Business-Government PR Partnerships

The keynote speaker at the SU symposium was Keith Reinhard, founder and president of Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA).   This is an advertising professional with an impressive resume.  You can read about him at this link but you already know his work.  He wrote McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today” and “Two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun,” as well as State Farm’s long running theme, “Just Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There.”

Mr. Reinhard said that American business is uniquely placed to lead in burnishing the U.S. image abroad, pointing out that Coca-Cola alone has more than ten times as many employees as State Department.  He also made some good points about travel to the U.S.  It is hard to get visas; we don’t welcome tourist well when they get here and the U.S. does little in the way of travel promotion.   All these things are true. People have been complaining about visas and trying to improve the travel situation for many years. 

(IMO, the single best thing the USG could do to improve our image is improve how potential visitors are treated, from the minute they inquire about a trip to the U.S. until they put their foot back on their home soil. Most of the components of this are within the power of the USG, but this is a complex issue fraught with conflicting interests and priorities.  I won’t even try to address them in this space. Smarter people than I have tried.)

U.S. businesses are indeed very important in shaping the way the U.S. is seen abroad.  We have worked with businesses overseas and there are many venues for cooperation.  Business can help sponsor July 4 celebrations; they can be part of seminars and symposiums; business leaders often make great speakers at events. But cooperation can be oversold.  The notion that business will become involved in partnership with government to improve the U.S. image is one of those great ideas that seems always almost happening, but never quite arrives.

Business-government PR enterprises don’t go as smoothly in practice as they do in concept for some good reasons.  Most people employed by Coke, for example, are doing things like bottling or distributing the product.  This is similar for all businesses.  Businesses do business.  We cannot expect them to devote much of their time or money to helping the U.S. government do image building. They already pay taxes.  They create jobs and build prosperity.  That is their role.    

Getting too close to the U.S. government can be a problem for businesses.  Government’s embrace can be suffocating and dangerous for business and business connections can difficult for government.  

Let’s say it plainly.  If business and government form partnerships, they both hope to gain something from the joint enterprise.  Unless everybody thinks the relationship through, much of what they expect might give the impression of impropriety and sometimes might actually be unethical.

It can be too easy for particular local firms to become the “go to” places for U.S. officials.  Pretty soon it looks like the U.S. is endorsing or backing their products.  Even though nobody says so, foreigners might treat them differently because of this.   When working in Poland, I found that many people assumed that they could get better treatment for things like visas if they worked with firms somehow associated with the Consulate.   We would sometimes have to distance ourselves from a firm that was in fact actively implying such useful connections.

You can easily envision situations where closeness to the USG would be a negative.  Unfriendly foreign authorities might not be able to effectively harass our diplomats, but they can take out their frustrations on U.S. firms or their local employees.

There is also a little disagreement about how much the general image matters anyway.  The numbers seem soft and volatile.  IMO, any opinion that can change week-to-week based on external events is not firmly held or predictive of behavior.  Mr. Reinhart mentioned an article in the NYT that questioned the efficacy of a being ostensibly popular.  (He did not agree with most of it, BTW, and the extrapolations in this paragraph are mine, not his.)Things like cooperation with U.S. policies and sales of U.S. products seem unaffected by the vicissitudes of popularity.  I have come to believe that public diplomacy can be very effective in specific areas and subjects, but is less useful with the general. In fact, I think that the general questions re favorability or approval of the U.S. are almost useless, especially when done across cultures that have a variety of ways of answering questions and interacting with researchers.

All things considered, I think the best things American business can do to improve America’s image is to make quality products, lead their businesses ethnically and respect local laws, culture & customs.  We can cooperate where appropriate, and we do all the time, but business is not going to become some kind of PD auxiliary and neither business nor government should want it to. 

I know that I am giving a negative accounting.   Let me mitigate that a little.  We already have succeeded.  USG cooperation with U.S. businesses is brilliant.  I know that from personal experience. I have worked with American firms since my first post in the FS.  They sponsor many of our events and in the process build their own images and get exposure for their products.  U.S. businesses participate in our symposiums and share their experience.   We all benefit. Of course, American businesses directly sponsor exchanges, investments, technology transfers and all tolled they certainly make a much greater impression on the world than our comparatively underfunded and understaffed efforts.  They do these things for good business reasons.   

Cooperation is good and where it makes sense it has been going on since before the founding of our Republic.  Ben Franklin, our first diplomat, combined representation of government with business. John Adams was less successful as a diplomat because he couldn’t really grasp the interconnections.  Read any of their biographies and you will be struck at how similar things were so long ago.  We have been doing it.  I just don’t see how business-government cooperation can be significantly expanded in the PR area.  We in government would have to ask ourselves what business hoped to get from the expanded partnership (i.e. influence).   Business leaders would have to ask what government wanted (i.e. money). And if all of us were thoughtful and honest the answers might make us rightfully cautious in pushing too hard for more. Some things you shouldn’t do, even though you can and some separate things should not be too intimately mixed.

BTW – that is not Mr. Reinhard in the picture at top.  I just got a nice angle on the podium to show both the room and the nice day outside.  The middle picture shows some of the building on the SU campus. On the bottom is an interesting arch along the Erie Canal route.