Why the US Needs a PR Campaign

A man who declined to be identified walks past a business with an American flag in the window Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, in Mobe
A man who declined to be identified walks past a business with an American flag in the window Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, in Moberly, Mo. Many in this small town in central Missouri will watch the State of the Union address closely after struggling to create jobs and suffering from a down economy. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

With the global media filled daily with fresh images of millions of outraged Muslims attacking American embassies and denouncing the United States, it's clear that our country could use a little public relations help. No joke. Right now, the U.S. desperately needs a PR campaign that is comprehensive and persuasive -- and will work to limit, if not eliminate, future calamities like
this one.

PR for the whole United States? Like it's a corporation? Yes, absolutely. Other countries like India and even Libya have had their international images professionally buffed. And no less than Apple or Citigroup, the U.S. needs to tell its story. Admittedly, after the Iraq War and the cowboy diplomacy of the Bush years, the country's brand needs some serious upgrading. But America still has much to offer the world. This should go without saying, but, these days, it does need to be said, often.

Sadly, Americans themselves are likely to offer some of the bleakest opinions of the country. If you want to get rave reviews of America, ask an immigrant. I came to this country from India 20 years ago to attend graduate school on a full scholarship, and I've never left. I married a Dane, a move unthinkable in India; and I started my own business, ditto. All because an American university gave me the gift of a graduate degree -- something that countless immigrants receive every year, many of them to bring their knowledge and talent back to their native countries. You couldn't pry me away from Brooklyn, for all the reasons that immigrants celebrate, but natives tend to forget: the political freedom, the economic opportunity, the knowledge and good sense that comes from higher learning, the responsible government (you scoff, but try politics in India where government officials might be ex-cons). The list is long, and yet it is not celebrated nearly enough.

Americans are a warm, good-hearted and extraordinarily generous people, not that that opinion is widely shared in the Middle East. But it's true. Americans contributed more than $0.3 trillion in private philanthropy last year. If there is a natural disaster anywhere in the world -- Turkey, Japan, Pakistan -- chances are that the Americans are the first foreigners on the scene. What other country has a Gates Foundation, a Peace Corps or a Rockefeller Foundation? Or, on a smaller scale, an inspiring venture like Jordan Kassalow's Vision Spring campaign to sell nearly a half-million durable, inexpensive glasses to the vision-impaired in remote areas of the globe? Or Sean Penn's disaster relief efforts in Haiti, to say nothing of the other celebrities who pitch in to improve the world? Or Al Gore's campaign to awaken the world to the perils of climate change? Or Habitat for Humanity, Children's International, Refugees Internationalthe American Refugee Committee, or George Soros's Open Society Foundations?

So far, any of America's PR efforts are limited to State Department appeals from one government to another. But a more effective strategy would be targeted at the people themselves in a multi-pronged education campaign.

First, of course, any campaign needs its target audience. The U.S. doesn't need to win over the entire globe; it should focus on hotspots like the Middle East or pivotal allies like Turkey or India where the U.S. is held in unfairly low esteem.

Second, any American campaign should be run by indigenous PR firms in the targeted nations. They would be the ones to know best the tastes and culture of the public, and the best media for the American message. They could coalesce around an inspiring U.S.-led humanitarian effort like one of Lauren Bush's innovative FEED campaigns or in combination with a U.N. Foundation effort to raise awareness of them.

Third, enlist unofficial American ambassadors who could spread the good word about American values. Ideally, someone like Sergey Brin of Google would be asked to take the word back to his native Russia or Pepsico's Indra Nooyi to bring it home to India or Coca-Cola's Muhtar Kent to his native Turkey. They would stand both as emblems of American success, but also of this country's openness to foreigners -- and, through their products, to the future. Ideally, they would make themselves available for interviews, publish op-eds in prominent newspapers and on websites, and perhaps engage in colloquies with students or fellow CEOs, showcasing the American way.

Fourth, foreign students who come to America should be asked to report on their experience via personal narratives, survey data, and panel discussions, spreading the word about what America is really like, what advantages it offers, and how they have been changed by their time in an American college or graduate school. They would spread the message of American freedom.

Fifth, the Voice of America needs to be drastically updated and rebranded to resemble something closer to NPR, compete with website and social media, to reflect more of the truth and texture of the American experience, sans propaganda. It would be the media home of the PR effort.

PR is incremental. A fresh understanding of America will not be built in a day, nor will it be cheap. But if the country undertakes a smart, knowing, and well-targeted campaign, it will pay for itself many times over in wars that are not fought, embassies that are not destroyed, a national reputation that is not trashed, and a competitive advantage for American business that is not swept away in a sea of political protest like the one going on right now.