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Would Wage Battle for Islam's Hearts and Minds, Says Charlotte Beers

By Published on .

WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Longtime ad executive Charlotte Beers, the State Department's chief of public diplomacy, is weighing an unconventional strategy to get the U.S. message across in Afghanistan: ads.

Faced with "a battle for the mind" and the need to tell moderate Muslims that the U.S. isn't fighting Islam, Ms. Beers said the State Department is investigating new ways to reach out. Among the possibilities: advertising on Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera, Osama bin Laden's favored broadcast venue.

"I will choose any channel of distribution, any format that will get the job done," said Ms. Beers, the former chairman of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Co., who three weeks ago was confirmed as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. "This is probably what I bring to the party. I have seen how such messages and such formats work."

'Battle for the mind'
Terrorism, Ms. Beers said, "is a battle for the mind. & The role of public diplomacy is undergoing major reassessment. However one might interpret it, [public diplomacy] is a vital new arm in what will combat terrorism over time. All of a sudden, we are in this position of redefining who America is, not only for ourselves under this kind of attack, but also for the outside world."

Ms. Beers plans to put together an advisory council of Arab and Muslim leaders to help craft what the U.S. should communicate in foreign countries. Among the points to advocate: The U.S. is not opposed to Islam; Mr. bin Laden and his followers misstate the Koran and what Muslim religion says; the U.S. is working to provide humanitarian aid.

Speeches, media interviews, advertising and a more direct approach -- building radio stations to beam programs toward target populations -- are among options Ms. Beers is investigating. The State Department has made no final decision whether to use ads.

Buying time on Al Jazeera
"The [immediate] problem is getting the message articulated and understood," Ms. Beers said. "Then I will worry about channels of distribution. I know how to do that. It may be imperfect. It's not like I can call up a channel and run it. But if I have to buy time on [satellite-TV broadcaster] Al Jazeera, I would certainly consider it."

The network drew attention last week when Mr. bin Laden, the terrorist leader, used it to release his statements after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.

Ms. Beers' job puts her in charge of both the State Department's public affairs side, which handles messages aimed at a U.S. audience, and the public diplomacy section, aimed at a foreign audience.

Ms. Beers, who was nominated last spring, originally expected to have six months to a year to develop a plan to expand the State Department's target audience from government leaders and opinion makers abroad to a broader population. Now she has to do that same job immediately and instantly and under challenge as terrorist leaders try to give their own view of America.

Ms. Beers said fighting this attack is especially complex because it puts the U.S. government in a position of discussing much more than policy differences.

'Dialogue of great emotional context'
"We are talking about religion with all its connotations and emotional aspects. If you think about the dialogue that the State Department [normally uses] and the government itself speaks to, [here] we are forced into a dialogue of great emotional context & where people discuss their religion, aspects of purity, [and] they accuse us of goals and beliefs that we haven't even heard of in our lifetime."

The message the U.S. needs to deliver, most of it through conventional channels of American foreign service officials delivering speeches and media interviews, is about who the U.S. is and what it stands for, she said.

"We have got to be able to get our messages in their context & messages about who we are, what we believe in, where we stand and basic information messages about what the president said, what the policies are and how the U.S. is running an immense aid program at the same time it is trying to target the Taliban and its supporting organization.

"In addition to what our policies are, what we haven't felt the need to communicate is what is the value system," Ms. Beers said. "What are our beliefs? What do the words freedom and tolerance mean? We are having people who are not our friends define America in negative terms. It is time for us to reignite the understanding of America."

Ms. Beers said the communications challenges are made harder by cutbacks at the State Department over the past few years. She said the department will need additional resources.

Ms. Beers is working with the Ad Council to develop public-service spots that could run in the U.S. She said she hasn't yet worked out an agenda with the council but has some ideas. She declined to detail them just yet.

"We will need to refresh the public's participation in a long campaign," Ms. Beers said, "to understand terrorism and to debunk the mythology that surrounds it and to make the American people understand and be vigilant about what is almost an invisible enemy."

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