Charlotte Beers' Toughest Sell

Can she market America to hostile Muslims abroad?

What's wrong with this picture? While the U.S. racks up victories against the Taliban on the dusty Afghan battlefield and tightens the noose on Al Qaeda terrorists, young Pakistanis buy Osama bin Laden T-shirts, the European left tut-tuts over the U.S. bombing, and Arabic language newspapers and broadcasts excoriate Washington as a willful bomber of civilians and an enemy of Islam.

Disturbing, to be sure. And to Charlotte Beers, the former Madison Avenue top gun hired by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to refurbish America's image abroad, "it's a pretty awful thing to have to read early every morning." But poring over hostile transcripts and headlines culled by U.S. embassies has not discouraged Beers. "The whole idea of building a brand is to create a relationship between the product and its user," she explains during an interview in her modest Foggy Bottom office. "We're going to have to communicate the intangible assets of the United States--things like our belief system and our values." And, she adds, skills she honed during four decades in advertising have prepared her for the task.

There's no arguing that Beers, 66, has faced up to major marketing challenges. She capped her career by heading Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson, two of the world's advertising behemoths. Now, as Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, Beers draws a parallel between her current assignment and her $500 million, mid-1990s campaign to help IBM shake its rep as an arrogant, out-of-touch powerhouse.

Recasting the image of the U.S. in the Middle East, however, promises to be much tougher than making Big Blue seem cuddly. After all, in too many Islamic nations, state-controlled media outlets and fundamentalist schools called madrassahs have inundated young people with virulent anti-American messages for more than half a century.

SEAMLESS PITCH. On the home front, Beers will have to navigate the rocky congressional budget process to secure more money for her epic public relations battle and ensure that support doesn't wane when the bombs stop falling. Some experts are skeptical. "I'm not sure what an ad person brings to public diplomacy in a time of war," sniffs William J. Drake of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I just find the notion that you can sell Uncle Sam like Uncle Ben's highly problematic."

The criticism harks back to Beer's first major advertising victory when, in her 20s, she became the only female product manager for Uncle Ben's rice. As she moved up the ranks, Beers's penchant for flamboyant outfits and her charming, even flirtatious, personality set her apart in the male-dominated advertising world. She was known to greet CEOs as "honey" and "darlin"' and occasionally referred to IBM CEO Lou Gerstner as "that adorable little man." Once, Beers wowed Sears Roebuck executives by taking apart and reassembling a power drill as she seamlessly delivered a pitch for their business. (Her personal life has pizzazz, too: Friend Martha Stewart is said to have helped Beers plan her wedding to her third husband, millionaire art dealer William Beadleston.)

Some former colleagues say Beers's talents lay in wooing work rather than conjuring up creative campaigns. "I could name 20 or 30 people who are better marketing strategists," says the head of a Mad Ave. firm. "But Charlotte is quite the diplomat, and if a lot of this job is politicking, she'll be great at that."

Since being confirmed on Oct. 1, Beers has acted quickly to address one glaring problem: the lack of a U.S. spokesman on Qatar-based Al Jazeera, the widely watched Arabic-language satellite-TV channel. She hired as her senior adviser former Ambassador Christopher Ross, a fluent speaker of Arabic who had been stationed in Syria and Algeria. When bin Laden's second taped diatribe surfaced, Ross rebutted the allegations point by point on Al Jazeera.

Beers also has been meeting with prominent Muslim Americans to gauge which messages might promote a more positive image of the U.S. Further plans call for marketing research into how best to connect with younger Muslims. Once the research is done, Beers will enlist former Mad Ave. colleagues to help craft a propaganda campaign. And with whole swaths of the world viewing the sole remaining superpower with unbridled hostility, Beers doesn't intend to stop with the Middle East.

So far, Beers's biggest rollout was a booklet designed to hammer home the depth of the September 11 carnage and bin Laden's role in the attacks. The brochure, laced with grisly photos of the attack, was distributed to Mideast countries, sometimes as a supplement in newspapers. But more ambitious projects are in the offing. Beers is considering TV and radio spots in which sports stars and celebrities talk up the U.S.

"LESS AND LESS." Of course, even if the Under Secretary finds popular Muslims to sell American values, simply getting the word out will be difficult in countries where the media is controlled and largely hostile. So far, Congress is cooperating--setting aside about $30 million in yearend spending bills to create a new radio network that would broadcast throughout the region.

But coaxing pols to make good on promises to fatten her budget will play a large role in determining Beers's success. The end of the cold war saw the shuttering of many overseas media centers and exchange programs that existed to explain America to the world. "For years we've talked about doing more with less," says Barry Fulton, a former State Dept. hand who now heads the Public Diplomacy Institute at George Washington University. "In fact, we've just ended up doing less and less."

Beers pretty much acknowledges that the job she signed on for is considerably more difficult than reassembling a power tool without dropping a screw. "This is a tricky business," she says, adding that some of her efforts may backfire. But as Beers told the international press corps last month, the U.S. will press ahead with the propaganda war all the same: "Consider the alternative, which is silence. We have no choice."

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

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