“There has been no greater challenge for communications professionals in my lifetime that explaining the importance of the war on terrorism,” says Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick Worldwide, who was the only public relations executive to testify before the U.S. House International Relations Committee last week, and the government stepped up its international public relations efforts.
Despite its apparent military successes, the U.S. government has been criticized for losing the public relations war against terrorists, particularly in Moslem countries. In the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush called the war on terrorism a crusade, giving the campaign the connotation of a religious war. And this week, the coalition suffered another PR setback after bombing a mosque on the eve of Ramadan.
The public relations war is important first to keep the coalition together and prevent the weakening of support from Arab governments, and second to counteract bin Laden’s recruiting efforts in Moslem countries. But it presents a challenge because of the failure of previous administrations to engage ordinary people in the developing world.
“The events of the past two months have brought into sharp and tragic relief the long-term failure of the United States to communicate effectively with the 1.2 billion people of the Muslim world,” Leslie told the committee. “Historically as a nation, we’ve communicated government to government, not people to people. We’re good at talking to the heads of nations, but have overlooked their hearts.”
As a result, he says, many people in the Arab world have a distorted view of Americans and their values, one exacerbated by popular culture.
“The most popular American television show in the Moslem world today is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Leslie says. “Before that it was Baywatch. Before that it was Dallas. That’s the view they get of the American people. They don’t understand the values we all share, like family. They don’t understand what a profoundly religious society America is.”
In addition to being chairman of the world’s largest public relations firm, Leslie is uniquely qualified to address America’s public relations campaign to win hearts and minds in developing countries. As a consultant at Sawyer Miller Group in the 80s, he worked on political campaigns in the Philippines, Bolivia, Columbia, South Africa and elsewhere. He is also U.S. chairman of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and has spent considerable time in Pakistan and Afghanistan
From that perspective, he sees the communications challenge facing the U.S. government today as more profound even that the communications challenge of the Cold War.
“During the Cold War, we were talking to people who were receptive to what we had to say. They were yearning for the kind of freedom we had to offer,” Leslie says. “This is very different.”
He suggests six things America needs to do to create an effective public relations campaign in the Islamic world.
Says Leslie, “First, we should heed the Powell Doctrine from the Persian Gulf War and apply it now to communications. We must have clear objectives and then we must bring overwhelming force—the full range of resources necessary—to achieve those objectives. It is unrealistic—and probably counterproductive—to suggest that in the short-term we can sell America’s values to the Arab street. We can, however, make a strong case that Osama bin Laden and terrorist organizations in the Muslim world haven’t just hijacked airplanes, they are trying to hijack Islam itself.”
To prove that point, Leslie says, “We should be circulating widely the pictures of those Muslim children in the United States who lost a parent during the attacks on September 11. We need to personalize our communications.”
In the long-term, meanwhile, the government’s objective should be to encourage a dialogue among Muslims about what are acceptable beliefs and behavior for Islam. “We are never going to convince radical Islamic fundamentalists of the benefits of a pluralistic society. But we can carefully target those whose opinions are soft, those who are undecided or conflicted. It should be possible to persuade people who are searching for answers that the path these radical elements have chosen is not only incompatible with the teachings of the Koran, but antithetical to the kind of future most people want to live.”
Second, the government needs to reorganize how it manages public diplomacy. During the Cold War, the government relied on assets such as Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America and U.S. embassies to deliver its message.
“These are very different times,” says Leslie. “A beefed up Voice of America isn’t going to win this war. If we want to bring overwhelming force to the communications battle, we’ll need a centralized chain of command, not a loose-knit collection of agencies and departments spread across the government. The Coalition Information Center set-up by the White House is a major step in the right direction.”
Third, the government should tap into the best minds in this field. “In our business, we don’t make widgets. We depend on the insights and talents of individuals. This is a creative process and every effort must be made to recruit the best creative minds to work with the United States Government. Reaching out to groups like the Ad Council here and creative experts in the Muslim world is critical.
“Fourth, no tactic should be ruled out. CNN ran a segment recently on a pro-bin Laden video game becoming popular in many Islamic countries. Whether we counter with our own video games, use commercial advertising, the Internet, posters or pamphlets—you name it, every tactical approach should be considered that can deliver the right message to the right targets with credibility
“Fifth, just like our military campaign, we cannot win the communications campaign without troops on the ground. This is not a war that will be won on the airwaves alone. We must carry it to the street. Traditional institutions, and certainly our government, lack the credibility needed to carry the message. And so, we must rely on much more sophisticated recruitment and training of credible people on the ground - clerics and youth groups, sports heroes and teachers - anyone we can find who can carry the right messages.
“And finally, we’ll never succeed without actionable research. I’m sure we have warehouses full of research throughout the government. But we need to know much more than just what people are hearing and how they are behaving. We need to know what messages and actions can change attitudes and behavior—and what groups are most receptive to our messages.”
While acknowledging the difficulties, Leslie believes the public relations war is a war that can be won.
“If we do these things, if we commit to using overwhelming force with clear objectives and targeting, if we have centralized planning and a chain of command, if we reach out to the best creative minds here and abroad, if we demonstrate a willingness to employ innovative tactics and sound, actionable research then I believe America’s message will be heard.”