Americans are uniquely obsessed with our good name the world over. After all, we invented the persuasion industries from advertising to public relations and no other country has a more recognized image, good and bad, across the planet.
This makes it all the more puzzling why the position of chief public diplomat is still vacant over halfway through the new president's first hundred days. The Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is the highest profile nation image position outside the Secretary of State and President. Sh/e is tasked with carrying out U.S. efforts to understand, influence and engage with global publics. Perhaps the former dueling Democratic presidential candidates Clinton and Obama are choosing to share the Brand America load for now, but those of us who watch the news ticklers on public diplomacy are waiting and wondering who the next chief of PD will be.
The word on the American street is that it will be Judith McHale, former President and CEO of Discovery Communications, Inc., and a close FOH (friend of Hillary). An online biography http://www.shemadeit.org/meet/biography.aspx?m=107 emphasizes her rise to the top as one of the most prominent female television executives in managing global media brands:
Judith McHale oversaw the worldwide expansion of the Discovery brand and image to 1.4 billion subscribers in more than 170 countries and territories. This unqualified success followed her years at the early days of MTV Networks, where she oversaw all legal aspects of their early brands and earned a reputation as a savvy dealmaker.
James Glassman departed in mid-January after 225 days in office. Karen Hughes departed for Austin, Texas in December 2007. We probably can't even recall Margaret Tutwiler's six months in office before her leap to the corporate sector. Last I checked she was head of communications for Merrill Lynch & Co.
The most famous brand champion was the much-ballyhooed Charlotte Beers. An advertising legend on Madison Avenue, Beers gave a prominent face to the public diplomacy sector. She called America a most elegant brand and tried mightily to reposition Brand America as a peace-loving nation that had no gripe with the religion of Islam or Muslims in general, just radical Islamists who attack America or its interests abroad. Her Shared Values advert campaign (now available on YouTube) broadcast how well Muslim Americans were treated in the United States. Shared Values was rolled out during Ramadan 2002 and just months before the U.S. invaded its second Muslim country in an 18-month period. Not good timing, to say the least.
This past Sunday, President Obama finished his latest TV appearance (is a talk show next?) in which he had this interesting tête-à-tête with Steve Kroft, his favorite go-to guy from 60 Minutes, now known as 44 Minutes with the American president and Andy Rooney. Watch it now: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4883166n
KROFT: A week ago Vice President Cheney said essentially that your willingness to shut down Guantanamo and to change the way prisoners are treated and interrogated was making America weaker and more vulnerable to another attack. And that the interrogation techniques that were used at Guantanamo were essential in preventing another attack against the United States.
OBAMA: I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests. I think he's drawing the wrong lesson from history. The facts don't bear him out. I think that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world.
In that last sentence the President is stating the obvious about America's standing in the world. Our image is damaged, our standing in the world is lower, and Obama's historic win isn't the magic pill to make all things better overseas. Just yesterday the EU president called Obama's spending frenzy plan to restore the U.S. economy a "way to hell."
We still have no Ministry of American Culture, no Public Diplomacy Chief Executive Officer, and no BBC-equivalent global broadcasting brand, only Dick Cheney to keep chirping about the 'good ole days' and how unsafe we are with a new administration.
That's one American image I'd like to live without.