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The Cultural Parade

Pascal Zachary, who teaches journalism at Stanford, wrote a provocative piece for the New York Times about stereotyping in the global technology community. His purpose is to shed light on how innovation actually works. "Talk of national identity rarely comes up in public," he notes, "but privately many people — from academia to venture capital firms — take for granted that the contours of a career in technology are often shaped by the national origin of the technologist."Cultural_parade

Few business people would admit that they harbor crass stereotypes about other cultures. But some economic historians can find correlations between national origin and success (or failure) in specific fields. For example, Italians really have excelled at design, but the country has produced few great programmers. So far.

The problem is that, while stereotypes may have some foundation in history, they do not necessarily predict the future. The Japanese may have excelled at copying the innovations of others in the 1970s, but the success of Toyota and Sony proves that they have achieved unmatched levels of creativity since then. China, he suggests, may be on the same path.

Pascal's analysis applies more broadly than to technology, but interestingly, he blows off discussion of stereotypes that other countries may have of America, claiming it is "too big and diverse for easy generalizations." Well, China's pretty big and much more diverse than commonly thought.

I suspect much of the world has pigeonholed America's national character pretty decisively. Like most stereotypes, it has some foundation in fact. The big question is whether we can change the facts sufficiently to change the stereotype.

Original url: New York Times Op Ed

Private Sector Summit

The State Department and the PR Coalition have finally issued a report   on the "Private Sector Summit" held on January 10, 2007. The PR Coalition describes itself as "an ad hoc partnership of major organizations representing corporate public relations, investor relations, public affairs and related communications disciplines." In partnership with the State Department it brought together about 100 PR people, academics and agency staffers in Washington, D.C., to discuss public diplomacy.  (See my previous post  Rebuilding Brand America.)

Nothing earth-shaking came out of the meeting, but the Coalition's Ed Neider did a masterful job of summarizing the proceedings and making it seem even more practical and action-oriented than it was.   

Among the high-level recommendations:

  1. Develop Business Practices that Reflect Public Diplomacy.
    - Make public diplomacy actions a corporate officer’s responsibility.
    - Make U.S. business practices consistent with U.S. values.
  2. Promote Understanding of American Society, Culture and Values in Other Countries.
    - Become a part of the local community through employee volunteerism, strategic philanthropy and greater engagement with responsible NGOs.
    - Create “circles of influence” through relationships with organizations, chambers of commerce, journalists and local business leaders.
    - Create local opportunities to win internship opportunities in the U.S.
    - Provide English language training and overseas studies for disadvantaged students.

  3. Build Relationships of Trust and Respect Across Cultures.
    - Support the creation of a corps of “foreign service officers” made up of academics and business people with specialized expertise who could work abroad on short-term assignments.
    -  Provide incentives for the non-U.S. work force to visit America and for the U.S. work force to travel overseas.
    - Sponsor international short-term assignments for U.S. employees.
    - Hold public diplomacy summits in key geographies.
    - Provide financial support for some State Department educational and cultural exchanges.

What you can do

As I travel around promoting my new book, Rebuilding Brand America, one of the questions I get most often is "assuming anti-Americanism is as big as threat as you think, what can businesses do about it?" The obvious answer is to model their operations outside the U.S. after those of successful global marketers such as Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, General Electric and many others cited in my book. Those companies are succeeding in global markets because they make themselves part of the local community wherever they do business and they share their customers' cares and dreams.

But there are other specific steps that U.S. headquartered businesses should be taking -- they should:

  1. Educate their employees about anti-Americanism’s impact. Most Americans want the U.S. to be liked, but if it isn't, their attitude is "so what?" Ordinary citizens need to be shown how anti-Americanism affects the U.S.'s safety and economic well-being. For example, it's hard to win the cooperation of other countries in fighting global issues when they suspect our motives.
  2. Demand that government fix immigration and customs. The way we "welcome" visitors to our shores is scandalous -- long lines, probing interviews, endless waiting. And that assumes visitors have successfully run the gauntlet of securing a visa.
  3. Support budget increases for proven State Department programs. In recent years, more than 29 different groups of experts have recommended ways to improve America's outreach to the world. There are remarkable consistencies across their reports -- increase language training, recruit more public diplomacy officers, expand exchange programs, etc. The Bush administration has made an honest effort to adopt many of their recommendations, but it needs political support to get budget increases through a perhaps understandably skeptical Congress.
  4. Sponsor cultural exchanges, language training and the expansion of “American Corners.” Many of the State Department's most effective programs are available for corporate sponsorship. For example, when security concerns forced the closing of American libraries in most foreign countries, enterprising foreign service officers created "American Corners" in local university libraries. They stock them with American books and publications and even provide web access over dedicated computers, but they're chronically short of funds.
  5. Ask presidential candidates to outline their plans for more effective public diplomacy. Businesses support candidates of both parties through their Political Action Committees. It's time to find out where the candidates stand on the critical issue of anti-Americanism.

There's a lot that individuals can do as well:

  1. Learn more about other countries’ current events, histories and cultures. Americans are notoriously ignorant of other countries. Take time to read a novel by a foreign author or to see a foreign movie (even if it has subtitles). Pay more attention to the international news in your local newspaper or favorite TV news show. Once in a while, read an English-language publication such as the Economist or the Financial Times.
  2. Demand better K - 12 educational programs for your kids in geography, and foreign languages. When the National Geographic Society surveyed kids' knowledge of geography a few years ago, they were shocked that fewer than a third could find the Pacific Ocean on a map!
  3. Contribute to organizations that support international understanding and peaceful conflict resolution. For example, Rotary International   sponsors a number of programs to build goodwill and understanding across borders -- for example, members from different countries can exchange homes, work on community projects together, partner in disaster relief efforts, etc.
  4. Participate in foreign exchange programs. Host a foreign student or encourage your own teenagers to study abroad, living with a foreign family. Organziations such as the American Field Service,, the Center for Cultural Interchange , and AYUSA  sponsor thousands of student exchanges every year.
  5. Ask political candidates about their plans to improve America’s “brand.” If they think you're talking about an advertising campaign or better slogan, reconsider supporting them until they "get it."

The Dangers of Anti-Americanism

Now that Al Gore won his Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, the motion picture version of his global-warming slideshow, there appears to be room atop the list of the Biggest Problems No One Cares About.  In this Viewpoint for BusinessWeek, I nominated anti-Americanism.

It won’t take too many slides to define the problem. Everyone knows the United State’s reputation around the world has never been more dismal. In fact, it has fallen to the level of an “ism” – “anti-Americanism,” the principled distrust and dislike of anything that issues from the U.S.A. Unfortunately we can’t show slides of Florida under water to convince people that anti-Americanism matters. The CEOs of U.S. companies with customers around the world don’t consider anti-Americanism a problem.  “We’re not an American company,” they declare. “We’re global.”

Americans would prefer that the world like them, but if it doesn’t, so what? Wasn’t it Machiavelli who said it was safer to be feared than loved? For his part, President Bush displayed new depths of cluelessness when he reacted to protests during his recent Latin American tour by saying, “I love freedom and the right for people to express themselves.”

These days, those expressions include South African billboards touting the Smart car for its “German engineering,” “Swiss innovation” and “American nothing.” SouthafricabillboardSouth Korean restaurants have hung signs in their windows advising “Americans Not Welcome.” And Starbucks’ very presence in China’s Forbidden City brewed so much controversy the company may lose its lease. 

The Cost of Anti-Americanism

Anti-Americanism does matter – to our economy, to our health, and to our safety. For the moment, the effect of anti-Americanism on U.S. companies’ foreign sales is masked by a declining dollar. Skeptics point to a widely circulated study that compared the European sales of Coke, McDonald’s, and Nike between 2000 and 2004. All three companies increased their European sales an average of 26%--even though anti-Americanism was at a fever pitch following the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. But the U.S. companies’ sales were made in Euros and reported in dollars, which fell by 31% in the period.Salesimpact077077

On the other hand, the U.S.'s share of the international tourism market, which should have benefited from the weak dollar, has fallen by a third from 1992 to 2006. The absolute number of foreign tourists to the United States didn’t return to pre-9/11 levels until last year, and even then the increase was due entirely to visitors from Canada and Mexico. In 2006, overseas visitors to the U.S. declined by one percent from the prior year, while global tourism grew by 4.5%. Even allowing for the extra hassle of getting through stepped-up U.S. security post 9/11, these figures are striking.Touristshare077

And expensive – according to the Discover America Partnership, the U.S.’s loss of market share in 2005 cost $44 billion in sales and taxes. Plus, every additional share point means 153,000 new U.S. jobs.

Finally, anti-Americanism costs the United States the cooperation of other countries in dealing with such global problems as terrorism, climate change, HIV/AIDS, avian flu, counterfeiting, organized crime, the trafficking of women and children, or the next security crisis, whether it breaks out in Iran, North Korea, or the Taiwan Strait. The list of problems that will yield to unilateral action is getting shorter even more rapidly than the cost of going it alone is rising. None of that is good for business.

What Business Should Do

U.S. companies need to become as obsessed about their country's reputation around the world as they are about free trade. The Bush administration’s 2008 State Department budget request includes increases for proven programs such as language training, people-to-people exchanges and targeted economic development. But it will be a long time before State catches up with the massive spending cuts that followed the end of the Cold War. U.S. business groups need to push those budget increases through a skeptical Congress, as if they were tax cuts or curbs on trial lawyers.

Meanwhile, Defense Department spending in non-combat areas is growing even faster than State’s, and the military is undertaking projects once reserved for civilian agencies, such as building schools, drilling wells and even conducting public information campaigns. Since the U.S. spends fourteen times more on the military than on diplomacy and foreign aid, that shouldn’t be surprising.  As Indiana Senator Richard Lugar observed, the military is assuming tasks better left to professional foreign service officers “simply because it has the money to do so.”

No wonder that, for millions of people around the world, Americans are people in uniform. U.S. business groups need to call for the demilitarization of foreign relations. The U.S. military has been very effective in delivering assistance following natural disasters, but military leaders are the first to admit that winning hearts and minds is not their core competency. Psychological warfare tactics are not the way to build credibility around the world and putting our diplomatic efforts in camouflage risks resentment and suspicion.

U.S. companies also need to recognize that no matter how  “global” they are, their American roots show. That’s not all bad. Despite recent accounting scandals, American companies have more credibility than the U.S. government in most corners of the world. They also have more feet on the street, and best of all, those feet aren’t clad in combat boots.

More than six million people work for U.S. companies abroad. That’s more than six million potential ambassadors—not for U.S. foreign policies, but for the all-American values of fair play, equal opportunity and respect for individuals. And those ambassadors will still be there after the next election.

As a practical matter, of course, real progress may have to await the next election. U.S. business leaders, who as a group contribute generously to both parties, should ensure that rebuilding trust in America is at the top of the candidates’ – and the next president’s -- agenda.   

There’s more than an Oscar at stake.

Taming Wild Perceptions

Gunwithflag Randall Frost writes intelligently on a wide range of topics. In this article for brandchannel, which is published by the Interbrand consultancy, he expands on a point I made in Rebuilding Brand America. It concerns the potency of the "frontier myth" in shaping perceptions of the United States. Frost does a lot more with the observation than I did -- when we spoke, he told me he had been thinking about it ever since he read a book by Frederick Jackson Turner back in college. It was time well spent.  Frost shows how America can shift the myth of expanding into new physical territory, which is threatening, to one that "emphasizes exploration of knowledge-based, non-territorial frontiers," such as those in technology and science.  Worth reading.