Karen Hughes, a Bush appointee most recently tasked with improving perceptions of the US overseas, has announced that she will resign from her post at the end of this year.
Too bad the efforts she led gave up a long time ago.
Now, let's get the politics out of the way:
We in the U.S. can't talk about anything regarding our government without qualifying the source as red or blue. There's no such thing as discussing an issue as fellow Americans.
I don't care if Mrs. Hughes is a blazing patriot, wonderful wife, caring mom, and brilliant friend. Her intentions are irrelevant to me, and I assume they were (and are) all sincere.
I want us to take a moment to come together and analyze Mrs. Hughes as a fellow marketer. Let's consider her professional accomplishments, not her politics.
As such, she was an total, utter failure.
Her job was to lead hundreds of people and a $900 million annual budget at the U.S. State Department dedicated to getting people around the world to think nicer thoughts about America. She focused her efforts on engaging and responding to criticism and misinformation in the Muslim world.
Perceptions of the U.S. are no better now than they were when she started giving orders and spending lots of money; they're worse, actually, even among America's "friends." Her major accomplishments -- setting up PR centers around the world to write more press releases, and sending celebs like Cal Ripken and Michelle Kwan to do interviews -- were so ineffectual that they're embarrassing.
You'd think a cut-throat operator could have done so much better.
After all, she -- just like any of her successful Democratic counterparts of administrations past -- was part of a team that knew how to get a candidate elected, no matter what the circumstances. Successful political operatives know how to translate the unique, usually confusing details of any specific situation into the understandable, vote-able absolutes that let voters feel like they need to take action and can make a difference. She knows, or at least once knew, how do to this.
Yet her explanation for her consistent irrelevance to America's war over public opinion was to blame it on conflicts between Israelis vs. Palestinians, and the Iraqi government vs. death-obsessed insane madmen.
Wasn't it her job to overcome those circumstances?
Considering her political background, shouldn't her mandate have been to translate the complicated perceptions of America into bite-sized pieces that people all over the world could digest? More importantly, wasn't she was supposed to remember that voting -- taking action that translated thoughts and feelings into behavioral reality -- is a far more powerful tool than worrying about vague perceptions and ideas alone.
I say her job was to invent ways for people to vote for the U.S. in a fight that could be compared to an election campaign.
And in this sense, she failed to identify a candidate, find a way for people to vote, or promote a purpose for casting a ballot. In other words, she wasted her time (and taxpayer money) on branding the U.S.
She's not the first: Hughes picked up where her predecessor, adwoman Charlotte Beers, left off. Beers produced a lot of glossy, pointless ads, as if America's reputation could be marketed like a tube of toothpaste or tourist destination. Beers quit less than two years later having failed to convince anyone of anything.
Hughes, being primarily a public relations person, produced a lot of PR noise, as if America's reputation could be promoted by "balanced" news stories and talking heads talking about things. But with a generic target audience (i.e. them in the Muslim world, whatever that means) and a nebulous deliverable (make them think something), it's no surprise that she only contributed to what's now a 6+ year failed strategy of public diplomacy.
If only she'd approached her job as an election campaign:
- The point could have been to identify a voting moment to focus the promotion efforts. How about a "Vote for Peace" campaign that literally encouraged people to vote to refute terrorism? It could have serve to challenge advocates of violence to debate and let American advocates -- not former sports stars -- to refute their lame logic and heinous ideology
- Where was the street crew approach to promoting American projects in foreign countries? The U.S. sends lots of money and people to do good works all over the place. Where was the campaign to support and promote them? All politics is local, after all
- On a related point, why didn't the U.S. get more credit for its response to the tsunami a few years ago? This was tailor-made for ads, press releases, and all of the activities somebody like Hughes would understand immediately
- How about the negative campaigning that would help identify the U.S. by identifying those who want to destroy it. I could see a "He Wants to Kill You" program featuring a picture of Osama bin Laden. I don't know why she wasn't swift boating the hell out of the guy
America doesn't want the hearts and minds of people around the world; it wants their votes...their supportive behaviors, whether it's in helping defeat terrorism, or taking steps to evidence a resistance to joining the bad guys.
Accomplishing this means identifying what those specific behaviors might be, and then constructing a campaign to deliver them. Period. No ads, press releases, or other components of some endless, purposeless conversation. Hughes supposedly worked tirelessly and traveled the globe talking with people, as if trying to be better understood was the same thing as accomplishing better understanding.
It's not, though she'll probably get some medal sooner or later for all of her good intentions.
Karen Hughes' job was to get her candidate (the U.S.) elected in a worldwide public opinion campaign, and she failed to get out the vote. Shame on her for doing such a bad job, and on her employer for letting her (and her predecessor) fail for so long.
This isn’t a political thing, so don't get your dander up because you love President Bush or hate him. It doesn't matter whether a Republican or Democrat gets America’s public diplomacy going in the right direction.
Somebody has to effectively change the behaviors that are so damaging and threatening to America...not find more inventive ways to spend money on failed branding. It's just too important an issue to every American. If our corporate employers or clients performed so stupidly, we'd either get fired or they'd go out of business. Nobody would tolerate it.
When the government blows money and time on useless branding initiatives, it hurts the country. Lives are impacted. Perhaps lost.
We should demand more accountability from those who we elect to lead us. Instead, all we're seeing is a second person given a loving, praising send-off after doing a miserable job.
Good riddance, Mrs. Hughes.