What This Country Needs Is A Real Chief Marketing Officer

As January is a month for New Years resolutions -- I look no further than my own teeming neighborhood gym for confirmation of that -- I propose that our country institute one of its' own: Make America a respected name once more.

America's image around the world is really in the dumps. The Iraq war continues to damage our image; a recent Pew Research Center survey found that "Anti-Americanism is extensive." But it is more pervasive than anti-war sentiment, and it requires more active intervention and a more focused and integrated strategy than exists today. In business parlance, we need a chief marketing officer for America.

Friends and clients who run global companies abroad, along with officials of other governments, tell me it's getting harder to publicly support America. The world, they say, which once saw us as liberators, innovators, bearers of economic well-being and personal hope, now sees us as 'America the Bully,' with more money and weapons than sense, only "pretending" to serve others for our own narrow self-interest.

In all fairness, this is not totally new. For a lot of people, America hasn't stood for apple pie in a long, long time. Consider how reflexively anti-American Europe was in the 1970s and 1980s. The rocky relationship that America has had with the outside world for a while now is something that needs and can be addressed. Today.

With longtime Bush confidante Karen Hughes stepping down from her post as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs it looks like another Friend-of-Bush, James K. Glassman, nominated in December, is poised to step in. In Washington-ese, Hughes -- and, soon, Glassman, provided there are no surprises -- was kind of an uber-PR agent for the State Department. After announcing her resignation, Hughes explained that she had completed her mission "by transforming public diplomacy and making it a national security priority central to everything we do in government." Not so fast.

Make no mistake; we're in a branding crisis. And, Glassman has to do better. Many would say the situation is already beyond repair, or too complicated to fix. I don't buy that. We can fix it, and we must, to preserve the position of this great nation.

Embarking on fixing that image is a process similar to that of any significant brand. It requires the work of a designated Chief Marketing Officer coordinating with the President and other key influencers with all the humility and recognition of the uphill battle that it will take. And just as in big companies, what will assure failure of such a turnaround are hints of the recent introspective, isolationist, protectionist, and self-flagellatory positioning our American brand has been promoting.

It's important that the CMO I'm envisioning won't just sell policy (public relations) but will help to shape it (the distinction of a real marketer). This cabinet-level official, or at least respected special assistant to the President, will be responsible for coordinating America's image and must have a seat at the policy-setting table where the others who influence the brand convene. Hughes may have been competent in her post as a "communications officer" (she managed to win two presidential elections for Bush), but her failure at this job, and to an extent, that of her predecessors, Margaret Tutwiler, and Charlotte Beers, demonstrates that just hiring somebody who is talented at messaging and communications isn't enough.

Let's take one important role to the American brand, the Secretary of State. In theory, the Secretary, although a diplomat by definition, leads thousands of employees who comprise the State Department and are devoted to American "branding" among foreign nations. Yet, there are problems with this. The State Department staffers' jobs are to deal with the official relations between the U.S. and other nation's governments. And that's a big job in itself.

The problem is that the world now is about individual activists, media and many, many organizations with significant influence, not just governments, and we need somebody who focuses on reaching out directly to the new universe of influencers. Just because we have good "government" relations with the Blair administration did not mean that our positioning with the English people was strong. Changes in the economy, in communications, in travel, have empowered people and broken down organizational borders. People make personal decisions with just one input being what their government is saying to them. In another example, just because at the highest levels the leaders of two nation-states may not see eye-to-eye doesn't mean that the citizens of those two countries must follow suit. We can and must go direct and assure that all key influencers are targeted, not just the ones with official government titles.

The CMO must have a clear strategy, with a coherent message from the president, to improve America's brand overseas and, just as important and absent today, be the internal facilitator across all the touch points of our brand... the herder of cats. This begins with our own government. Everybody who works for the U.S. government overseas is a representative of America, and they will shape America's brand.

But, the CMO's work cannot end with employees and representatives of the U.S. government. The CMO must reach out to private sector influencers and provide them with resources and strategy for showing the world what's great about America.

We need that super-coordinator reaching out to, coaching, cajoling and inspiring to align all these communicators, including domestic and international business leaders, our relief workers abroad, U.S. travelers, Hollywood celebrities, our own folks in media, academia, NGOs, etc. The role of our many potential "ambassadors," cannot be underestimated.

There are obstacles that cannot be underestimated. Some will say the media is too cynical, that Hollywood is too reflexively anti-government, that most business executives have an ostrich quality beyond promoting their own companies, and that America itself is deeply divided about what we should stand for. Granted, not everybody will rally behind our messages. That said, optimism is part of the American brand and I am certain there are many exceptionally proud Americans ready to help once they know how. In a recent movie about Darfur, George Clooney was seriously called, "the highest level representative of the American government" to go overseas and focus on the situation there. I balked at first, but that's right. And, in the end is that so bad? Why limit our ambassador corps?

If we didn't have a solid "product" I wouldn't be so emotional and concerned. Here's how I see our brand imagery: strong and loyal ally; land of opportunity and home of the free; Yankee ingenuity; and world-changing inventions born in the garage. The next President will define the brand, but she or he will certainly need help executing on that brand promise and her top staff will need to be reminded, coaxed, and challenged to protect that brand.

This isn't about "spin" or pretending we're perfect. It's about reminding those who know at their core what a great country this is; remembering the good things we take for granted; working together to recognize and foster what America genuinely stands for, and doing a better job of embodying -- in both word and deed -- those values at home and to the world. In this dawn of 2008, a critical election year, lets resolve to be better Americans, in every way. Leading this charge is how I see the job -- the much-needed job -- of a true American CMO.