A public relations man reflects on rescuing the American image abroad

Forget about the recently reported development of over 300 separate terror groups in Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Analysis by Zogby International, a respected polling and market research firm, has shown that with few exceptions the American image abroad is identified with aggression, lack of understanding and intransigence. No one seems to like us anymore, anywhere.


As a result, foreign tourism in the U.S. (a very big source of revenue) is falling, and not just because of unfavorable exchange rates (a litmus in itself of American ``currency'') and tightened visa requirements.


The Bush administration has responded by charging former presidential aide Karen Hughes with communicating the good news about America more forcefully, creating a budget within the State Department for a carefully crafted PR campaign, including a special broadcast network and more ``public diplomacy.''


So far, there have been few signs of progress. Recent news reports suggest the government's broadcast outlet in Baghdad has become a source for news with a negative slant towards America. The impact of the Hughes program as a whole has been underwhelming. It's tough to spin when a civil war triggered by misplaced American aggression is raging and a whole people are being destroyed.


John Kerry stood up on the stage at the Walnut Hill School in Natick last weekend and tried to explain the larger dynamic at work in the Middle East, but whatever his take in Islamic history and yours on foreign trade, diplomacy and aid, as a nation we have managed to spend down all the sympathy we accrued after 9/11 into a position of isolation defined by contempt.


But it's not just Muslims who are giving America a bad rap.


You can kiss off the rest of the world with a wave of your hand and say, ``Who cares?'' (as a surprising number of people who should know better do). But as the price of oil continues to ratchet up, the trade deficit follows suit and our reputation as a bully and an agent of global environmental degradation grows (we never did sign off on land mine removal and the Kyoto accords), it should come as no surprise that our reputation is suffering everywhere.


Which is why the next president of the United States would do well to include Dick Martin among his or her panel of close advisors. It would be the healthiest thing that's happened to the executive branch in a long time. Certainly Martin, who is a master of the podium and thinks like a social scientist and a clinical psychologist, would be a superb asset.


Martin, who was in town recently to meet with members of the Public Relations Society of America on the advice of Pat Pollino, a Wellesley PR counselor with a wide following, is on a lonely road. He's retired now from a career at AT&T, where he headed up PR for the company. At the request of the American Management Association, he has written a book of extraordinary insight called ``Rebuilding Brand America - What we must do to restore our reputation and safeguard American business abroad,'' and not a moment too soon.


But is anyone listening to Dick Martin?


Branding is a commercial art equivalent to neurosurgery in complexity and ambiguity, but not in Martin's hands. ``It's a promise that meets its recipient's aspirations and fulfills a trust,'' he says, noting that America, like Coke or Pepsi, is a brand in and of itself.


``The American flag is the symbol of that brand,'' he says, but it's not about being commercial or even well known. ``It's a promise backed up by the Declaration of Independence,'' he adds, ``about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - Your God-given birthright.''


In France, Germany and Japan, Martin notes, less than a quarter of the population even believes that any more.


It would be nice if ``Rebuilding Brand America'' were a prescriptive. It is packed with illuminating data and practical suggestions, including redeveloping cultural exchanges and aid programs like the hundreds of millions given by American businesses to assist victims of the Indonesian tsunami. But Martin says that that is not enough.


All Americans, he suggests, including you, me and your family and friends, must begin to gain a significantly broader and deeper level of understanding about other countries and people, and do it sooner rather than later.


``That's because branding is first and foremost an experience,'' Martin says. While experiencing brand America abroad usually occurs in the form of a product (although most of we seem to export these days is jobs and television shows dripping with sex and violence), it's those person-to-person interactions that make all the difference.


Martin points to Rotary International as a constructive example, which with 42 clubs in MetroWest is an important local source of benevolence. Across the U.S. and around the world, Rotary members collaborate with the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation to help eradicate polio. Rotarians, while working in their communities, also sponsor scores of missions to do everything from repair cleft lips and malformed hearts to endowing worthy international students to come to America.


With more than 32,000 clubs in over 200 countries and 1.2 million members around the world with which to work, American Rotarians are fulfilling Martin's injunction in all sorts of constructive ways.


The ``Ugly American,'' published in 1958 as a guide to combating communism on the ground through understanding and quiet, sympathetic action is no less relevant today. It's time for some serious outreach.


Dick Martin shows us that by rebuilding the American brand we're not just ``spinning'' a story. It's time to have a frank chat with the world, folks, and the sooner we start talking and really listening, the better.


Peter Golden can be reached at pg@goldenpr.com.