Trylon Communications  - October 2003

Winning the Battle, Losing the War?

While the U.S. has demonstrated superior military might in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war of public opinion in the Middle East remains in doubt. This is a public relations challenge of the highest magnitude.

A 13-member group of former diplomats, public policy experts and academics recently returned from the area and declared that we are losing the “information war” in Iraq. The study, chaired by former diplomat Edward P. Djerejian and titled "Changing Minds, Winning Peace", stated that despite many new media outlets appearing in the country, including newspapers, radio and television, the public is not getting the U.S. side of the story. Instead of being seen as a liberator, many people in the area see the U.S. as a conqueror and occupier.

Fueled by a lack of information, the Muslim and Arab populations in the region are seriously distressed by U.S. actions in the area and anti-American sentiment is running high, according to the group.

A key contributor to America’s poor media image in the region is a lack of funding for public relations. Of an estimated $150 million spent on public policy programs in the area, the majority has gone to exchange programs instead of outreach programs.

While a lack of funding has clearly hurt, the lack of a cohesive strategy is also an issue. This problem that may be addressed by creating a cabinet-level position – a “PR Czar” with White House muscle to temper foreign policy decisions with public relation implications.

Although improving the media relations effort can help, the commission pointed out that this is not a simple “spin” problem. Some foreign policies may need to change to improve relationships in this fragile region.

The fact that we are losing the PR war in the Middle East has been noted by Trylon Communications.  In a letter to the editor of Adweek published July 14 of this year, president Lloyd Trufelman pointed out the shortcomings of the State Department's first attempts get the U.S. message out via an advertising campaign.

The key to a successful campaign, reflecting the goals as outlined by the commission above, is to generate third-party credibility - something especially crucial when trying to reach people in different nations and cultures in their native voices.

Trufelman cited the U.S. Committee on Public Information used in World War I and the Office of War Information in World War II as working models of such a campaign.  Resurrecting the eviscerated U.S. Information Agency was a proposed starting point.