BOB GARFIELD: When she left her post a year ago, citing failing health, former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers was reluctant to speak of her experience in the battle for Muslim hearts and minds. Hers was a trying 17-month tenure, marked by bureaucratic obstacles, false starts, and in some cases, public ridicule. Now, with a year's reflection, the former advertising executive spoke with us about her experience, beginning with showing up for her new job, shortly after September 11th to discover a propaganda apparatus all but entirely dismantled since the end of the Cold War.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: It was simply shocking how little equipment we had, had we agreed on a message to get the word out, and there was a complete dearth of training. The State Department has really mastered what we would call "traditional diplomacy," but I call it "private," because it's with government and discreet, it's even secretive; it's necessarily intimate. And anathema to them would be to go public. You know, to talk to the peoples of these countries.
BOB GARFIELD:Isn't one of the fundamental problems here that the State Department has been talking to these regimes at the highest levels and that these regimes are sometimes authoritarian and repressive, and as much a part of the problem as part of the solution?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: The governments don't actually know very much about what their people are thinking and feeling. They went to school in the United States, and they, all their friends are sophisticated about the United States, and they don't understand how serious the myths, the biases, the misinformation that exists and travels throughout these countries. A gentleman once said to me, when I explained that we would like to present our culture, he said "Madam, we are drowning in it." He meant the kind of television that -- I use, probably unfairly, Baywatch, cause I've never even seen it -- certain kinds of music and, and references. These are a part of our culture. But the problem is, is they're not a total picture.
BOB GARFIELD:Over the last couple of years we've kind of saved string on the public diplomacy story. We reported on the original campaign that appeared in some countries in the Middle East.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Yeah, that was the series of documentaries about Muslims who practice their religion in the United States at a time of high religious concentration in the Middle East called Ramadan. And it was one of a 5-point program that was intended to create a recognition that we respect that religion, as we do all others. And it's interesting, because where it got the whole program with the follow-up research, with the visit from the Muslim families who were in the documentaries going to these countries and speaking -- we had exceptionally positive response, and they revealed a degree of their distortion. I mean the women would say, one after another, "I had no idea you could wear your scarf in the United States."
BOB GARFIELD:On the other hand, there was a lot of criticism from the Middle East and elsewhere that this was just an attempt to use slick advertising techniques to gloss over the fundamental policy problems that make Muslims suspicious of United States' motives wherever it operates around the world.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, where this program landed in its entirety, the data is very clear. People not only were interested that it was mind-opening. Almost always they came back and said tell me more.
BOB GARFIELD: But it is axiomatic that there's nothing that kills a bad product better than good advertising.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: That's absolutely true.
BOB GARFIELD:The theory is that once you call attention to the product and get people to sample it, if they don't like it, you're finished with them. In trying to create a dialogue with people who were fundamentally distrustful of the United States, was there not the risk of exactly this kind of backlash, given United States' policy with respect to Israel and the Palestinians, for example, or given the fact that the United States was invading Iraq, was there a chance that the very existence of the public diplomacy efforts were only going to harden opposition to everything that America stands for?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: But, but-- you know, Bob, I'm glad you've asked this, because this is the question that is actually very frightening to me. Nothing would be more dangerous than silence. It's like asking Tylenol to be very quiet when people found out there was poison inadvertently put into their Tylenol packages. They went immediately to the air and every phase of communication to talk about what they were going to do, how it would be handled, and they won a huge round with the consumer groups. We do have some policies that are not popular, and that doesn't mean necessarily that we can make those popular, but we can certainly engage on many other fronts.
BOB GARFIELD: Notwithstanding the resistance to American foreign policy, there is an ever-eager audience for our brands -- for Coca-Cola--
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: -- and Walt Disney and Baywatch, as a matter of fact.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: That's right.
BOB GARFIELD:Did you use that as a point of departure in your work, the idea that just because something was exported from America did not necessarily mean that it was regarded as unsavory in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: The skill it takes to have a brand cross borders is to create a universal understanding, you know, maybe the love of a Coke and the party that goes with it, and so on. And the second thing was to always honor and respect the local customs. And so the lessons that we all had to learn as marketers, to earn the right to sell our brands in those countries is one the United States has to practice. I mean the first thing I did in the first year was bring in people from the private sector to conduct courses in that kind of communication which is about context, and also about the basics of branding, really.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Charlotte, thanks so much.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Charlotte Beers, former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, spoke to us from her home in Charleston, South Carolina.