NEW YORK — Rehabilitating Brand America was the theme of an expansive, multi-presenter session at Advertising Week New York on Wednesday, including a panel of PR and reputation leaders.

Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB opened with recent data from the Pew Research Center that shows US favorability around the world has dropped from 64% to 48%, and un-favorability has grown from 26% to 39%.  

"There was a time when Brand America was thought of as a welcoming world leader,"Reinhard said. He quoted JP Morgan Chase CEO Jaimy Dimon, who in a recent analyst call said it is "almost an embarrassment being an American citizen traveling around the world and listening to this stupid shit we have to deal with."

Trump is perhaps more the symptom than the disease, according to the panel of PR leaders. 

"Brand America is not all Donald Trump. We’re not so great to start with," said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, citing data from 17 years of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which has consistently shown the US in the middle of the pack in reputation terms, trailing in comparison to other countries. "We have a basic reliance on free markets, we don’t pay so much attention to sustainability, and we have a dynamic economy that destroys and builds."

Brands and corporate CEOs are "expected to step up to the plate," added Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick. "Employees are coming to their workplace looking for a safe harbor and it’s tough now for corporate leaders to create that environment. It only happens with leaders who are ready to espouse values and live by them."

Corporate leaders reluctant to enter the fray may be forced to by circumstances. "The NFL is experiencing what every brand and CEO is going through now, where one person’s apology becomes another person’s trigger," said Scott Farrell, Golin’s president of global corporate communications. "You have to take a stand – the danger is threading the needle down the middle splits both sides."

Ken Sunshine, founder and president of Sunshine Sachs also cited the NFL example. "What happened this weekend was incredibly significant," he said. "For those owners to join hands is a huge step and admission that what Mr. Trump said was outrageous."

Overcoming corporate risk management will not be easy, said Mike Paul, president of Reputation Doctor LLC. "C-suite executives have fears. It’s our job is to help them overcome that fear."  

The two-hour session also featured a presentation by David Sable, global CEO, Y&R, who shared data from the Best Countries Ranking, which Y&R’s BAV produced in association with Wharton and US News. The US dropped from number four to number seven in the rankings. While the US still ranked highest in terms of 'hard power', ie 'tanks and banks',  the US wasn’t even in the top 10 for soft-power attributes of citizenship and quality of life. 

The closing panel hosted responses to a creative brief to repair the image of Brand America.  Jimmy Smith, chairman and CEO of Amusement Park said the problem is "solvable", but only with diverse participation from across the American population. "Going to do a brand campaign for America, if pretty much everyone creating the campaign is white, it makes It pretty hard to [succeed]. But we keep coming at it from one perspective and culture." 

Rob Reilly, global creative chairman at McCann Worldgroup, added that the US has a product problem, not a brand problem — as agency research has shown diminished confidence in achieving success among Americans. "Our most iconic product is the American dream, and it’s in trouble."