As a result of America’s immense political, military and economic power, the nation has inherited enormous responsibilities for global leadership, but faces a tough challenge in exercising that leadership, said former AT&T communications chief Marilyn Laurie, recipient of the Alexander Hamilton medal from the Institute for Public Relations. Laurie says America needs to grow its capacity to deal with the “other”: the immigrant at home, the stranger abroad.

Receiving the medal, named for Hamilton in recognition of the communications strategies he deployed to win support for the Constitution, Laurie told her audience: “I’ve become obsessed with the concern that if we don’t educate ourselves in a hurry about the rest of the world—and understand how they see issues that are critical to us—we will keep stumbling into the kind of messes that our self-centered attitudes got us into the last few years.”

She said she had watched the level of discourse about Islam and Muslim countries evolve into a much finer grasp of what’s actually going on.

“It’s almost embarrassing to recall how simplistically we all interpreted events just a short time ago. If there is one thing we’ve learned, it’s how disastrous it is to assume everyone sees the world the way we do… and then to act on that comfortable assumption.”

She recalled a recent dinner with Vaclav Havel (the former president of the Czech Republic and Nobel Peace Prize winner) and Orhan Pamuk of Turkey, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both men, she noted, are writers—one a playwright, the other a novelist—and both are symbolic of the power of ideas well described and passionately communicated. And both took enormous personal risks in telling truth to power.

“Here was Pamuk, noting the brutality and cruelty all around him, but rejecting any easy clichés about a ‘clash of civilizations’ and ferociously optimistic,” she said. “And Havel, talking about how difficult the transition to democracy after the long Communist rule, how many people, unaccustomed to the need for initiative and personal responsibility, didn’t share the aspirations of the Velvet Revolution and became bitter and unable to adapt.

“’Don’t assume everyone wants the privileges of democracy’ he said. But he, too, was convinced that different ethnic and religious groups ultimately can sort themselves out peacefully and link up based on their shared needs.

“I left that evening ashamed of my New York patina of cynicism.”

She told the audience she came away from that dinner convinced that “we need to step up and utilize our public relations skills as citizens. Because we can help.

“After all, aren’t our skills all about engaging productively with people who don’t agree with us?
Don’t our jobs train us to question facile or backward-looking assumptions: to bring to the table voices that reflect the world the way it is, not the way we wish it was? We’re all about establishing credibility, through dialog and interactions, not one-way communications.

“Who knows more—or cares more—about building trust with skeptical or even hostile stakeholders?”

She noted that when the industry discusses public relations, the focus is usually on advocacy and suggested that considering America’s reputation around the world, there is obviously a lot of work that companies and their communicators have to do on that front, to support their own brands and “Brand America”.

“But in the coming years, the other side of what we do—the listening and analysis that helps put decisions into a sound context—should be a major contribution to the conversation about America’s future. As we think about our accountability to the public, we’ll need to recognize that a larger public now observes us, makes demands and holds us accountable.”

She suggested that the industry commit to several priorities:

First, to enlarge the lens through which it understands how America’s role relates to other societies and perspectives.  “Research of this type can take many forms… Novels, plays and unfamiliar news outlets are on my list.”

Second, to try to help  international clients listen effectively to their global employees and hear directly how their business practices and values are being perceived abroad.

Third, “since we’re in the relationship business, maybe some of you will also want to support, as I will, educational and cultural exchange programs. We in business can also support employee networks than span geographies and cultures. There’s a fair amount of evidence that the bonds that connect people through their professional identities are often more powerful than the ethnic identities that divide them.”

And finally, she said she was going to contribute money to organizations—in the U.S. and abroad—that teach tolerance and conflict resolution to young people. “The old saw that you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear still holds. 

“Are those kinds of contribution also appropriate for a business? Sure. It’s a no-brainer that we have to create a civil global society if we want a healthy global economy. It seems to me we need to do all these things and more for our companies. For our country. And for our children.”

Marilyn Laurie retired as executive vice president of brand strategy and advertising at AT&T, where she also served as a member of the company’s management executive committee. She was responsible for leading AT&T's brand building activities and managing the company’s reputation world wide, as well as supervising internal communications for a vast work force. As chairman of the AT&T Foundation, she also directed $40 million annually to educational, social service, and arts institutions. She currently consults on brand and public relations issues.