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The Real Lesson of Katrina

Many people were shocked at the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. New_orleans Then Congress passed a multi-billion dollar recovery program, heads rolled at FEMA, and the network news anchors left New Orleans. Now two years later, the news crews are back, trailing President Bush on his tour of the still moribund city, and newspapers around the world are noting that New Orleans residents are marking the anniversary with a mix of anger and sadness. The city is still largely in shambles. Where, people ask, did the money go?

Some of the money certainly lined the pockets of the scam artists who descend on any tragedy. Some of the aid was probably delayed by political infighting. And there is still plenty of reason to question the government's continuing incompetence.

But the underlying reason may have more to do with a seismic shift in government's leverage on complex problems.   

In a seminal 1996 article in Foreign Affairs, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, posited that the new world order proclaimed after the fall of the Soviet Union would have a very different character than generally thought. Slaughter_main She warned it would not be "a world in which international institutions, led by the United Nations, guaranteed international peace and security with the active support of the world's major powers." The centralized rule-making authority such an arrangement would require was clearly beyond reach.

On the other hand,  the revolution in information technology was causing power to shift within every human institution -- from hierarchies to networks, from centralized compulsion to voluntary association. Why would government be immune?  The result would not be world government, but global governance -- cooperative problem-solving by a changing cast of characters. "The result is a world order," she wrote, "in which global governance networks link Microsoft, the Roman Catholic Church, and Amnesty International to the European Union, the United Nations, and Catalonia."

Slaughter expanded on these ideas in her 2004 book, A New World Order (Princeton University Press), suggesting that the most effective public-sector initiatives, are those that take place quietly through networks of professionals working on common problems. And in her new book, The Idea That Is America (Perseus, 2007), she argues that if governments can use networks to become more responsive, collaborative, and flexible, they will more closely embody the ideas and principles that fostered modern democ­racy in the first place.

If government power is shifting on the international stage, maybe something very similar is happening at the local level.  Maybe the real problem in the government's response to Katrina is that it leaned too heavily on the usual suspects -- the Army Corps of Engineers, government loan officers, and emergency management officials -- rather than on an imaginative alliance of private industry, non-profits and local citizens.   

Are there lessons here for our international public diplomacy?

Hughes' Legacy

Hughes_2 In Rebuilding Brand America, I suggested that Karen Hughes represented the best available opportunity to improve America's public diplomacy.

After a rocky start -- at least in U.S. media coverage of her Middle East "listening tour" -- she has delivered on that promise, as this interview by Robert McMahon of the Council on Foreign Relations demonstrates.

Hughes hasn't improved America's reputation in the Middle East or in Europe. I doubt anyone could.  But she has won a seat at the table for our public diplomacy professionals, ensuring that they participate in the "take offs" as well as the "crash landings" when policy is decided.  Plus she has significantly expanded funding for proven programs such as educational and cultural exchanges, as well as language training. All of which will give her successor something to build on.

Humanitarian Aid for the Mind

Many charitable organizations help clothe, feed and shelter the needy. The Sabre Foundation characterizes itself as providing humanitarian assistance for the mind: support for the educational infrastructure vital to countries in conflict or in transition.Book_pile

Since its inception in 1986, Sabre has distributed more than $200 million worth of books and other educational material in 80 countries. Since 2001 more than half of Sabre's shipments have gone to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. All the material Sabre distributes is brand-new and it only sends books requested by its partners.

Sabre has gained an impressive reputation for getting its material into what it delicately calls "difficult" places such as countries engaged in active conflict, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

While the material Sabre distributes is donated by U.S. publishers, it depends on donations to defray distribution costs.  For more information, visit the Sabre Foundation's web site.   

Whose story will win?

Narain Batra is a professor of Communications at Norwich University in Vermont. I've never met the man but I am a regular reader of his weekly column in The Statesman of India, which is reprinted on his insightful blog. Batra

Batra's latest column ruminates on the power of "narrative" in shaping people's perceptions. He suggests that Al Quaeda's communications success owes less to its publicity savvy than to its skill in using local clerics to tell its version of the American "story." Indeed, we even make it easy for them when our actions confirm their storyline. No amount of "branding," he says, can counter the image of America that emerges from its actions.

My only quibble with his thesis may be entirely semantic.  If by "branding," he means "messaging," whether by advertising, publicity agents or do-good emissaries, count me in.

But in my own lexicon, a "brand" is the product of people's experience. To me, Rebuilding Brand America means realigning America's actions more closely with its ideals. As Batra points out, this is not easy in an open society where independent actors can tell a different story than the official line.  Some elements of U.S. popular culture, for example, reflect poorly on America.   

On the other hand, "Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Warren Buffet embody as much of what America stands for, as does Hollywood," Batra says. "America is what Americans do at the workplace, its ultimate source of strength." And that is the ultimate argument for "corporate diplomacy," not as a promotional lever for the State Department, but as a true reflection of American ideals.

Things taste better under the Golden Arches

A small study purports to show that advertising to kids can change their taste perceptions.  Mcdonalds Researchers at Stanford gave 63 three to five year-old kids identical portions of hamburger, French fries, carrots and milk, half in plain wrappers and half in McDonald's packaging. They then asked the kids which samples tasted better.

There was no significant difference between the hamburgers, but the kids preferred the French fries, carrots and milk in the McDonald's wrappers, in some cases by three to one. And the differences were greater among those kids who lived in homes with more television sets, leading the researchers to conclude that their preference for anything in a McDonald's wrapper was the result of advertising exposure.

"Marketing to young children should be regulated," they huffed and many in the media were quick to trumpet the results, generally ignoring the fact that most responsible marketers have already taken steps to limit ads directed to kids.

But the researchers may have missed the real point of their study. Three quarters of the kids ate in McDonald's restaurants regularly. Their brand preference was not so much the product of the chain's advertising as their own experience in the stores. The study simply confirms what many marketers already know -- the essence of McDonald's brand isn't "hamburgers and fries," otherwise the kids would have preferred the burgers in the McDonald's wrapper. McDonald's brand means "food, family and fun," which is why even carrots -- which the chain doesn't sell in the U.S. -- taste better under the Golden Arches.

Many academics and public officials confuse branding with advertising. Brand preference is the product of experience, not the residue of being bombarded with ads.