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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 America.
‘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 excellent.
‘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 their actions.
‘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.

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