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In the aftermath of September 11, there is no question that the United States faces a vicious and determined enemy. Unfortunately, the public relations industry is contributing mostly confusion to the campaign against terrorism.
On the one hand, PR firms have turned September 11 into an excuse to market ideas, causes and products that have nothing to do with stopping terrorism. Patriotism is being used to sell everything from automobiles to Star Wars and corporate tax breaks.
On the other hand, the label of terrorism is being liberally applied to environmentalists, public safety activists, civil libertarians and opponents of economic globalizations--to everyone, in short, who differs politically from the conservative social agenda of the Bush administration. The message seems to be, "If you are not with the Republicans, you are with the terrorists."
Perhaps worst of all, the PR consultants who are advising the White House in its "war on terrorism" seem determined to obscure rather than clarify the motives behind anti-Americanism, at a time when clarity has never been more important. Some of the Muslim world's grievances against the United States are legitimate, and others are not. None of those grievances justifies the crimes against humanity that were committed by Osama Bin Laden's terror network, but if we wish to prevent terrorists from finding new recruits, we need to understand all of the motives--legitimate and illegitimate alike--that drive people to hate the United States.
In October, Carl Weiser, a Washington correspondent for the Gannett News Service, asked PR and marketing executives what kind of campaign they would create to convince the Islamic world "that this nation is not the Great Satan, but good and generous." Rather than focus on significant issues of concern to Muslims, however, most of the responses focused on cosmetic concerns. One consultant thought American tourists need to behave more politely when traveling abroad. Jack Bergen, President of the Council of Public Relations Firms, suggested bringing journalists, editors and columnists from the Arab world to the United States so they could appreciate us better. According to Los Angeles consultant Rob Frankel, "This is a branding issue, plain and simple. ... Countries are no different than soap flakes or automobiles." In branding terms, he said, "we should be the gentle giant, not the menacing ogre. Or in corporate terms, we should be Federal Express, not Microsoft."
These ideas are not just shallow and superficial. They are wrong. They do not even begin to address the serious issues that have driven a wedge between the United States and Muslims throughout the world. As the New York Times observed in October, "Thousands of words from American officials