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American Public Diplomacy and Islam

American Public Diplomacy and Islam

Charlotte Beers, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Washington, DC February 27, 2003

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and distinguished members of the committee. I think you're going to find my remarks a bit of an echo, but I hope to draw upon some very recent experiences that help put context in the discussion that we've been having about public diplomacy and the Muslim world.

Before you is a report on CD-ROM, and if you're not CD-ROM- friendly, there's a printed report as well of our activities in the last year. You also have examples of booklets, and you have a copy of the new communication plan for the Department's Visa program.

September 11th gave us a highly accelerated learning curve. I must tell you that, without the supplemental and the ability to redirect 2002 funds, we could never have initiated these programs to Muslim audiences with whom, in the past, we've had almost no discourse.

Our job is to both inform and engage. But I must tell you, "inform" is really the first job. I'd say 60 or 70 percent of the effort of our 800 people who are in the State Department in the U.S. is to explain and advocate our policies.

Around the world, then, we link into our embassy staffs, some 16,000, including public diplomacy officers. We reach them through web, through e-mail, through cable, and our own American Embassy television channel. They can take our products and activate them locally in ways that we in Washington cannot.

In the last year, we entered totally new channels of radio and television in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. Our officials were on those channels in record numbers as we discussed foreign policy issues and their context. We also had a number of op-ed pieces placed, arranged personal interviews, and conducted a great number of roundtables.

Our Web-site languages and products now include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashtu. We also have extremely able partners in this business of getting the word out through the Broadcasting Board of Governors [providing oversight and support for Voice of America, Radio Sawa (Arabic), Radio/TV Marti (Cuba), Worldnet TV, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia].

But we've learned the power of a digital-video conference. When Ken Pollack, the writer who had produced "The Threatening Storm," a very reasoned and interesting discussion of pros and cons of confronting Iraq, we asked him to interrupt his book tour and put him into nine countries in Europe where we needed that message, as Senator Biden points out. And it had a powerful effect. He's going back again into many other countries.

I think this year we've gained greater skills in public affairs. We no longer wait for people to produce our stories. We went into Afghanistan and did an 18-minute documentary on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And my proudest moment was when that ran on Pakistan TV on the 6:00 news.

So one of the important lessons of this year is that the television channels, which are more crowded every year, as well as the radio channels, will be very thirsty for programming. And there's an art form to getting them to use programming that we can produce and make available.

The products we produce these days are very different from a few years ago. It requires good detective work. We have to find the story, one that's not the story being written in the headlines. Many of the headline stories sometime make you wonder if you've in a time warp, because they don't cover any of the things that our people know so well - which can sometimes explain the mystery about the gap between us and the rest of the world.

In addition to good detective work, we have to have artful writers and photographers. And that's why those samples in front of you are an important element. Our Office of International Information Programs (IIP) can produce a four-color booklet, translated in many languages; for example, "Iraq: From Fear to Freedom." It talks about the horror of Hussein's regime, but also our deep desire for a democratic and unified Iraq.

Believe me, there are places in the world where this viewpoint has never been seen or heard. So it's important to assume that you're often dealing with a great deal of lack of information.

Our most recent program, "Iraqi Voices for Freedom," is a great prototype of how the Policy Coordinating Committee, co-chaired by myself and the National Security Council, works.

IIP people did interviews of the exiles; Department of Defense did some other kinds of interviews. The Near East bureau vetted the subjects, so when we launched this program, we could offer the press not only the booklet but also video interviews that the media can pick up and use as on their television channels. And many of the individuals themselves have agreed to do digital video conferences or interviews.

It's this kind of total communication effort - going back in my advertising day - that is the way to get the word out, in context.

We've just formed an Arabic-speaking team that is headed to London next week. London is a gateway for many of the Arab and Muslim television and newspaper people. And we need to establish a constant presence and engagement there, including training, teaching, and interviewing.

If my first point is the need to inform, my second relates engagement. The Congress determined long ago that our charter must include engagement - the building of mutual understanding and trust. Between whom? America and the world. That's a pretty big job. And these days it seems a bit daunting, but it's a very compelling and elegant job - and one to which we are passionately committed. But we need, we really must have long-term sustainable investment.

Above all, we need an agreement in all the parts of the government that this work of engagement, of building trust and understanding is a crucial job. It's not a job to be done on the way to something else.

We do have long-tested proofs that we can engage successfully. When we bring people in on our educational and cultural exchanges, they are literally transformed from being hostile and suspicious to friends of the United States. And we can verify this in any number of ways. But are these enough? Thirty-five thousand exchanges a year does not answer the deep need we need to engage people from around the world.

For example, we just had 49 Arab women here to witness our elections and democracy in action. Thirteen women teachers came over from Afghanistan, and now we'll send our teachers back to help them. You know what they ask us? "Please don't desert us." Five northern Iraq Kurdish television people just came into the United States to learn modern broadcasting.

We know how to engage, but with previous budget cuts, we've lost many of the natural points of contact in our libraries and cultural centers. In Central Asia and Russia, right now, we have established new American Corners that offer access to American culture, society, and values. In the Western Hemisphere there are a Binational Centers. These should be all over the world. They answer the problem of security, in part, because they're co-produced with the local government and they create a natural dialogue.

We have the ultimate "secret weapon," by the way. It is English teaching. English teaching can be allowed in any country in the world, regardless of how they feel about us, because it opens the doors to science and technology.

In the world of Islam, we've discovered that we have a powerful common cause, which is that we really want our children to thrive. Much of our few extra dollars in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) have gone to setting up models for teaching and youth exchanges in Muslim countries - partnered again with local governments because we have to get them in the game. That's what the Middle East Partnership Initiative is about, consulting and agreeing to shape things together.

All of this is promising, but it's only a beginning unless we have a firm commitment and long-term funding.

Engagement also dramatizes for me a key question which we've attempted to answer this very year: Who are we trying to engage? Given the declines in our budget and resources, the answer had to be, in the last 10 years, only the governments and the elites, the leaders in the country.

But, in fact, we must be about engaging the peoples of the world. It's not only our charter; it's an urgent need.

Now, we tested the way to do this. We produced messages directed to the people directly in Muslim countries. And what we learned is there's often a disconnect. The government and the elites will tell you they know all about the U.S. and what it stands for. Then you find from other research that the people in the country have simply no knowledge of the most basic tenets of the values of the United States; for instance, religious tolerance. So we produced a series of mini-documentaries, which were really stories of Muslim-Americans talking about the way they live here.

We had to actually pull them back from being appearing too exaggerated for fear people wouldn't believe them, because they have such a passion for their life here. It was about their ability to practice their faith and their integration.

To make sure that these stories were heard, we bought our own television, radio, and newspaper placements. That was something of a first, and that's why you hear it called an advertising campaign. But, in fact, it was storytelling made possible because we developed our own channel of distribution.

We also had all of the people featured in the television stories traveling to the countries to speak, to add to the authenticity of the message.

The booklet in front of you, "Muslim Life in America," was a part of the effort of our embassies kept the dialogue going.

I wish you would think about this for a minute. At the time we were running these stories, 288 million people - 288 million people - saw these messages two to three times during the holy month of Ramadan. That is the kind of reach we need to do everywhere in the world, and it was the first time we had a program with that kind of penetration.

Focusing on Indonesia, we then went in and tested what these messages were accomplishing. We did it exactly as you would for a major campaign for some of our brands that travel around the world. The "recall" is one number and the "message retention" is another. The recall of these messages was higher than a soft drink can achieve in six months of advertising. It broke the bank in terms of recall.

In terms of message retention, every single person who recognized it came back and said, "They're talking about the way they live in the United States. I had no idea." A woman said, "I didn't know you could wear scarves safely in that country." Another said, "Do you mean they're free to pray openly?"

If you could see these visuals, most of which we taped, you would understand that the need to get the word out, to exchange the word, to share ideas, is critically important.

What this means - in terms of results measured against modern marketing - is that people found the messages interesting, that people are thirsty for more information, and that they're living with a many large-scale distortions.

The other thing that happened is a continuing dialogue, stimulated because by this information effort. Indonesian TV came to us, and we agreed to do an hour television show - 50 Americans, 50 Indonesians. It aired for just one hour and was seen by 135 million people. That is the way we begin to make inroads against these negative preconceptions.

The "Muslim Life America" booklet is in use in an amazing number of places now - and not only schools, libraries and seminars. My favorite story is that Air Asia from Malaysia called and asked for 10,000 copies. So now we have reading on airplanes.

The point is, we must engage. We've tested many programs to open doors to ordinary people this year. We need your support to create a sustained engagement with the world. You know who needs this, too? Our businesses, our universities, and our hospitals. They need us to help them engage. We have, as you know, amazing products - science, technology, engineering, medicine.

We have the whole potent world of our best literature, music, sports, and movies. But it is not out there. Our American people are willing to go. In your states are people who constantly approach the State Department and say, "What can I do to help?" And we need to organize these kinds of people, these businesses, these sophisticated musicians and artists, so that they can move as emissaries through the world in our behalf.

We have in front of you some amazingly good programs, but they're in the testing phase right now. They're not yet funded to roll out - Sesame Street for Teens, the Arabic youth magazine, Arabic television, English teaching co-sponsored with the local governments. We have an army willing to be signed up to engage the world on behalf of the United States.

You may know that our educational and cultural exchanges are backed up by 90,000 volunteers, people in your states who are saying, "I already know a way to help." How can we magnify that, many-fold?

We need to talk to so many people around the world who do not even know the basics about us. They are taught to distrust our every motive. Such distortions, married to a lack of knowledge, is a deadly cocktail. Engaging, teaching common values are preventive medicine.

Mr. Chairman, I would hope, as you stated so eloquently in your opening remarks, that you can use your considerable influence to produce a strategic document that makes it clear that this depth of engagement is one of the very important components of the long-term defense of the American people.

Thank you. [End]


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