Improving America’s Image After 9/11: The Role of Public Diplomacy

Improving America’s Image After 9/11: The Role of Public Diplomacy

Subject: Public diplomacy has become an essential “soft power”-tool in the American war on terrorism. The decision to use America’s image, credibility and communications assets and skills, may be considered a response in kind to the asymmetrical warfare that commenced on 9/11

Sumary: The US State Department’s response to the 9/11 attack —on top of the requisite bombing-campaign in Afghanistan and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq— was to conclude that a major part of the problem was America’s image. Since 9/11, the Bush Administration therefore initiated a flurry of initiatives to rebrand itself from a “global bully” to a “compassionate hegemon.” In an effort to touch the mythical man on the Arab street, special attention is now being paid to so-called “public diplomacy.”

Analysis: The United States are not only fighting a war on international terrorism by classical, military means, but are also engaged in a battle over the “hearts and minds” of the Muslim world. The gritty videotapes of Osama bin Laden that emerged from a cave in Tora Bora were shown to a global TV-audience, indicating that the media were both the weapons and the battlefield of choice for this postmodern war. Clearly, 9/11 was not an attack on military capabilities but on America’s identity as a superpower, whereby the symbolism of devastation was providing its own eloquence. Many Americans were shocked to be confronted with such a violent hatred against their country and everything it stood for: its foreign policies as well as its values. “Why do people hate us so much?” soon became a key question, not only for ordinary Americans, but for policymakers in Washington as well (1). 

The US State Department’s response to the attack —on top of the requisite bombing-campaign in Afghanistan and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq— was to conclude that a major part of the problem was America’s image. Since 9/11, the Bush Administration therefore initiated a flurry of initiatives to rebrand itself from a “global bully” to a “compassionate hegemon.” In an effort to touch the mythical man on the Arab street, special attention is now being paid to so-called “public diplomacy.” The argument is that “millions of ordinary people (…) have greatly distorted, but carefully cultivated images of [the US] —images so negative, so weird, so hostile that a young generation of terrorists is being created.” (2) 

Public diplomacy has quickly become a central plank of America’s approach to the war on terrorism since Washington realizes that you can not kill ideas with bombs, however precision-guided they may be.(3)  One of the proponents of public diplomacy in the US Congress, Representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), has argued that “the role that I would set for our public diplomacy [is] to enlist the populations of the world into a common cause and to convince them that the goals that they seek for themselves —freedom, security and prosperity—are the same as those the United States seeks.” (4)

Public diplomacy aims at building personal and institutional relationships and dialogue with a foreign audience by focussing on values, and hence differs from classical diplomacy, which primary deals with issues. This distinction is similar to the differences between straightforward advertisement and branding, since the former aims at promoting a commodity or service, and the latter aims at developing an emotional relationship with a “customer”. Public diplomacy efforts often bear a resemblance to branding (or better: brand asset management) and especially the practices of location and corporate branding. (5)

In America’s new struggle for sympathy and support across the globe, media, public relations (PR) and marketing specialists are no longer a sideshow to hard-nosed, classical power-politics and diplomacy. Brand thinking and brand asset management now dominate American life, changing the nature and dynamics of US politics. Thus US Secretary of State Colin Powell defined American diplomacy as follows: “We’re selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy.”(6)  A clear indication of this change in approach was the appointment of Charlotte Beers, former chairman of advertising agencies J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, to Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in October 2001.(7)  Just as the Pentagon has enlisted the help of Hollywood’s creative thinkers to brainstorm possible terror events and solutions, Beers has asked former Madison Avenue colleagues to help her rebrand and “sell” Uncle Sam to a hostile Muslim world.(8)  This requires skills and sensitivities that diplomats usually lack. Little wonder, therefore, that much of America’s public diplomacy activities are currently “outsourced” to private consultancy and PR-agencies.

From “soft power” to public diplomacy
America’s public diplomacy works on the assumption that despite the obvious political differences between the US and (a few) Muslim countries, American and Muslim culture do not “clash”, but are compatible. This distinction between hostile, extremist Islamic governments and political groupings, and the “silent majority” of a wider and larger Muslim community around the world, is a central tenet of America’s approach. It assumes that although ordinary Muslims may be opposed to US policies in the Middle East, they continue to be drawn to “American values” like individual choice and freedom. This view reduces a complex set of political concerns and often confronting interests and values to mere problems of poor communication. It also allows for the claim that “the peoples of the world, especially those ruled by unelected regimes, comprise our true allies. We are allies because we share common aspirations —freedom, security, prosperity— and because we often face common enemies, namely the regimes that rule over them.”(9) 

Public diplomacy’s task is to appeal to the “core values” of foreign audiences by using new techniques that are frequently directly derived from commercial practice. Since these efforts go beyond spreading information, a natural relationship is evolving with professionals in the PR and strategic communication-sectors. In order to be successful, public diplomacy —like commercial marketing and PR— needs to identify target audiences in each country and/or region, and tailor strategies and tools to reach these audiences in a variety of different ways. Public diplomacy seeks to challenge the world views of foreign audiences and to bridge the gap between areas of cultural apartheid.

At the same time, the US aims to “sell” itself differently, and more attractively. This does not mean that the US is treated in the same way as selling a normal, commercial product. Instead, it implies that the “Brand USA” is managed, rather than rebranded. Brand management involves the process of cautious, often measured supervision of existing perceptions. In this sense, the US is considered a “corporate brand”, since the US (or “America”) is not itself the primary brand, but the manager of a series of related sub-brands (its art, sports, media, technology, as well as foreign policy).

Given the emotional power of images and stories, the American media industry is considered an especially valuable ally in this new approach. Commercial TV-programs, Hollywood movies and other cultural “products” (from poetry and other art, to cuisine and folklore) are all supposed to communicate a better and more durable understanding of the country’s essence.(10)  Since mainstream American TV-programs and movies are usually patriotic in content and message, they are expected to reinvigorate the “Brand USA” by their continued glorification of individual freedom and endless opportunity. It is generally assumed that audiences in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere take much of their ideas of what the US is all about from American TV-series and movies. The impact of these images and messages may well be greater than any description of the US and its values offered through governmental channels. As one advertising mogul formulated it, “I think, short term, that we can sell American values to the Arab street.”(11) 

Public diplomacy in action
How does American public diplomacy work in practice? Following the logic of marketing, American public diplomacy has tried to come up with a strategy to reposition “Brand USA” to make optimal use of the available brand assets. Obviously, some of these assets can be controlled by governmental bodies (e.g. public information, exchange programmes), but others (especially the media) have proven difficult or impossible to manage from above.

Several Advisory Committees, Task Forces and Hearings have spurred the debate about public diplomacy and its uses.(12)  One of the key recommendations has been to immediately develop a coherent strategic and coordinating framework making public diplomacy a genuine priority. This has proven to be difficult enough, given the multitude of agencies, offices and working groups who all feel themselves responsible for communicating the US message with foreign audiences.

In July 2002, a start was made to shake up America’s public diplomacy. After years of cutbacks, the US Congress passed a bill allocating significantly more funds to public diplomacy efforts, and already authorized funding for several new programs, such as a 24-hour TV network aimed to compete with the al-Jazeera TV-station, which is mainly broadcasting to the Muslim world (see below). At the same time, the White House set up a new Office of Global Communications (OGC), taking over the initiative from Mrs. Beers and giving the public diplomacy effort both more exposure and political weight. As its name indicates, this Office intends to coordinate the Administration’s foreign policy messages and supervise the “Brand USA” around the globe. A few months later, it was announced that the OGC would oversee a PR-blitz against Iraq using advanced marketing techniques to pursuade crucial target groups that Saddam Hussein should be ousted.

But since public diplomacy goes way beyond printed books and aims to apply the most up-to-date communication techniques and methods, specialized agencies and consultancies have been signed up to come up with new ideas and projects that the US government hesitates to undertake itself. In October 2001, The Rendon Group (a strategic communications firm) obtained a multimillion dollar contract from the Pentagon and now manages America’s image in 79 countries using a wide range of tools such as focus groups, websites and the spinning of information to global media. The firm’s CEO (John Rendon) describes himself as “an information warrior and a perception manager”, which is as close to a good description of the basic tasks of public diplomacy and branding as it gets.(13)

Private firms are also used to cover the whole gamut of technology and media to reach the Muslim world. These firms are now engaged in classical propaganda, ranging from “leaflet bombs” picturing women beaten by the Taliban (with the message “Is this the future you want for your children and your women?”), to actions like dropping wind-up radios that can only tune into a single channel: Voice of America.(14)  Newer initiatives include setting up “Radio Sawa” (“Radio Together”), and programmes like “Good Morning Egypt” and “Next Chapter.” Radio Sawa is an Arab-language broadcasting service aimed at younger people, mixing western popmusic, sports and weather, sandwiched by twice-an-hour newscasts. Shows like “Good Morning Egypt” screen interviews with “ordinary Americans” to counterbalance some of the stereotypes US TV-programs and movies tend to offer. “Next Chapter” is a hip, MTV-inspired show broadcast in Farsi to Iran (and simulcast on the radio and over the Internet).(15)  These are shows aimed to portray the US as an open, tolerant society where all religions are practiced on the basis of equality. Arab language websites and print publications are also part of this effort.(16)

Conclusion: Public diplomacy has become an essential “soft power”-tool in the American war on terrorism. The decision to use America’s image, credibility and communications assets and skills, may be considered a response in kind to the asymmetrical warfare that commenced on 9/11. Like the terrorists who hit western societies at their weakest spots using surprise and an imaginative choice of “weapons”, the US has decided to undermine the basis of popular support for these terrorist activities through equally innovative means. By communicating directly with Muslim populations, the US aims to put pressure on governments who —directly or indirectly— support terrorist groups. It thereby aspires to connect with audiences other policies can’t reach.

American public diplomacy adds a more sophisticated approach to the military method of “winning” the war on terrorism. Public diplomacy is, unlike a real war, never finished. It is considered an on-going process of communication based on the conscious positioning of oneself as a brand. The jury is still out on the chances of winning the “hearts and minds” of the global Muslim population.(17)  But it should also be clear that without forceful efforts to convince a sceptical Muslim populace of America’s credibility, honesty and good intentions, the battle may be won, but the real “war” will most certainly be lost. 

Peter van Ham
Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael”

(1) America’s favorability rating also dropped significantly among Western allies: by more than a third in Great Britain and Poland, and by more than half in France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey in less than one year. See “America’s Image Further Erodes-”, Nine Country Survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, 18 March 2003 ( [8 May 2003].
(2) Charlotte L. Beers, Prepared Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on “Public Diplomacy and Islam”, 27 February 2003.
(3)  “American Public Diplomacy in the Islamic World”, Remarks of Andrew Kohut to The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing (Washington DC), 27 February 2003.
(4)  Henry J. Hyde, The Message is America: Rethinking U.S. Public Diplomacy, Hearing before the Committee on International Relations, House of Represenatives, 14 November 2002 (Serial No. 107-54), p. 3.
(5)  On these issues, see Simon Anholt, “Foreword”, Journal of Brand Management, vol. 9, nos. 4-5 (April 2002), and Peter van Ham, “Branding Territory: Inside the Wonderful Worlds of PR and IR Theory, Millennium, vol. 31, no. 2 (2002).
(6)  “Brand U.S.A.”, Foreign Policy, no.127 (2001), p. 19.
(7)  Mrs. Beers left this position in March 2003, officially for health reasons. See the statement by US Secretary of State Colin Powell at (12 March 2003). The former US Ambassador to Marocco, Margaret Tutwiler, is due to be her successor.
(8)  Jim Rutenberg, “Hollywood Seeks Role in the War, The New York Times, 20 October 2002.
(9) Hyde, The Message is America, p. 2.
(10)  Samuel Blumenfeld, “Hollywood et le Pentagone, frères d’armes contre Al-Qaida”, Le Monde, 11 September 2002.
(11)  Statement of John W. Leslie, Jr., Chairman, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, to The Message is America-hearing.
(12)  An Independent Tak Force on Public Diplomacy was set up by the Council on Foreign Relations; the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is a long-standing bipartisan panel created by Congress and appointed by the President; Hearings have been conducted by the Committee on International Relations in the House of Representatives in November 2001 (see note 2).
(13)  Franklin Foer, “Flacks Americana: John Rendon’s Shallow PR War on Terrorism”, The New Republic, 20 May 2002.
(14) Mark Leonard, “Velvet Fist in the Iron Glove”, The Observer, 16 June 2002.
(15)  Lynette Clemetson and Nazila Fathi, “U.S.’s Powerful Weapon in Iran: TV”, The New York Times, 7 December 2002.
(16)  Simon Dumenco, “Stopping Spin Laden”, New York Magazine, 12 November 2001.
(17)  See for some critical comments, Thomas Rid, “Die Öffentlichkeitsarbeit der USA im Mittleren Osten”, SWP-Aktuel, no. 16 (April 2003).

Peter Van Ham

Written by Peter Van Ham