Image Makers Weigh in on Improving USA's Perception Overseas

If America wants to improve its image overseas — the quagmire at the heart of a Wednesday summit in Washington overseen by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — then it would be wise to downplay its politics and act like it's listening.

Those are among the suggestions offered by prominent public relations leaders who were asked what strategy they would use if the United States were their client.

Richard Edelman, president and CEO of PR giant Edelman in New York City, has put his firm to work for the governments of several countries — including Israel. The first thing that needs to be done to bolster a nation's image is to "take it out of politics," he said.

"Take it away from the part of the media that covers politics," Edelman recommended. "Kick it off the front page and move it to the business page or other parts of the newspaper. There will be good days and bad days in politics. This other stuff can be an everyday good news bureau."

In the case of Israel, the focus on its role in the longstanding Israeli/Palestinian conflict was replaced by efforts to highlight its advances in technology, according to Edelman.

Additionally, America needs to be a better listener, both to other points of view and other ways of life, if she wants to be seen in a more positive light around the world.

"America can look as if it's listening," Edelman advised. "Why don't we do a bigger thing about having foreign language education in the U.S. so that when Americans do go overseas, they are fluent in Russian, Chinese, [et cetera] and we look as if we're listening and interested in other cultures?"

In reality, however, that openness to diversity isn't necessarily apparent to people from other countries in either American tourists or the government.

"We are a melting pot, but that's not what other people see when we go overseas," Edelman said. He thinks American school curriculums would benefit from more lessons on other, non-Western cultures.

Mary Lou Quinlan, former CEO of N.W. Ayer Advertising and current CEO of the women's marketing firm Just Ask a Woman, also said improvement in listening is crucial in repairing the nation's image.

"It's time to get back to the basic values that made our brand great, things like respect for freedom and individual rights, and approaching people with humanity and integrity," Quinlan said. "We are a leader brand, not a bully brand. We represent cooperation and reaching out to a diverse, complex world, not 'my way or the highway.'"

On Wednesday, Rice and the public relations chief for the Bush administration, Karen Hughes, held a "Private Sector Summit on Public Diplomacy." Sponsored by the State Department and the Public Relations Coalition, the summit was held with 150 top public relations professionals and State Department officials "to identify clear action steps the private sector can take to support U.S. public diplomacy."

In other words, the U.S. is asking for help from PR pros in creating a shiny, happy new image for itself. America is currently in the doghouse, globally, due in large part to post-Sept. 11 actions like the invasion of Iraq. Put simply, the United States isn't part of the popular crowd these days.

"The best leaders listen," Quinlan said. "The next president needs to be a better listener to regain the trust of what is the greatest brand in the world, the USA."

Another way to get back in overseas cultures' good graces is to make other tweaks in our country's way of communicating, according to Edelman. He suggested that the U.S. should try to become a part of the conversation and be able to make fun of itself rather than taking itself too seriously.

"We should try to communicate not only top down but also peer to peer," he said. "Why not actually talk to bloggers — Chinese, Indian, German bloggers — and not have everything be the command-and-control environment?"

Putting people to work for this country who are actually from different cultures will also help to boost the USA brand overseas, he said.

"Have a local representing you in that region," Edelman advised. "You have to act like a global company but put local people forward."

Edelman said that the United States' sagging image abroad is actually hurting iconic American brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's, a change that was first noticed a few years ago. So this country is doing the right thing by looking at how it can improve its standing across the globe.

"There are parts of the American image that are absolutely fantastic," he said. "The world definitely sees us as ahead on entertainment, technology and medicine.

"But the world questions whether we listen and whether we are trying to impose our values and standards — capitalism, free market — on them," he added. "I don't think they all want that and I don't think they all should have that."