- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

Karen Hughes is no stranger to formidable challenges. Her strategic counsel and media savvy helped take George W. Bush from the Texas governor’s mansion to two terms in the White House.

But as Mrs. Hughes assumes her new duties as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs — a critical post left dormant far too long — her job may come to remind her of an old Texas aphorism: It’s hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch.

Mrs. Hughes will take over a crucial function essentially run on autopilot more than a year. In that time, survey after survey has indicated the view of America continues slipping, not only in the Middle East but around the world. Even worse, the disdain has spread beyond the current administration’s policies to the country as a whole.

If the American “brand” is in crisis, it will be up to Mrs. Hughes, head of the United States’ de facto corporate communications department, to stop the hemorrhaging. While our current standing is lower than we wish, there are lessons to be learned from past government efforts as well as modern global corporate communications campaigns.

During the Cold War, presidents of both parties supported State Department-sponsored programs that brought foreign scholars, students and journalists to the U.S., maintained cultural centers overseas and engaged in other grass-roots diplomacy that won hearts and minds around the world.

Unfortunately, those lessons were forgotten between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terrorism. America became complacent. Although we won the Cold War, we failed to see other challenges just below the horizon. As a result, the U.S. public diplomacy machinery began to cough, sputter and misfire. As a Defense Science Board report found last year, “American efforts have not only failed, they may have also achieved the opposite of what they intended.”

A dose of realism is in order. As the truism goes, “There are PR problems and then there are problems.” An effective public diplomacy program won’t change perception of the United States overnight, but without an effective program the problem will surely worsen. Moreover, breathtaking changes in the global communications environment have made the undersecretary’s job even tougher. The advent of the Internet and the ever-evolving online world of blogs and chat rooms have led to “always-on” 24-hour global communications and a news cycle and news challenges without end.

Given all that, what should Mrs. Hughes’ engaged public diplomacy toolbox include? Here are four suggestions from some of the most successful global corporate communications operations:

(1) Set strategy at headquarters. One of the biggest global communications challenges is ensuring a consistent strategy, messaging and positioning from one market to the next. The temptation is great (and natural) for local communicators to decide only they understand what will work in their market and for them to pursue a local strategy. Karen Hughes was a master at imposing message discipline in the last two presidential campaigns. She must do the same at State.

(2) Execute Locally. A central strategy is only as good as the local execution. Despite the growing global nature of communications, there is no substitute for Embassy staff with on-the-ground relationships with the local media and community. Too often communicators are sent from headquarters to oversee local implementation. This leads often to resentment, and almost always to executions that misfire.

(3) Recognize every audience is unique. For each audience, State must find the right channel, the right vehicle, and the right messenger. Just as Mrs. Hughes wouldn’t use the same communications messengers and messages in Alabama as in Vermont, she shouldn’t assume what works in Lebanon will work in Egypt or Indonesia. We must use powerful third-party champions whose views are respected in cities and villages, especially throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

(4) Overcommunicate. Few people in public life appreciate the importance of repetition in message delivery more than Karen Hughes. She needs to put those message discipline talents to work once again — this time in a global setting.

To win the war on terror, we must win the global battle of public diplomacy. That means re-energizing a program that has been idle too long. And it means investing resources to ensure the heat gets out of the pepper patch.


Managing director,

Global Public Affairs Practice

Ogilvy PR Worldwide.

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