Jobs @ MG
America resorts to PR to win hearts
|The following story appeared in the
Miami Herald (8 Nov.):
Frustrated by a feeling that Osama bin Laden has been more successful than
America in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, the
U.S. State Department is responding with a uniquely American solution: a
Madison Avenue-style campaign to sell its point of view.
On Friday, it will announce a TV and print ad campaign using in part U.S.
sports stars and other celebrities. It's being designed by Charlotte
Beers, new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public
affairs, whose career has included running two of the country's most
powerful ad agencies, J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather.
Beers won't release details before the Friday news conference, but the
plan has provoked particular interest from advertising executives, public
relations specialists and experts on the Muslim world.
John Schulz, professor of international communications at Boston
University, thinks the ad blitz is ``an outstanding idea.''
‘Using celebrities and sports figures in much of the world adds to
recognition and to the credibility of the message,'' says Schulz, who for
21 years was the bureau chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, for the Voice of
‘I teach a course in persuasion and propaganda. And a key element in
talking to people anywhere is that a message is more persuasive when they
like the message sender.
‘Michael Jordan right now is the most recognizable single name on the
face of the globe. Even in China, kids want to be like Mike. You trust
people you like.''
Certain movie stars could also be good spokespersons, Schulz says.
‘Among the biggest film stars in the world are Arnold Schwarzenegger and
Sylvester Stallone. The most popular films come from Hollywood, and
they're violent adventure films like Rocky and Rambo.''
Female celebrities could be used, he says, ``but you've got to be really
careful that they represent values that do not clash with Islam.''
Madonna, Britney Spears are out, he says. Oprah Winfrey might be
‘She's a minority American, internationally recognized, as modest as the
day is long, and she's not associated with sex.''
Other Middle East experts, while supportive, are more wary. ‘The Mideast
is the most difficult area in the world in which to launch a campaign like
this,'' says Geoffrey Kemp, director for regional strategic programs at
the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington. ``In the rest of the
world, American jazz and pop culture are extremely popular; in a lot of
the Mideast they're frowned upon by the government.''
Still, Kemp believes U.S. Muslim sports stars such as basketball's Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar and boxing's Muhammad Ali would be well known and respected
enough to be good spokesmen.
Mohaiddin Mesbahi, professor of international relations at Florida
International University, disagrees.
‘This is a war. It's not a place where people are going to pay attention
to Michael Jordan or Madonna. We need Muslims living in America, heads of
mosques, heads of Islamic organizations with tens of thousands of members.
‘The message has to be that this is not a war against Islam,'' says
Mesbahi. ``And that the U.S. is aware of the difficulties and resentments
that exist due to U.S. policies, whether inadvertent or otherwise.''
South Florida advertising and public relations executives agree that Beers
faces a formidable challenge.
‘I'd use an open and honest message,'' says Miami public relations exec
Bruce Rubin, ``that we value things like life and liberty, and that we are
reacting the way we are because of what happened on Sept. 11.'' But Rubin,
who handled the public relations campaign for three big tobacco companies
when they were successfully sued by Florida, warns that trying to change
people's most basic attitudes is difficult.
‘When I could sit down with people in the tobacco campaign, I could
convince them that, if they willingly smoked, they were responsible for
‘They'd say yes, but they'd still blame the tobacco companies.''
Elaine Silverstein, who, with partner Joyce Beber, ran the unsuccessful ad
campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Florida in 1982, said that
campaign showed her what a daunting task Beers faces.
‘For some [ERA opponents], it was a matter of core belief, and you
couldn't change that in enough people.''
Silverstein said she recently saw a BBC TV panel discussion from Islamabad
about the bombing in Afghanistan, in which a Pakistani engineer explained
why he was demonstrating in the streets.
``He said: `It's all a Zionist plot. Everybody knows that. It's why there
were no Jews in the twin towers.'
‘This was a very well-educated man. Yet it was a firmly held belief. How
do you change that?''
Concludes Kemp: ``This has promise, but it must be thought through
carefully or it could backfire. It has to be a serious attempt over time
to influence elite opinion in the Muslim world that has been poisonously
influenced by a few writers and intellectuals.
‘It's a matter of educating an entire generation. It must be serious,
long term and focused. q
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