This is a branding issue, plain and simple," said Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles-based consultant and author of "The Revenge of Brand X."

"Countries are no different than soap flakes or automobiles," he said. Both countries and companies have brand images, deserved or not, that evoke emotions, memories, connections, perhaps fondness or revulsion.

In branding terms, Frankel said, "we should be the gentle giant, not the menacing ogre. Or in corporate terms, we should be Federal Express, not Microsoft."

Here are some suggestions from the experts:

-- Figure out your target audience. In political campaigns, it's presumed that 20 percent will vote against you no matter what, and 20 percent will be for you no matter what, said longtime public relations man and now Public Affairs Council Director Doug Pinkham. The target then, is the 60 percent in the middle.

The Islamic world is no different. Stretching from Indonesia to Morocco, it's extraordinarily diverse. Many in it consider themselves part of the "Western" capitalist world and are eager to demonstrate tolerance. At the other end are fanatics who will never be convinced of U.S. virtue, said John Quelch, author of the 2000 book "Business Strategies in Muslim Countries" and professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.

"The interesting group is of course that large segment of the Muslim world that simply has not been presented with enough balanced information to be able to have formed a solid opinion -- and which is therefore open to suggestion," he said.

-- Listen to the target audience. "You try to listen to people who aren't shouting," said Jack Bergen, President of the Council of Public Relations Firms. That means academics, journalists or intellectuals who know the Islamic world.

It might mean focus groups or even surveys, which is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The Voice of America hires companies to conduct listener surveys and focus groups even in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"What we've got now are embassies that live in a bubble and talk to the same 150 people that everyone in the embassy has talked to for the last 50 years -- the people who speak English, who study in America, who like to come to our cocktail parties," said Washington public relations executive Bart Marcois, who worked at embassies in Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia, and Kuwait. "You need creative ways to learn who are the players and meet them."

-- Learn whom your audience trusts. Teen-agers, for example, listen to other teen-agers -- not some old guy in a suit. The United States needs to reach imams, teachers and anyone else the Islamic audience finds credible.

By coincidence, teen-agers might be a good place to start. By 2025, 60 percent of the world's under-18 population will be living in Islamic societies, Quelch said.

Certain media outlets also have built up trust among the Islamic world.

"Arabs are newspaper readers and television watchers," said Marcois. The Qatar-based TV network Al-Jazeera has enormous credibility as do Middle East-wide newspapers like Al-Hayat and Al Sharq al-Awsat, both based in London.

Even in the parts of the Islamic world without televisions or newspapers, word does filter down. "Somebody who tells somebody who tells somebody else," Pinkham said.

-- Bring them here. Houston public relations executive George Nelson likened it to his jobs representing chemical plants in hostile communities. The neighbors didn't trust the company so he asked the community to create a watchdog group and invited them into the plant for regular visits.

In this case, Bergen said, that means bringing journalists, editors and columnists from the Arab world to the United States.

"I would take them on a quick trip around the country, give them a chance to meet Americans, give them a chance to meet with some of the Islamic congregations around the country," he said.

Student-to-student exchanges, teacher-to-teacher exchanges, doctor-to-doctor exchanges -- all help dispel misconceptions.

"The best form of communication, I still say today, is one-to-one. Humans believe other humans," said former corporate spokeswoman Catherine A. Bolton, now executive director of the Public Relations Society of America.

-- Use the U.S. Muslim community. Enlisting Muslims to tell the U.S. story is critical: President Bush's protestations that this is not a war against Islam carry no credibility because of the messenger.

"We need to assert the other America, which we deal with on a daily basis," said Chicago Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, a native of Pakistan and founder of, an Islamic-oriented Web site.

Much of the Islamic world probably doesn't realize that most Americans believe in God, that they go to church regularly, that some even abstain from alcohol. How to get that message out: Write letters to hometown papers, correct lies in conversations.

-- Show, don't tell. Just saying Americans are good and decent won't cut it.

Dearborn, Mich., ad consultant Shukrieh Hatem suggested 10- or 30-minute infomercials on Al-Jazeera: "This is the American people."

Rather than showing government officials, show regular American families, since one misconception is that Americans do not value families. Show Americans of all races and religions getting along, said the Syrian-born Hatem, who buys and sells ads for Al-Jazeera, which reaches an estimated 35 million viewers.

"The TV is the most powerful and the fastest tool to reach the widest audience," she said.

-- Use lots of small messages. People focus on little things. Pitch stories to local papers in Indonesia or Malaysia or Pakistan about hometown folks who have come to the United States and are doing well.

In separate efforts, the United States can pitch the message that the last three conflicts it has fought have been on behalf of Muslims -- in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

To businesses, the United States can show how the Sept. 11 attacks hurt the worldwide economy, through ripples that can eventually hurt everyone.

-- Admit mistakes. This might be both the touchiest and yet most effective.

Some in the United States might take it as an admission that the terrorists were right, or at least had a point. But a number of public relations professionals said this was a key to credibility.

"The best PR is when you fix your house first. One of the major things the U.S. has to do if we are trying to do a public image campaign is to admit that at times, the U.S. has been overbearing in some respects, that the U.S. tends to mandate how others should act," said Rochelle Tillery-Larkin, a public relations professor at Howard University. Even American tourists overseas can be overbearing, she said: "We have a tendency to demand people speak English. We are rude people."

As George Nelson recalled from his days representing chemical plants, "if you are indeed releasing unpleasant things into the environment, you stop doing that," he said. "If we are misbehaving toward Islam -- as they would perceive it, not as we would perceive it -- then we have to consider whether we can change some of our behaviors."

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