Under Secretary Charlotte Beers
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TERENCE SMITH: Are you trying to change the image and impression of the United States and, if so, among whom and to what end?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: We don’t view it as an image change because the connotation of image is difficult to measure and evaluate.
What we are interested in doing is creating dialogue where there’s been silence, and we are very interested in changing misperceptions. So I’d like to be more specific than say image change.
The audiences that we focused on now, and we have special funds allocated for this in the war on terrorism, would be focused on the Muslim-majority countries, where the misperceptions are very extreme.
TERENCE SMITH: Could you characterize it?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, the ones that I’ve been particularly interested in, in a specific aspect — there’s a great belief that the United States is really anti-Islam, and even though we’ve all heard about it, and we’ve seen improvements; for instance, when President Bush visits a mosque, it is really a sound heard around the world, but that doesn’t sustain us long enough to get into a good dialogue. So this percentage of people who believe this is still discouragingly high.
And the second thing that’s a cousin to this that is important, in terms of a diagnostic of data, is that there’s a great belief in Muslim countries that the whole lifestyle of our country and its way of being is decadent, faithless, and therefore not a proper environment for one who wants to practice their Islam religion. Those two things are counterpoints that we want to address.
TERENCE SMITH: So one of the vehicles that you have designed and produced is this television ad that I have seen. What are you trying to accomplish with that ad?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, the ultimate discipline in having someone hear you — as opposed to talking at them — is to talk in terms that are relevant to them.
That’s a discipline all marketing people had to follow for years anyway, but it’s an unusual one in the State Department because often in the first charter, in forming, we’re talking, we’re telling, we’re the ones with the words and the message, and we do that clearly, accurately and swiftly, so there are no apologies there. That’s a very important communication. But the second aspect to influence and teach people about the values and beliefs of the United States requires making it relevant to them, so it’s not what you say or what you want to say, it’s what they can hear.
And one of the stories that’s very impressive in the United States, which happens to fit right into these plans, is that the Muslim families in this country are thriving. They have an exceptional growth rate. They have the most beautiful mosques. They have their own schools, as they like. They live a very typical American life, but very promising.
So the question becomes: if you could put real people on camera, talking about their lives, wouldn’t that open a dialogue, a door? And so that’s why I don’t call them ads, you know. They’re really documentaries, and the reason we paid for the media is to make sure that we talked to as many people as possible.
Now, this is significant because in the State Department, we haven’t had the means, nor maybe the inclination, to take our story, our messages to mainstream people, and I, personally, am convinced we must be about this. When you read about the degree and depth of misperception, you can’t just stay with the elites and the government officials.
TERENCE SMITH: What success have you had getting this ad or documentary on television systems that are, by and large, state-run?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, in many countries we have purchased the media with the agreement of the government — in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in Pakistan.
We have done television, and newspaper and radio. We have significant frequency, as we would call it in the advertising world. We have got very high awareness of this message. So point one was accomplished.
We also bought pan-Arab television and pan-Arab newspapers so that we could cross over the countries of Egypt, and Kuwait, and Lebanon, and so on. So I would say that, point one, clear awareness and high frequency, during Ramadan, which is a high-television viewing period and use of newspaper and radio.
What we’re just learning about what we have accomplished is interesting. The elites and the government officials were skeptical or sometimes felt that we were talking about something that, to them, is very obvious: that American Muslims thrive, and they do well, and they pray without any conflicts and so on.
What we need to teach them in their own countries is that their people don’t believe this. Now the test is: what did people hear and what did they learn from it?
And we just got back our first research in from the “man on the street” interviews in Indonesia, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better response because in almost every interview they said that they didn’t realize that people like them could live in such a way, as they obviously do in the United States.
They were a little dubious about who’s sending them this message, a little skeptical, but basically they’re relieved and pleased to see that some of the things they heard are just stereotyping or disproportionate.
Now, you could argue this might be the most favorable country, so we’ll have to see how we do in the other countries.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. I was told that the only places that you were able to run this video, get it on the television widely seen by most of the population, was the three countries that you mentioned, plus Kuwait.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And is that it so far?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, the pan-Arab television has pretty deep penetration in all of the other Middle East countries, so I feel like we covered them all well.
TERENCE SMITH: Forgive me, but is that the formal name of the television, the “pan-Arab television”?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: No, they’re MBC, and Lebanon Television, and a couple more on the schedule…
TERENCE SMITH: The governments, though, have — or many of them, including some very much allied with the United States — have so far declined to run them on their television?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, we didn’t ask in countries where we thought that there would be a problem or where our own bureau recommended that we not seek approval to run them because we felt we did have good coverage through these other satellite channels.
But, for instance, I expect that we will be taking the whole “Shared Values Initiatives” [public diplomacy campaign] into Morocco, and I think that, in some of these embassies, what’s interesting is we’re getting extended reach by other people coming in and ask if they can run them, and, and the affiliated coverage all around the country itself.
So almost every one of the countries in the Middle East has their own national coverage, but they also have great influence by the satellite coverage that comes across the pan-Arab countries. That’s been a great advantage for us because we easily moved into those.
And what’s interesting is that we have much more extended reach in some of the cities, the countries in Europe and other places around the world are now asking for use of this.
In fact, the most successful part of the program has really been this magazine, called Muslim Life in America. It’s turned out to be a best- seller at the book sales in Casablanca where there’s this huge book show. It’s become the most popular piece to be distributed. So I think we’ve tapped into a great interest in how people like me are living in the United States. That’s just the beginning of what will be a much larger program.
TERENCE SMITH: Take a country like Egypt, a large, powerful, central, influential Arab country, allied in many respects with the United States and the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S., but they won’t run it on their television. Why?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, in fact, they haven’t said, no, officially, and what we have agreed to do together, which I think is very promising, is that there is a story untold in Egypt about how much aid and mutual partnerships we’ve already built in helping that country, and we’ve gotten agreement to produce those stories, and they did run during Ramadan.
There’s a story of money from the American people in building a mosque; there’s a story about the water being made safe; and the most recent one, which I just looked at this morning, is a story of the money we funded in small business enterprises, and these are like test cases for exactly what Secretary Powell announced this week in terms of the Middle East Partnership Initiative.
So I think that there’s more than one way to communicate the interests of the American people to the relevant audience.
TERENCE SMITH: But while they may not have said, no, officially, they certainly haven’t said yes. I’m just wondering why. What seems to be the resistance or what explanations are given?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, I’m not so sure that I can quote any one government, but if there has been a reluctance, it’s probably based on the point that they consider it propaganda from the government, and that line of propaganda all the way down to mutually interested information is one we’ll continue to push against.
My point of view would be that this is a real person telling their story in their own words, which is as close as you can get to visiting with them, but here’s something I’m looking forward to. We’re sending these people to the region, and they’re going to be available for people’s questions and answers, and even those countries which didn’t have it on their national channel in their country will get these speakers, and they will be covered by the local press, and they’ve become stars because they have such high coverage and awareness.
I think it’s very impressive, that these American Muslims are willing to go to the countries and talk about their life, and that’s part of the extending events and coverage, and I hope conferences and seminars will follow out of that as well.
TERENCE SMITH: One critic we talked to said the notion is flawed because, he argued, the idea of what we would call advertisements or information in video like that is immediately discounted and suspect by an Arab audience because it’s state funded, and therefore, in their mind, propaganda.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, it’s a very good point. We’ve been very concerned about authenticity, and the reason we went to a partnership with a group called The Council on American Muslims is because not only will they help us make the right decisions, and they picked people, and they had a lot to do with what was put on and made available, but they will then take up the momentum, in terms of the dialogue.
They’re eager to do it. They come from very diverse backgrounds, and they’re the ones who are managing the Web site called Open Dialogue, and the response in the Web site is fascinating. People have been encouraged to send in their comments and their thoughts, and I think their role, to a large extent, will help people accept the fact that these are real stories coming from real people.
TERENCE SMITH: You also have, and the State Department I think has had actually for years, a very ambitious speakers program, in which people go abroad, and they go to the Muslim world as well and try to talk about American life. I have read criticisms of that program by Robert Satloff in op-ed page pieces and others who say we’re sending, in effect, the wrong messengers with the wrong message.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, we’re guided usually by the speakers programs, in terms of what the embassy has assessed on the ground there that would be needed, and so to some extent, it moves like that. These speakers that we’re sending over are part of a direct communications plan to talk about these peoples and this issue. So I don’t agree with them at all.
The other thing that some of the critics talk about is that religious tolerance is a soft subject. I can’t think of anything less soft than religious tolerance, and I think it’s very much in the charter of the U.S. government to discuss religious tolerance with the peoples that we’re bringing this message to.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Satloff, of course, argues that some of the individuals, and he names them, have been critical of the United States or of U.S. policies in Web sites, writings or speeches of their own. In other words, he’s saying we’re sending people abroad who are actually quite critical of the U.S.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, there’s a thin line here between ‘someone you believe’ and ‘someone that might be just perfectly in tune with the government.’
I know that when I spoke to Egyptian journalists off the record, they said, “She speaks just like President Bush,” and I said, “Yes, I do.”
But what we need to do is walk that line between someone who has their own opinions, we tolerate great diversity of opinion in our country, and that’s one way of demonstrating it.
We would never deliberately send someone out who was antagonizing some of the major goals of the U.S. Government, and any time we get a criticism like that, we need to go back and look at our speaker list and see if we’ve got the best and the most persuasive people on hand.
TERENCE SMITH: Another big effort, Radio Sawa.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: I’ve talked to Norman Pattiz about it on camera, and we’ll include his comments in it, but I wonder what you think of it as an effort that, of course, is still evolving and still developing, and what you think it’s accomplished so far.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, I sit on the board of the [Broadcasting Board of Governors] as Secretary Powell’s representative, so I’ve been participating in terms of supporting Radio Sawa’s launch.
I think it’s particularly admirable that this group of people started this project two or three years ago, and it took that long to move it through the process. So just when we just most need it, it is available, and it is building rapidly an audience that’s very impressive.
Now they’re in that test-out stage, and they seem, to me, to be making very impressive progress of putting the meat in with the charm and the entertainment aspect, but this discipline of having to be entertaining and relevant is one I’m accustomed to myself. And now, once we get these audiences which are bumped up as high in some places of 50 or 60 percent of the target market, then we can begin to talk about many things.
I think Radio Sawa is moving swiftly to broaden the news, have interaction, have questions handled. So I’m very grateful that we have a distribution channel like that that’s mainstream because one of our frustrations is that we can’t readily meet the mainstream as much as we need to. There’s an information revolution going on all around us, and it’s not just happening in the government halls.
TERENCE SMITH: I talked to two Arab-American professors who have traveled in the Gulf, Jordan and Egypt recently, and they said, yes, Radio Sawa is being listened to. It is quite popular among younger Arab listeners for its music, but they dismiss the news because, again, they see it as propaganda.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: I don’t think human beings are so able to compartmentalize their way of receiving information. For instance, you referred to the fact that some of the people who see these Muslim life in America stories will be cynical about who brought them. They’re still hearing the story. It still raises a question. It has a moment of communication and connection that’s very valuable.
I think the same thing is true of Radio Sawa. No doubt, there are some people listening to that who are just charmed by the music, but if you get the news, and it’s honest, and it’s straightforward, it’s still the truth, and in many cases, we haven’t had the truth going into those homes. I think that makes it powerful.
TERENCE SMITH: You used an interesting phrase there. You said “when people see it or hear it,” thinking, again, about the ads and running them –
CHARLOTTE BEERS: The initiatives. They’re not ads.
TERENCE SMITH: How many people have seen them?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: The reach of this program is really astonishing. I would say our estimate is over 400 million.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it the entire audience?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Yeah. Well, you have to estimate what the audience is of the various television channels, the newspaper, in the radio, and then you estimate how often — and most of the people have seen these messages ten times in the period of Ramadan, and every single person we’ve interviewed so far was deeply aware of them, could recite the individual what they heard, what they saw, what the young Indonesian girl did, what kind of work she did.
So we verified that we have what we would call very deep awareness, and that comes from that kind of schedule. You could never get that in a traditional embassy program.
TERENCE SMITH: The 400 million refers to the potential audience, say, between Indonesia and Morocco… Is that what that number represents?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: That number refers to Malaysia, Indonesia, some numbers from Pakistan, Kuwait and pan-Arab. So it could be 450 million to 500 million, for example.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. But what I’m asking is of that audience.. How do you have a ballpark figure for the number who have seen this video?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: The only way I can measure that for you or otherwise I’d spent as much money measuring it as we did running it, is, is to take these samplings country-by-country, and we’ve just come out of a sampling of Indonesia, and every single person we interviewed was not only aware of it, but could repeat the message. So that’s a very high penetration of awareness.
Now we’ll see how it works in the other countries. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country, and so that was a very tough test, and, also, I don’t know what kind of penetration we got in more rural communities. I wouldn’t be able to tell you that, and it’s a good question.
TERENCE SMITH: You suggested yourself earlier that the Arab countries may be a tougher market, a tougher sell.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: They’re going to be tougher because they come in with more cynicism. I think much more dangerous than trying this, and evaluating it, and giving it to our own team as something else to study, learn and move on with is silence. That’s much more dangerous.
TERENCE SMITH: But is there any way, and this is the last time I’ll ask this, is there any way to calculate, from the surveys that you have and the estimates you may have, as to how many people have seen it in a rough number?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: I’m going to estimate this because I don’t know that number, and I think what we should do, since this is an important question for you, but it has to be over half the people who have a satellite or are receiving television in the home.
TERENCE SMITH: Right, and that, of course, right away separates — into two audiences.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: It does.
TERENCE SMITH: Because that tends to be the more affluent people.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, that’s why the rural communities — well, the penetration of pan-Arab television in the Arab world is very extensive, and so if we bought a spot on MBC, for instance, a two-minute documentary, then we can tell you what percent of the population we went into.
And, for instance, those would have gone into in the homes in Egypt about 30 or 40 percent of the people in that country because the satellite penetration there is very good, but it’s not as true in other countries.
In some cases, these numbers aren’t as easy to rank because we don’t have the data that we have so readily in the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. The reason I’m pressing you on this is, is that the critics we’ve talked to, including some on camera, have said, ‘it’s not being seen. It’s simply not appearing. It’s not being run by the state-run televisions, and they are the bulk of the audience and what most of them watch, and therefore it doesn’t matter whether it’s any good or not, it’s not being seen.’
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Actually, that couldn’t be less true. I mean, we have very hard data that Indonesia is deeply aware and has high awareness. Now that’s the only place I’ve gotten the study results from, so I can’t speak for the others yet, and there is no question that in a country like Lebanon we’re probably talking to 30 percent of the population, as opposed to a larger number if we had a local television system, but–
TERENCE SMITH: And in Egypt you would –
CHARLOTTE BEERS: And in Egypt, I think, I think we would probably, because of the newspaper that’s run and the radio, and then the pan-Arab television that comes into there, I think we have to be talking to 30 percent of the population as well. That’s still about — many more people than we normally have a conversation with.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s the budget of all of this? What are we spending on these efforts that you’re just now describing?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: We have a certain amount of money that Congress allotted us for these efforts — basically, under the heading of “War on Terrorism.”
We’ve spent about $8 million to this point, which includes media time, the development of the materials and substantial events that surround the television, and newspaper and radio. Those would be things like a digital video conference with some of the Council on American Muslim People and the people in the countries.
There are going to be many more follow-up events, when we send speakers over, and we organize meetings, and then Muslim life in America is part of that budget, and that’s a 30-page magazine that we put out, and we’ve made available in very many languages, and now we’re getting requests from that in countries all over the world.
So that’s a lot to get done for $8 million.
TERENCE SMITH: Eight million spent so far out of a budget of –
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Fifteen.
TERENCE SMITH: Fifteen million?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Yes, and we’ll probably spend some more of that money as we go forward into countries that will be taking the schedule later, not necessarily tied to Ramadan.
TERENCE SMITH: How do you measure success of this? It’s so hard, first of all, to even measure attitude and opinion. How do you do that?
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, it’s an important question how do we measure it. We have back these smaller samples of people in-country who are telling us what they saw and what they felt about it, and those become a lighted path for what we might choose to do next. So they’re diagnostic, they’re more in-depth, but they’re very essential.
We will also learn what kind of awareness we got in a general way, country-by-country, but I think that our overall goal is to create dialogue, and so we will measure this a year from now by what we can read as the consequences of opening up these doors.
For example, when a person sends a note in to the Open Dialogue Web site, the Council of American Muslims for Understanding people will then create a kind of a dialogue with them. That won’t be on our initiative, but we’ll be able to ask them how it’s going. When they arrange a seminar, a conference, a follow-up meeting, the distribution of the booklet, then we’ll find out what kind of extended reach we had.
But in the overall, I think we just have to measure it in terms of have we improved the dialogue, have we started one, and have we approved the communication ability between us?
TERENCE SMITH: The comment I hear again and again is, well, actually, these countries and these peoples are not anti-American, they’re anti-American policy on specific issues, notably the Israel-Palestinian issue and until that changes, you can’t change attitudes.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: Well, fortunately, we don’t feel that way or we would have a great deal of silence in what is the middle of a huge information revolution. It’s not that we diminish the importance of policy. Every person in the embassy, and every day of Secretary Powell’s life is about communicating clearly the policy, as is the case for many officials in the U.S. Government, but we really do have to have conversations with people beyond the policy itself and I completely disagree with people that the number one issue is the Israeli-Palestinian issue, though it is crucial.
And the reason for that is several studies we’ve had back [say] “What are the main concerns in your life?” And foreign policy ends up eight or nine. It’s not surprising. It’s intuitively obvious, but we communicate on many levels.
If we weren’t talking policy to the elite in the governments, we would be missing our first charter, but if we don’t understand that people are concerned about their family, their health, and their faith, we would be missing an opportunity to have conversations on that level.
The Middle East Partnership Initiative is about recognizing that these things are important. In fact, in the Pew study it talks about what is the number one concern all over the world, and it’s not foreign policy, even though foreign policy is a very crucial factor, it is, in fact, the economy, and their role in it, and their ability to earn a living.
TERENCE SMITH: But that same Pew study shows a rising tide of very critical attitudes towards the United States in most of the 44 countries that he surveyed.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: That’s absolutely true. I mean, that study, and I’m glad to have these studies because they deal not just with the narrow upper echelon of the countries, but mainstream. We’re doing more of that kind of work ourselves. They’re not diagnostic in the sense that they just tell you what the problem is. They don’t tell you how to solve it.
But, clearly, a number of the issues have to do with the perception of the United States as unilateral, and it’s interesting how quick countries are to say that we don’t consider their country when we’re making our policies, and if you ask them the reverse, they’d have to agree that they often need the freedom to develop their policies and then present them to the world.
But some of this comes with a halo of being a superpower. That’s not to dismiss it; that’s just to recognize that those are some of the underlying reasons.
TERENCE SMITH: So you would argue that even with the policies being what they are, since they are not going to change, there’s progress that can be made in terms of people’s attitude.
CHARLOTTE BEERS: We’re betting every day on that. Every exchange we do in this country that has been managed for years in such a successful way, we’ve just had a group of Afghan women here who witnessed the election, learned immense amounts and went back home to try to incorporate that.
We also had a group of Afghan women come in for teachers, and then we paired them with teachers. We had a group of women from the Baltic states who came here. Every single time we have a conversation like that, and we send them home enlightened and many times inspired, and we help them with programs that follow up.