Charlotte Beers, 66, has had her share of tough marketing assignments in her 40 years in the ad business, which was capped with stints as head of two advertising giants -- Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson. Now, however, the former Madison Avenue star is confronting her biggest challenge yet: As Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, Beers is in charge of the effort to win over the "hearts and minds" of people in the Middle East (see BW, 12/17/01, "The Mother of All PR Jobs"). She was recruited directly by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Recently, Beers met in her Foggy Bottom office with BusinessWeek's Alexandra Starr. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: You've been hired essentially to market the U.S. to a hostile audience. How are you going to do that?
A: We are going to have to deliver the intangible assets of the United States, things like our belief system and our values. This calls up a different set of skills. They are much closer to the kind of disciplines we always had to have in advertising. You'll find that in any great brand, the leverageable asset is the emotional underpinning of the brand -- or what people believe, what they think, how they feel when they use it. I am much more comfortable with that dimension of the assignment, because I've dealt with it before.
Countries like the United States, which are big and powerful, will always translate into arrogance if there is no dialogue. And how much dialogue did we have with Afghanistan? It was a closed society to us. In many of Muslim countries, our language exchange was minimal. There was some -- it depended on how open they were and how many exchanges we had, how much government dialogue we had. So the necessity to make a dialogue about less tangible things has forced us to use a different set of skills.
This is not unlike, say, IBM, which was considered to be big, powerful, and arrogant [Beers handled IBM's $500 million account when she was CEO of Ogilvy & Mather]. So the communication was to first to open the feeling of accessibility and dialogue.
Q: Are you consulting with outside groups?
A: I must have a list of 400 American Muslim people we've been meeting with. We are really students in these meetings, and we ask them questions. And they don't spare us. Out of that comes very helpful ways to think and places to go. We're now forming that on a more formal basis. We'll meet every two weeks.
Even as we talk, we're fielding typical consumer research in Jordan, Lebanon, and many Middle Eastern countries. The way we're managing to do that is with a private partnership. I am pretty awed by the offerings of the Ad Council, these private research, marketing, and strategy firms. Many of the clients [I] used to do business with are going to give us much better research than we [do at the State Dept.].
Think of the nature of the research: The government is well poised to give you research in terms of major policy issues, but they're not going to tell you much about what will help you talk to a 14-year-old boy, who has been inculcated for years with a really different vantage point.
Q: For a while it seemed as though the negative reports on Arabic stations like Al Jazeera went unanswered by the U.S. Who decided to put former Ambassador Christopher Ross [a fluent Arabic speaker] on Al Jazeera TV to rebut some of the accusations being made?
A: I could claim I had everything to do with it, and to some extent I did, but I wouldn't have known where to find him. The day he came aboard, the dialogue improved dramatically. He speaks beautiful Arabic. On the night Osama bin Laden released his second tape, where he was delineating how he would murder us, Chris was on Al Jazeera immediately afterward, and then he participated in a two-hour panel.
Because he was there, and he countered so calmly, never mentioning [bin Laden] by name as a tactic, the panel lost interest in the exaggerations of bin Laden, and his team and went on to other subjects. That's point-counterpoint that we need to be good at. That's what the White House dialogue is about, too.
Q: Are you participating in that effort, the so-called war room that formulates the U.S. communications policy in conjunction with Britain's government?
A: Yes, I participate in the conference call every morning, at 9:30. Including weekends, my dear. These are new hours for someone who has just been parachuted in. I'm working the hours I did back when I was 28 years old. I don't recommend it.
Q: Is there a possibility you might have a prominent Arab-American do a TV ad, and place it on Al Jazeera?
A: I don't know that. It's in the realm of possibility. It's important to realize we have many distribution channels other than Al Jazeera, there are quite a few good networks. We've evaluated the media now. We know what works, what its reach is.
Q: Some of these countries have state-controlled media outlets. I assume they will be harder to penetrate.
A: It will be difficult. They may not take advertising per se, but they might consider a thoughtful piece from someone who is a famous speaker, someone who is a celebrity in their country asking for a forum. And we will do that, too.
Q: Is there a connection between the work you did in advertising, getting executives to give you business, and asking for more money on the Hill?
A: It's interesting. I have a lot of clients here, I really do. I have more clients than I ever dreamed of having, and they are all powerful. And they are all usually better informed than I am, which is a little off-putting. I've been much more humble.
Q: A U.S. Information Agency former deputy said he was cheered by your appointment because he thought you might be able to secure big funding increases for the department.
A: Part of the job I have is explaining to the State Dept. and other parts of my considerable constituency what we do, and sometimes to cheer on to what we do. I mean, if we can download President Bush's speech and get it into every embassy and translate it into 30 languages, that's very impressive. I couldn't do that in the advertising business by any means.
Q: A lot people in Arab countries don't have access to the Internet, however.
A: So you can't stop there. The press and the embassies here, they are then our channel of distribution. It's not near enough, though.
Q: It's not only in the Middle East that we have an image problem. It's also in Europe and Latin America. Are you going to try to focus efforts on speaking to Europeans?
A: We have to. This is first. If you're talking about a dialogue, then you're going to listen. You're reintroducing yourself to a group, and every group has a slightly different take on who you are. It's a complex message.
Q: Is your dream job still to be a country-and-western singer?
A: God, I saw that and I thought, I have to keep my mouth shut. It's true. It seemed to me I didn't have enough nerve to say opera, but to be a singer, that would be wonderful.
Q: Why did you take this job?
A: I took it because I thought I would never again have such an elegant chance to give something back.