Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Snatching PR Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: The Bush administration and the public diplomacy office headed by the president’s close friend and adviser Karen Hughes have not gotten a lot right in public relations terms, but the comments of director of public diplomacy Alberto Fernandez during an interview with Arab news channel Al-Jazeera over the weekend looked as though they might finally have earned the U.S. some much needed and long overdue credibility in the region.

Said Fernandez: “We tried to do our best [in Iraq], but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq. If we are witnessing failure in Iraq, it's not the failure of the United States alone. Failure would be a disaster for the region.”

Yes, I know Fernandez was only speaking the truth—and a truth that is obvious to anyone who has paid even passing attention to recent events—but it was refreshing to hear such candor from a high-placed official, and for a moment there it looked as though the U.S. public diplomacy effort might actually be embracing the concept of honest communication.

Yes, there was some predictable criticism from right-wing groups in the U.S., concerned about how these remarks might play in this country in the run up to the election. But Fernandez’s job is not to help the GOP in the midterms, it’s to improve the standing of the U.S. abroad, and there’s no question he did that. For Arabs used to patronizing platitudes, Fernandez’s words were a revelation, making the front pages of the regional media and, as the Christian Science Monitor observed, striking “the sort of tone that public policy experts say the US needs if it is to regain some of its credibility in Arab eyes.”

Determined to snatch public relations defeat from the jaws of a rare media victory, the Bush administration moved swiftly. Fernandez was forced to apologize.

A little context is provided by Arab media expert Marc Lynch, who says that reading a transcript of the interview “makes clear that the parts of Fernandez’s comments which have been quoted extensively are mostly a throat clearing preface to saying that Arabs need to move on and talk about Iraq’s future instead of ‘gloating’ over American problems. This is a way of establishing credibility and a reputation for candor with Arab audiences: two things that almost all American spokespeople who stick to the administration’s script lack.

“His humility treats those audiences with respect, rather than trying to force talking points crafted in Washington down the throats of skeptical listeners who live in the region and know better.”

Moreover, “Fernandez has conducted literally hundreds of interviews in Arabic with various Arab media outlets at a time when few American officials could be bothered or could perform effectively when they tried…. What made him effective was not just his fluent Arabic, but that he is willing to argue, to get angry, to make jokes—in short, to offer a real human face and not just a grim diplomat reading from a script.”

Clearly Fernandez has the instincts of a great public relations person. Too bad he’s working for an organization that views his ability as a liability.

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