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Insider : Foreign Embassies Reaching Out to Touch Someone--Anyone : Envoys increasingly believe that they need to influence the American public as much as they do fellow diplomats and U.S. officials.


WASHINGTON — Every weekday morning just before sunrise, a bleary-eyed courier leaves the small, dowdy Sri Lankan Embassy in northwest Washington with a thin packet of letters, each addressed, painstakingly, by hand.

The envelopes, containing press releases describing the war in Sri Lanka and other issues that are occupying that country's capital, are immediately hand-delivered to the offices of the major newspapers in Washington. The hope is that Sri Lanka can finally get some ink.

That tiny and impoverished Sri Lanka would go to such trouble and expense reflects a growing reality among this city's foreign embassies: Seeking to influence fellow diplomats and American officials is no longer considered enough. Foreign envoys increasingly believe they need to influence the American public as well.

As a result, embassies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on news releases, press conferences and other techniques to persuade Americans, through the media, to accept their national points of view. And the deluge is growing every day.

Allan Gotlieb, the recently retired Canadian ambassador renowned here for his public relations skills, says the pressures on diplomats to score in this arena are intense. "Several kinds of games are in play at once," he says. "There are no referees."

The French and British embassies focus particularly on wining and dining the media. France, which maintains one of the largest and most glittering diplomatic missions in Washington, keeps one of the lowest political profiles but gets a great deal of press coverage nevertheless. So do the British.

Some diplomats have more-aggressive agendas. Hungarian Ambassador Peter Zwack, once an American liquor distributor, sees his role as a personal salesman.

"I'm here to sell my country," Zwack says. "My country needs business, the United States needs a country to do business with. I'm here to bring the two together."

The Chinese Embassy also maintains a low profile on the social scene, although its reputation for excellent cuisine always attracts a big crowd when it does entertain.

But the embassies' success rates vary widely. For all Sri Lanka's efforts to distribute its press releases, the envelopes usually wind up in the wastebasket. So does "Beijing Review," a full-color, but stuffy, Chinese promotional magazine.

Canada's Gotlieb maintains that editors' perceptions and lack of space, rather than indifference, are the reasons that newspapers ignore the war raging in Sri Lanka and other issues pushed by various embassies here.

"In Washington, a foreign government is a special interest and not a very special one at that," he notes. Even in the case of Canada, "our No. 1 priority was their (the newspapers') No. 10 priority," he says.

To be sure, sometimes the culture clash begins on the other side. For years, the press counselor at the Japanese Embassy astonished local journalists by beginning his regular covering letters with a Haiku-style poem:

I'm sure you have noticed some fireflies in your yard.

Don't you feel relieved to see those tiny phosphorescent

lights in the dusk after a long, hot summer day?

A single firefly coming

The garden

is so dewy!


"Let me once again send you materials on U.S.-Japan economic relations," the letter went on.

Jim Caldwell, an American who works in the embassy's press office, says he told the Japanese counselor that Americans don't usually begin their letters that way, but the official was sure that to omit the poetry would be impolite.

"In Japanese culture, you begin with a flowery phrase about the weather or nature," Caldwell explains. The press counselor just "couldn't get used to the American way," he recalls.

Sometimes the best-planned letters can go awry. A mid-summer message to journalists, also from the Japanese Embassy, noted that August is often a slow month in Washington. The missive was dated Aug. 3--a day after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

And while many missions may operate in frustration, outside the mainstream of U.S. public interest for years, they're sure to make a big splash the minute they or their governments blunder.

The Iraqi Embassy, for example, was largely ignored until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Now the institution--and Iraq's ambassador here--are besieged almost daily, although they have very little new to say.

Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Mashat is confrontational, exasperating and repetitive in his attempts to rationalize the invasion and attack U.S. military moves in the Persian Gulf--a style that many journalists now find frustrating.

But he does get air time and space--more in the last 10 weeks than in all of his 12 years here, he says. "It is the hardest job in my life. I never worked so hard in any job (before this)."

Some embassies devote more effort to entertaining the press with parties and dinners, seeing that as a more effective way of getting their message across than news releases. Here, too, some are more successful than others.

Canada's Gotlieb received a lot of unwelcome publicity in 1986, when his wife, Sondra, nervous about a high level dinner party for their visiting prime minister, slapped an aide in a moment of intense frustration.

The incident occupied the society pages for weeks--and eventually clouded much of the good image that the Gotliebs had built up for their country's embassy here.

Still, says Gotlieb, "the media have to be part of any effective lobbying strategy." It may have been a principle of classic diplomacy that a diplomat does not interfere in the internal affairs of the country to which he is accredited, Gotlieb adds. "But that doesn't work anymore. Interdependence has changed all that."

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