Making Profitable Learnings from Dubious Success of Controversial Public Diplomacy Program

Following her recent resignation, the US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Hughes) gave an interview to the BBC in London which can be heard from 6:02 to 11:59 on the 6 November 2007 edition of NewsPod (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/podcasts/newspod/).

Ms Hughes had what I would rate one of the toughest job in communications. Since October 2005 she had been in charge of changing foreigners perceptions about America. The serious media seem to agree that she has not been so successful – approval ratings for the USA in most countries have actually gone down during her watch – but the job was the ultimate widow maker. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of being sent to dry up the Pacific Ocean with a sponge and a bucket. The coverage is the Herald Tribune (http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/10/31/america/diplomacy.php) is about the most positive; most of the others were definitely on the negative side of neutral.
But in my opinion there are two interesting lessons we can draw from her experience and her comments. First of all, she mentions in the interview that perceptions of America are not all bad. “You may like American music but you may not like American foreign policy”, she told the BBC. Now nobody is going to argue with that. Yes, we all love Chuck Berry, but this is irrelevant.
Nobody believes that the creation of Rock and Roll was the result of a federal government program. And in any case you can hate the music of a country and still have a positive impression of it.

This belief reveals a serious misunderstanding about the nature of brands. Your brand equity is “atomic” and indivisible. If I have warm feelings about a given brand it is the sum of all the parts, you cannot split the brand into component parts even if they contribute to the whole. And the concept of compensating values just doesn’t work in this case. If someone has a major issue with your foreign policy he or she
is not going to say “Ah, but we have Chuck Berry, we have The Simpsons and we have The Wheel of Fortune so it is ok”. If they don’t like your foreign policy then they will not like you, regardless of cultural exports.

The second learning from the interview is more hopeful. She points out correctly that fixing a problem like this is the work of generations. It will take a long time before the perceptions about America are restored to a normal level and this is inspiring long-range programs based on influencing people. Revealingly she mentions the example of Nicholas Sarkozy (which she pronounces wrong, by the way), who she says participated in a US public diplomacy program in the past. She credits this program and the time he spent in the US for creating in his mind a positive image of the United States, with results that we have seen this week.

And for my money this is the key learning from this episode. It underscores the close link between communications, networking and influencing and demonstrates that the solution to some long-term issues is not just a program of articles, interviews, blogs and podcasts, but a program to cultivate a positive mindset of future leaders through ethical influencing activities. I do not believe that this solution should be invoked only to recover from a disaster scenario, but should be introduced anyway as an inexpensive way to avoid costly problems in the future. This is a learning that can benefit not just unpopular governments, but also organizations and companies.


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