Hughes must learn art of cross-cultural communication
October 14, 2005
One of Mark Twain’s most popular books was “Innocents Abroad” in which naive American tourists behaved badly in the great capitals of Europe. President Bush’s new public diplomacy czar, Karen Hughes, should be able to relate to Twain’s book following her recent ill-fated “listening tour” of the strife-torn Middle East.
Ms. Hughes, one of the president’s closest friends and advisers, seemed to be out of her depth as she visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey earlier this month seeking to improve relations between the United States and those Islamic nations. Her lack of international experience showed as she repeatedly tried to connect with Muslim women by describing herself as “a working mom” and pushing for women’s rights. But her reviews were uniformly negative from media friends and enemies alike.
The Arab News, the Middle East’s leading English-language daily, said she was “painfully clueless, pedestrian, vapid and gushy” while the Los Angeles Times criticized her “non-answers” to questions and “canned messages.” The right-wing Washington Times blasted her for “saying too much (and) saying the wrong thing,” and the conservative Weekly Standard, in an article titled “Karen of Arabia,” opined that “her unshakable discipline in sticking to the script has a mind-numbing effect when you watch her through several events a day.” Ouch!
As President Bush’s leading message maven, Ms. Hughes crafted highly successful political messages that resounded favorably with voters in Bush’s campaigns for governor of Texas and the presidency. But, as she learned in the Middle East, U.S. election campaign rhetoric doesn’t necessarily capture the hearts and minds of foreign audiences. Any of my former U.S. Information Agency (USIA) colleagues – public diplomacy specialists now exiled to the State Department’s basement – could have told her that (and probably did) but apparently, she wasn’t listening.
A former senior USIA officer, John Brown, now with the USC Public Diplomacy Center, who visited UNR last week, called Ms. Hughes “a failed public diplomat,” observing that “her foray into a volatile region turned into a near feeding frenzy directed at her by the western press despite State’s best efforts to win over the press.” That’s because the trip was all about her instead of about our misguided Middle East policies, which are the cause of the current public diplomacy debacle in the region. As I’ve said before, our PR is only as good (or as bad) as our policies.
Jonathan Karl of the Weekly Standard, one of 16 American reporters who accompanied Ms. Hughes on her first overseas adventure, was irked by her constant references to herself as a “working mom” – so much so that he dubbed her efforts “I-Mom” (sounds like imam) diplomacy. “I go as an official of the U.S. government, but I’m also a mom, a working mom,” she told reporters on the flight from Washington, D.C., to Cairo. “You’ve heard my title (undersecretary of State for public diplomacy), but that’s the fancy stuff. I am really a mom,” she said in a talk to Egyptian college students. And to NBC News: “My most important job is mom.” You get the idea.
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Karl wrote that Ms. Hughes’ I-Mom diplomacy “left some people a bit mystified.” At a women’s college event in Saudi Arabia, he noted, “two things became clear: (1) the students didn’t find Karen Hughes’ status as a mom particularly relevant and (2) they resented being portrayed as victims.” In other words, Ms. Hughes offered a short course in how not to conduct public diplomacy. Because she neither speaks the languages of the countries she visited, nor does she understand their histories and cultures, she tried the old “I’m just like you” approach, and it didn’t work.
She’s not anything like the Middle Eastern women she spoke to because, among other things, she’s a highly paid government official whose best friend is the president of the United States. In fact, according to her federal financial disclosure forms, Ms. Hughes earned more than $2 million between January 2004, when she resigned as Counselor to the President, and last month when she went to work at State. Most of her “take” came from a $750,000 book advance and a series of speeches at $50,000 a pop. So no, she’s not “just like” you or me either.
I’m sorry to see Ms. Hughes get off to such a slow start because I firmly believe in public diplomacy – overseas information and cultural programs – after spending nearly 30 years in that business in seven different countries. Many cost-effective public diplomacy programs practically disappeared in 1999, however, when ex-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conspired to merge USIA into the sprawling State Department during the Clinton administration. So now that we need to “tell America’s story to the world” (USIA’s motto) more clearly than ever, the agency no longer exists and public diplomacy professionals are mostly invisible and underutilized inside State’s huge bureaucracy.
A 2003 report by the nonpartisan Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission noted that staffing for public diplomacy programs dropped 35 percent and funding, adjusted for inflation, fell by more than 25 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. I lived through that period when technology buffs were assuring us that experienced diplomats could be replaced by computerized kiosks in key cities throughout the world. That wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. As USIA’s best-known director, Edward R. Murrow, once said, “The really crucial link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact – one person talking to another.” But although Ms. Hughes is already talking to foreign audiences, she hasn’t yet learned the delicate art of cross-cultural communications. For the good of our country, I hope she’s up to the challenge.
– Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, spent 28 years as a public diplomacy practitioner with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), now part of the State Department.
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