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She Lands the Propaganda Account

Diplomacy: President Bush is relying on a former Madison Avenue executive to persuade the Muslim world that the U.S. is not the enemy.


WASHINGTON — To most Americans, it is a conundrum. As President Bush told FBI employees on Oct. 1, the United States is "a nation of good folks" while Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists are "evildoers." So why do growing numbers of people in the Muslim world see it the other way around?

There may be any number of reasons for the disconnect. But one cause even the administration's staunchest supporters agree on is that the United States has not told its side of the story very well in Afghanistan, the wider Muslim world or even in Europe.

To close that gap, Bush has asked Charlotte Beers, one of the towering figures of the advertising business, to apply some Madison Avenue techniques to the battle for hearts and minds. It may prove the most important front in the war on terrorism.

Beers, 66, took office Oct. 2 as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. The president selected her for the post last March, long before the events of Sept. 11 gave a vastly increased importance to the job.

In a statement to the House International Relations Committee after just a week in office, Beers underlined the daunting nature of her new task.

"This is a war about a way of life and fundamental beliefs in values we did not expect to ever have to explain and defend--such as freedom and tolerance," she said.

The burden, she explained, is to redefine the identity of the United States "for audiences who are, at best, cynical."

Product-Style Ads Will Play a Key Role

She has not said exactly how she plans to do that, but she has made it clear that product-style advertising will play an important role.

In an interview with Advertising Age, she said, "If I have to buy time on Al Jazeera, I would certainly consider it." Al Jazeera is the Qatar-based satellite television service that is widely watched in the Arab world.

While no final decision has been made about buying time on the service, the administration continued Wednesday to speak to its audience. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an interview to the network. White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had earlier been interviewed.

Beers is the only executive in the advertising industry to have ever served as chairman of two of the top 10 worldwide advertising agencies--J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather.

In 1992, Glamour magazine named her one of its "women of the year" for "cracking the glass ceiling in advertising." In 1988, she became the first woman in 99 years to become chairman of the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies.

But some critics have suggested that, despite her achievements in conventional advertising, she may lack the experience needed for wartime propaganda. For instance, columnist Al Hunt, writing in the Wall Street Journal, accused Bush of treating the public diplomacy job "frivolously." He said Beers "is a former advertising executive noted for the Uncle Ben's rice account. She recently talked about using the Internet to get out the American message. That'd reach only the 1% of the Arab world that is wired."

But other experts say conventional advertising techniques may be just what is needed.

"The advertisers take the trouble to understand their audiences, to understand what they want," said Philip C. Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

"Fighting a war that is taking place on the image front, maybe it requires a professional image manager," said Tom Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. "It may turn out to be a stroke of genius. An advertising person understands the ways to speak to an audience."

Since her comments to the trade publication Advertising Age, Beers has refused all requests for interviews, including one for this article. She has not elaborated on ideas she expressed earlier--such as mobilizing the Ad Council, which has produced public service advertising since World War II, or buying time on Al Jazeera.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that a new brochure--explaining to Arabs the U.S.' participation in the war--will probably be issued soon but other uses of advertising "will come later. It's being worked on. It is not ready for prime time yet."

In her comments to the House committee, Beers acknowledged that the most important task is to communicate that the war on terrorism is not a war against Islam. Bush has said that repeatedly and backed it up with a visit to a Washington mosque and White House meetings with American Muslims.

However, James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, said the efforts so far are not enough to combat "the pervasiveness of anti-American rhetoric that has taken hold in some circles in the Middle East."

Zogby said Bush's mantra that the United States is not making war on Islam "is a slogan, not an antidote."

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