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Profile: Charlotte Beers
Charlotte Beers was a participant or observer in the following events:
Charlotte Beers. [Source: New York Times]Former advertising executive Charlotte Beers officially assumes her duties as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Beers, the former head of ad agencies Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson, and who is best known for “branding” products like American Express credit cards and Head and Shoulders shampoo, was named to the position days after the 9/11 attacks, in part to help refurbish America’s image overseas. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met Beers in 1995 when they both worked on the board of Gulf Airstream and who proposed her for the position, defended her selection in the Senate by explaining: “Well, guess what? She got me to buy Uncle Ben’s rice and so there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something.” Powell says Beers’s job is to focus on what he calls “the branding of US foreign policy.” Time reporter Margaret Carlson will write that Beers’s new job is much different from selling rice or shampoo to American consumers: “Now Beers has to rebrand Osama bin Laden as a mass murderer to millions of Muslims who have never seen a 767 or a skyscraper, much less one flying into the other. She has to do it in languages, like Pashto and Dari, that don’t even have a word for terrorist. And all this without having control over Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.” Congress grants Beers over $500 million for her Brand America campaign. She says: “Public diplomacy is a vital new arm in what will combat terrorism over time. All of a sudden we are in this position of redefining who America is, not only for ourselves, but for the outside world.” Beers has no diplomatic experience. Her first efforts as undersecretary will be to provide a 24-page booklet in 14 languages accusing bin Laden of masterminding the 9/11 attacks, and, with the help of the Ad Council, to create and disseminate a poster throughout Arab countries offering up to $25 million for information leading to the arrest of highly placed terror suspects. Beers says that “sell might not be the operative word” to describe her job, she uses marketing vocabulary to describe her efforts: the US is an “elegant brand,” Powell and President Bush are “symbols of the brand,” and she wants to use athletes such as the NBA’s Hakeem Olajuwon to help market the American “brand.” [Time, 11/14/2001; New York Times, 3/3/2003; CounterPunch, 8/13/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 31-32] Columnist Jeffrey St. Clair will observe: “Note the rapt attention Beers pays to the manipulation of perception, as opposed, say, to alterations of US policy. Old-fashioned diplomacy involves direct communication between representatives of nations, a conversational give and take, often fraught with deception… but an exchange nonetheless. Public diplomacy, as defined by Beers, is something else entirely. It’s a one-way street, a unilateral broadcast of American propaganda directly to the public, domestic and international—a kind of informational carpet bombing.” [CounterPunch, 8/13/2003]
The White House formally announces plans to create a public diplomacy agency, to be called the Office of Global Communications, that will be charged with projecting a more positive image of the US abroad. [Washington Post, 7/30/2002; CBS News, 7/30/2002; Guardian, 7/31/2002; Los Angeles Times, 1/5/2003] It will help the world understand “what America is all about and why America does what it does,” says White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. The task formerly belonged to the State Department, but Bush’s advisers didn’t think it was “doing a good enough job, so they’re going to take it on,” a former Coalition Information Center (CIC) official tells the Guardian. “Nobody [was] that impressed with [State Department public diplomacy head] Charlotte Beers (see October 2, 2001) and what she’s done. She listens to people. She’s done a lot of listening, but you need to go further than that.” [Guardian, 7/31/2002] This new public diplomacy office, said to be the brainchild of President Bush’s senior adviser, Karen Hughes, has actually “existed for months, quietly working with foreign news media outlets to get the American message out about the war on terrorism,” according to CBS News. [CBS News, 7/30/2002]
A State Department program designed to “market” America as a “brand” to Arabs is greeted with skepticism and, sometimes, derision. The advertising campaign, called “Shared Values,” was conceived by Charlotte Beers, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and a former advertising executive (see October 2, 2001). The concept is to “sell” America in the Arab world by emphasizing the “shared values” held by both Americans and Arabs. [Rich, 2006, pp. 31-32] The program is based on four videos, centering on the lives of four “average” American Muslims—a schoolteacher, a doctor, a baker, and the director of the National Institutes of Health. [New York Times, 10/30/2002] Beers said in a June Senate hearing that the US must pay closer attention to expanding communication with “the mainstream of young adults” so as “to give them, ultimately, a new world view.… The young will lead us.” The “Shared Values” program is the central thrust of that effort. [Office of International Information Programs, US Department of State, 6/11/2002] The videos show American Muslims in their homes, at softball games, and at their jobs. They tell Arab viewers that they have experienced no prejudice against them after the 9/11 attacks, and describe how they live and work well with Christians, Jews, and Hindus. “I don’t think there is any other country in the world where different people from different countries are as accepted and welcomed as members of a society,” says one. But many Arabs do not believe the rosy depiction of life as an American Muslims, and call the videos patronizing and simplistic. (Some State Department officials privately agree with that characterization, but were powerless to influence their creation and dissemination.) Other Arabs call the videos nothing but American propaganda. [New York Times, 10/30/2002] In 2006, author Frank Rich will call the videos akin to “testimonial commercials for new household products.” Many Arab countries, particularly in the Middle East, refuse to run the videos, saying that they do not adequately address the US’s policies in that region. [Rich, 2006, pp. 31-32] In September 2003, the “Shared Values” program and other such public relations initiatives will be judged to be failures by the General Accounting Office (see September 15, 2003).
Print ad for the ‘Shared Values’ videotapes. The videos are distributed by the Council of American Muslims for Understanding (CAMU), an organization created by the US State Department. [Source: Council of American Muslims for Understanding / Sheldon Rampton] (click image to enlarge)The General Accounting Office (GAO) releases a report showing that the $1 billion spent annually by the Bush administration to polish America’s image among Arab populations has largely gone to waste. Polls in predominantly Arab and Muslim nations show anti-American sentiments are steadily rising despite the US’s advertising efforts. (In many of these nations, Osama bin Laden has higher favorability ratings than President Bush.) The GAO report finds numerous reasons for this widespread failure. Among them are:
The State Department’s scattershot, uncoordinated efforts;
Foreign service officers charged with promoting America’s image spend too much time on paperwork, and 20 percent of those officers do not fluently speak the language of the country in which they are stationed;
The US government’s failure to not scientifically measure the effects of its public relations programs, instead relying on anecdotal evidence. [USA Today, 9/15/2003]
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is at a loss to explain the problem. “Americans are brilliant at communication,” he says. “Why in the world we are all thumbs in this particular area just strikes me as one of the anomalies of history. But it’s an important one to solve pretty fast.” The State Department’s first Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Charlotte Beers (see October 2, 2001), resigned in March for what the administration called “health reasons,” and has not yet been replaced. Beers is responsible for the failed “Shared Values” program, which relied on commercially slick video reports to sway Muslim and Arab public opinion (see Late October, 2002). [New York Times, 3/3/2003; USA Today, 9/15/2003; Center for Media and Democracy, 10/17/2007] Beers’s biggest success may have been Radio Sawa, an American radio station broadcasting throughout much of the Middle East that broadcasts US-based pop music, with 10-minute news broadcasts every hour from American government sources. [USA Today, 9/15/2003]
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