Teaching Culture: The Challenges and Opportunities of International Public Relations. (Focus on Intercultural Communication)

Article excerpt

THE EVENTS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, highlighted the importance of international and intercultural understanding in global politics. Americans learned about Osama Bin Laden and his vast international terrorist network, Al-Qaeda. They wondered why the terrorists could be so hateful as to execute the horrific crimes that are now etched into the nation's memory. US President George W. Bush vowed revenge on the terrorists and their supporters worldwide and presented his campaign to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein as one step in curbing the terrorist threat. While the US won the military campaign, the war to win the hearts and minds of the international community is yet to be won. The war created rifts between America and such traditional allies as France and Germany and engendered strong opposition from Russia, as well as many Middle Eastern, Arab, and Islamic countries. Overcoming these rifts will require effective intercultural communication and international public relations.

In this article, I focus on the challenges and opportunities for international public relations practice. The article begins with a brief look at current US-Arab relations as background for understanding the public relations issues in international crisis communication. It then discusses those issues, especially the role of culture and the media. Finally, the article proposes strategies, including a case study, that teachers can use to help students become effective businesspersons and communicators in an intercultural and international framework.

International Crisis Communication:

The US and Arab Connection

The crises of September 11 and the war in Iraq have led Americans, appropriately enough, to seek more information on radical Islam and Muslims. Classes on Middle East policy, politics, and culture are in demand. Experts on Islam and Muslim countries have become highly sought after in the popular media. Americans have been introduced to the A1-Jazeera Television network, a Qatar-based satellite television station, which has broadcast exclusive videotaped statements from Osama Bin Laden and provided extensive coverage of the Iraq war from a Middle Eastern perspective.

US Government Public Relations Efforts

While the AI-Jazeera broadcast of Bin Laden's statements, as well as gruesome images of dead coalition soldiers and Iraqis was, in some media analysts' terms, inflammatory and uncorroborated, the US government did not immediately counter the allegations through the same channel. The Al-Jazeera broadcasts fueled anti-Americanism even among countries the US considered allies. Subsequent appearances on A1-Jazeera by top US State Department officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, did not assuage their critics.

The hiring of Charlotte Beers as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs also had little effect. A former chief of Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson, two of the top advertising agencies, Beers was better known for a successful image campaign for IBM in the face of competition and dwindling sales. As a marketing expert, Beers aimed to sell a more positive US image in the Arab world (Starr, 2001).

Shortly after her appointment as America's "image czar," Beers recognized the need to define and communicate the American position through an appropriate spokesperson and media. Beers designated Christopher Ross, former US Ambassador to Algeria and Syria, and an Arabic speaker, to appear on Al-Jazeera to counter allegations by Osama bin Laden (Starr, 2001).

Beers also developed an integrated marketing approach to restructure America's image abroad. The campaign included booklets, brochures, dialogue with Muslim Americans, and "Shared Values," a television advertising campaign aimed at Muslim and Arab countries. However, in January 2003, the government suspended the television ad campaign because it failed to reach its goal. …