Changing the Image of the “ugly American”: Interview with Keith Reinhard




It’s not just the world view of the American government that has slipped in the past few years; it’s the view of American citizens and businesses too. Keith Reinhard aims to find a business-oriented solution to the problem through his organization Business for Diplomatic Action. As the president of BDA Reinhard proposes raising the United States’ global standing by educating American citizens to be more culturally sensitive when they travel abroad and by building more partnerships between American and foreign businesses.



Changing the Image of the “ugly American”: Interview with Keith Reinhard
Among their accomplishments since their 2004 foundation, BDA has devised a “World Citizen’s Guide Program” to teach U.S. travelers cultural tips before leaving the country; developed private sector pilot exchange groups in both Germany and the Middle East; and engaged legislators in discussions to over visa policies that make travel more difficult for foreign business representatives. Reinhard, a former advertising executive who conceptualized campaigns for McDonalds and State Farm life insurance, sat down with Taqrir Washington to explain why businesses should take a proactive approach to changing America’s image abroad and outlined BDA’s five-point plan to do so.

How does Business for Diplomatic Action’s methods and principles differ from other public diplomacy efforts?

Reinhard

Well I’m not sure I know all the other public diplomacy efforts and all of their methods but I think what’s different about Business for Diplomatic Action, is that it is a business initiative. We are available to the government but we are not working with the government, so this is strictly a private sector initiative. We think in that way it’s different, and also it’s different because it is dedicated to action. This is not another think tank or another policy group. This is about finding the nature of the problem and then turning that into actions that might address and ameliorate the problem.

How did the image of the “ugly American”, which is now so prevalent, come to be such a strong one in the last several years?

Reinhard

As you know it has been building for a long time: it goes back a long time. Resentment against the United States has been building especially over the last few decades, since the fall of communism, when we emerged as the lone super power. And suddenly people didn’t have to be beholden to us because we were protecting them from the “Evil Empire”, or whatever Reagan called it. It started then to crescendo. That was exacerbated in some ways by the expansion of U.S. business and the globalization movement, which was American led and which was seen to leave some people out. They felt that we were being exploitative.

Also, I think the U.S. business community, in expanding globally, expressed some of the arrogance associated with our, you know “we are the big kid on the block and this is how we do business and therefore you should do business exactly this way.” Then fast forwarding to the Iraq war, which sort of ignited some of these blatant feelings. Right now you would say that the number one root cause of anti-American sentiment is disagreement with our foreign policy, but that exacerbated feelings of resentment about perceptions of our exploitation, and the “ugly American” became something to celebrate.

In Australia now if you want to say something is really stupid, you say “oh that is so American”, and so, it’s sort of a snowball effect, where these feelings, which have been beneath the surface, are now very much on the surface, and starting to approach the nature of prejudice. I mean when you get in a situation where there is prejudice then nothing you do, right or wrong can be right. I think, as you probably read, recently Prime Minister Howard from Australia set aside 19 million dollars from his own conservative budget to do something about the image of America within his own country. And Ruther Murdock said that he would add some money and bring it up to 50 million to help the image of America within Australia and in making that contribution he said it hasn’t yet reached the point of anti-Americanism in Europe. But it may. So it’s starting to become like anti-Semitism, like prejudice.


Can you talk in more detail about how you try to combat the perception that American business is exploitative, or the perception that American culture is ubiquitous?

Reinhard

Well we have a five part strategy. And the first part is to sensitize key American constituency to the fact that this is true. A lot of Americans either don’t know it, or they hear and deny it. Or they hear it and they say “who cares.” So through our website, through the media, we are trying to get this message to business and to universities and other key constituents. Our next effort in trying to get this into the public conscience will be to make sure that every presidential candidate for 2008 has to at least respond to our questions: What are you going to do about this fact that were losing friends around the world?

If current trends continue, we might not have friends who are willing to whisper in our ear that somebody’s trying to blow up our jetliners, and if that happens then… people will blow up our jetliners. So one of the things were doing is, I met with the business leaders of Des Moines, Iowa, two weeks ago and some students from the universities. And all the presidential candidates will come through that Iowa caucus, so we are going to intercept them and say- ok, Madam Candidate, Mr. Candidate, what are you going to do about this? And then we are working with the media to raise this in the public conscience so that if it gets on the national agenda, which it must, they can also get some votes.

The second thing is to try and transform those things about our policies, not foreign policy we can’t do that, but public policies such as visa procedures, the way we treat people when they come to this country on the boarder. We are organized as a private 1c6 and so we are able to advocate for change. So I’ve been appointed now to an 18 person committee by homeland security and the state department. This is the advisor committee on secure boarders and open doors. We are urging for Visa reform which makes so many people mad. It is seen again as a form of arrogance. Then when people finally get there Visa, the way they are treated by some of our customs and immigrations, so we hope to change that. Then the other thing that needs to be changed is the “ugly American”.

You know we make 60 million trips outside the United States every year, that’s 60 million opportunities to make a good impression, multiplied by the people we meet on those trips, or 60 million chances to make a bad impression. We asked people in 100 countries for 10 suggestions for Americans traveling abroad. Some said to stay home. (laughs). But then we got some good feedback. We promised to share their comments and we did and that turned into the little World Citizens Guide for the students, and that’s been successful and then we did one for business executives and just yesterday in Washington we had a test run of a one day intensive business crash course in public diplomacy for business executives. Then if we can get some money to do one for general travelers, we can maybe start to affect the behavior of people abroad. Now if business begins to behave in a very sensitive way, that will also have some ameliorating effect.

The third part of our strategy is to amplify things that people still like and admire about our country, and so far the best single way to do that is to bring people into the United States. If they can get past the bullies at our boarder they actually like us when they sample the product. And this is born up by research which shows tremendous differences in favorability ratings from people who have visited vs. people who have not visited. So we are working with the travel association to generate funds to invite people here. Travel is way down from outside the United States and yet the federal government… we still don’t have a ministry of tourism, and we are the only developed country that doesn’t. I think that’s another expression of our arrogance. “Well of course everyone wants to come here” and the federal government has allocated 4 million dollars this year vs. Australia’s 125 million to promote tourism to Australia. We ask people in 23 countries where they would most like to go if money were no object and it’s Australia. Guess what? Advertising works, you know.

So, and then the fourth is to build, and reach out to build bridges with key constituencies overseas and there we are concentrating on the Middle east and Exxon mobile and Pepsi gave us money to do research on 231 young Arabs and these were one on one interviews attempting to discern their hopes and dreams and aspirations. Turns out that 48% said they wanted careers in business. What’s the obstacle to their aspiration? Lack of training, education, skills. Where are they most likely to get these skills? U.S. companies. That provides an opportunity to open our doors for mentorships and internships. And again we’ve got the people from the Mooring, the business leaders and they will try a program with 10-15 young Arabs and they will try to integrate them into their businesses, which is primarily financial services, and also into their communities and see how that works and then we’ll expand from there. Were we work with young Arab leaders and have chapters in 10 Arab states.

Then the last part of our strategy is to serve as a private sector connection to the federal government. We have many, many things to do and there is no single thing that is going to solve this, but we think if we move aggressively on all five of these paths that we can have an effect. And, eventually by 2008, maybe influence policy.

How are you measuring your accomplishments? What feedback have you gotten on projects thus far?

Reinhard

The metrics are very difficult at this point. For example we know how many brochures we have distributed, we know how many companies: 800 are distributing our executive guide. We know how many schools: 300 have distributed our student’s guide. We know how many foreign media relations guides we have distributed. But what we are hoping to do now is, for example on the first strategy, the sensitize strategy, to get some funding for a research study that will be a baseline in the United States. How many people are aware of this problem? What do they think? And then we can measure by 2008 how much progress we’ve made on that. But metrics are a very important question and a good one and we need to figure how we will be able to say, you know, “how many young Arabs were we able to bring over?” But in terms of the actual impact on the image of America, we won’t be able to say we’ve succeeded until those [anti-Americanism] numbers stop going down, those approval ratings level off, or start going up again.

You have had a very accomplished career. How did you decide to get involved with trying to combat anti-Americanism?

Reinhard

Well when I was the CEO of DCB World Wide and now I am Chairman Emeritus, which I don’t know what that means, it’s Latin for “it’s over” I think, I don’t know… But as I was traveling around, we have offices in 99 countries and becoming aware of some of these growing problems and when the president in October of 2001, one month after the attacks, said something like, “Why would anyone not like us, were so good.” I thought, we have a lot of multination clients, maybe I better do a check. So that was the inspiration. Of course this was way before Iraq. I organized a 17 country ad hoc task force to send people into the streets. At the end of 2001, I said, “What do you like about America? What don’t you like about America?” And the positives were what you would expect: land of opportunity and freedom and can-do spirit, we like their entertainment product pretty much, their benevolence and cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, these things.

Negatives were very, very consistent across all regions of the world. When I asked our researchers to bucket them in descending offending order, the negative perceptions were, 1. The perception that we exploit. 2. The perception that we promote values not in concert with social mores and 3. The collective personality of the American people - loud, ignorant. A woman from Germany said, “How can they pretend to lead the world? They don’t know anything about it.” On the exploitation, a man from Chili said “They are like a disease, they come and infect the body but they don’t care about the body, they just care about themselves. And the fourth was materiality and hyper-consumerism, so I looked at that in February of 2002 and I said wait a minute, there’s no foreign policy here, I can attach either directly or indirectly to all of these negative perceptions, to U.S. business expansion, therefore, why couldn’t business be mobilized to do something about it? So, that was the inspiration. I gave a few speeches, some people asked for advice. Joe Nye was head of the Kennedy School at Harvard, Tom Pickering, former ambassador to the United Nations, said that this was a tremendous, complicated, huge problem, but that my idea was different and maybe worth a t

Wednesday, February 18th 2009
Kara Bentley
           


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