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Restoring America's Image Abroad

10/23/2003 --

In the last two years, the United States¿ image abroad ¿ particularly in Europe, the Middle East and Muslim countries ¿ has taken a serious plunge. A Pew Research Center survey of 20 nations in June 2003 found extremely unfavorable attitudes toward the United States. ¿Public diplomacy¿ efforts to change those attitudes have met with mixed results.

The Yaffe Center for Persuasive Communication at the University of Michigan, a joint initiative of the Business School and the School of Art & Design, held a conference Oct. 16-17 to explore strategies for communicating with audiences who are, at best, skeptical. The conference, funded by William K. Fung, group managing director of Li & Fung Ltd., Hong Kong, and supported by the International Institute and William Davidson Institute, gathered a variety of viewpoints from State Department officials, journalists, marketing professionals, psychologists and political scientists.

To keep the discussion non-partisan, specific government policies were off limits. Rather, the focus was on how to improve the U.S.¿s image and explain policy, ¿even if it¿s a lemon,¿ as Robin Wright, moderator of the conference¿s closing panel, put it. Until recently, Wright, an Ann Arbor native, covered global affairs for the Los Angeles Times. She now is diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post.

In public diplomacy ¿ aimed at a country¿s citizens, unlike official diplomacy that takes place between heads of state ¿ listening is as important as speaking, and probably more so, said several panelists. Paul Denig, director of the Washington Foreign Press Center in the State Department, said Americans overseas must engage in ¿active listening¿ and ensure their manners of speech and tones of voice align with local customs. He also stressed the importance of recognizing shared values ¿ living peacefully, economic stability, education, family and the importance of faith.

The State Department, in fact, took ¿Shared Values¿ as the title for an ad campaign last year aimed at Muslim audiences worldwide. The ads, developed by a Madison Avenue veteran and which aired in several Arab countries, featured Muslims living in the United States, talking about the American liberties they enjoyed while still adhering to their religious beliefs. ¿The ads looked fine to us,¿ said Judith Siegel of the State Department¿s Bureau of International Information Programs, ¿but they weren¿t received that way.¿ For one thing, the ads were prepared in English and dubbed into the local language, which didn¿t go over well.Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan refused to run what they viewed as foreign propaganda on their airwaves. The U.S. government suspended the campaign in January. ¿We need to talk about shared values,¿ Siegel said, ¿but not hammer people with an American take on those values.¿

It¿s also beneficial to acknowledge unshared values, said Eric Knowles, psychology professor at the University of Arkansas. He directs that university¿s Omega Project, which studies sources of resistance and how to lower them. Just because an audience resists an idea, he said, it shouldn¿t be ignored. Listening with an ¿honoring ear¿ offers ¿seeds for collaboration and attitude change.¿ He noted, ¿When you acknowledge someone¿s difference, it diminishes it. If you don¿t at least honor the source of conflict, it grows and grows.¿

Javed Nazir, a visiting journalism professor at Michigan and former editor of The Frontier Post in Pakistan, recalled visiting an American center in Lahore that attracts artists, musicians and speakers. He and his friends could find books there unavailable elsewhere; they loved hanging out at the center. ¿All this is a thing of the past,¿ he says. As a journalist who¿s well aware of the power of images, he says U.S. media present a distorted picture of Islam: ¿The fierce-looking bearded men form maybe five percent of the population.¿ Many Arab and Muslim students have come to the United States to study, offering golden opportunities for cross-cultural understanding, but those opportunities are decreasing as student visas become harder to get post-September 11. Not a single Pakistani university, Nazir says, has an exchange program with an American university. In trying times, it¿s hard to maintain a dialogue, he says, but that¿s exactly what must happen. Nazir knows about controversy: The Frontier Post¿s publisher was jailed, its offices torched and Nazir¿s life threatened because of the newspaper¿s decision to publish debate-provoking articles and letters, which stoked the ire of religious zealots. Still, Nazir believes in dialogue between the United States and the Islamic world, ¿even the fundamentalists,¿ he said. Nazir is writing a book about the predicament of minorities, including Christians and Hindus, in Pakistan.

The conference also looked to the private sector for do¿s and don¿ts on communicating to unfavorable audiences. One panelist, Steven Parrish, senior vice president for corporate affairs of Altria Group, has had the unenviable job of being spokesman for the Philip Morris Company during government hearings and class-action lawsuits against the tobacco industry. After wryly joking he didn¿t know why anyone would ask a tobacco company about public image, Parrish admitted that past tobacco culture was one of ¿arrogance and denial,¿ fighting any regulation on the product, proud of winning lawsuits with a take-no-prisoners aggression. Things are changing, he said, ¿but it¿s going to take a long time to dig out of that hole.¿ Parrish¿s top piece of advice: ¿If you¿re wrong, say so.¿ The image of tobacco company executives on Capitol Hill denying, under oath, any knowledge of nicotine¿s addictiveness is never going to go away, Parrish said. The industry has to focus on building a better reputation in the future. ¿Don¿t waste your time trying to convince people they¿re wrong about what they think about you,¿ he said.

America¿s image overseas faces so many challenges ¿ differences in cultures, opposition to American policies, resentment over its sole-superpower status, frustration over lack of economic opportunities and basic democratic freedoms, terrorist threats, America¿s own lack of understanding about Arab countries ¿ that it seems the United States and other countries will always face each other over a deeply troubled divide. Dictators and demagogues can exploit the disaffection of citizens who feel powerless. A positive message from the United States ¿ delivered with respect, candor and a willingness to listen ¿ can offer hope to citizens of Islamic countries who want democracy, said Anthony Pratkanis, University of California-Santa Cruz psychology professor. But even on that point, he urges a sensitive touch.

¿Even to say, ¿We¿re here to help,¿ implies weakness,¿ he said. ¿Better to say, ¿We¿re here as citizens of the world.¿ ¿



For more information, contact:
Mary Jo Frank
Phone: 734.647.4626
E-mail: mjfrank@umich.edu