Understanding between the Arab World and the U.S.


"Efforts to reinforce relations with Washington can be easily undone by negative campaigns that erode the ground on which those relations rest (remember the Dubai Ports World episode). And advertising campaigns fail to address what's most on people's minds. Americans aren't asking if Arabs are modern and growing their economies; they want to meet Arabs and know them better." 

Just a few decades ago, there was no public relations industry in the Arab world. That has changed. As societies in this region have modernized and their economies have become more complex, issues of branding, marketing and the development of communications strategies have increased in importance. Today, there is a growing local PR industry of competent professionals. 

This past week, I attended the first conference of the International Public Relations Association, Gulf Chapter, in Bahrain. It was a wonderful gathering of PR practitioners who assembled to network and share ideas, develop their skills, and discuss problems facing their industry. 

I had the honor to deliver a keynote address at the opening of the event. Having been asked to speak on the image of the Gulf in the US and how best to deal with misconceptions that have colored the American public's understanding of this region, I first outlined the problem and then offered some lessons I hoped might be instructive. 

1). Don't Find Refuge in Excuses or Cliches 

It is true that there is a deep and growing gap born of stereotyping and misinformation. But when assessing this problem, it is important not to fall back on cliches about a double standard or a conspiracy or control of Washington or the media. The simple truth is, the Arab side is losing the PR battle because Arabs have not been engaged. The game is lopsided because Arabs aren't in it. 

2). When Trying to Sell a Product, You Need to Know the Market 

A wise friend of mine, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, once said, "We can't help America to know us, until we know America first." That means listening, testing and learning what Americans are thinking and taking the results seriously. The American people can change their attitudes, but you must talk to them, not at them, and you must talk to them, in person, answering the questions that are on their minds. 

3). Government-to-Government Ties Are Important and Consultants and Lobbyists Can Be Useful, but Neither is Sufficient to Win 

Efforts to reinforce relations with Washington can be easily undone by negative campaigns that erode the ground on which those relations rest (remember the Dubai Ports World episode). And advertising campaigns fail to address what's most on people's minds. Americans aren't asking if Arabs are modern and growing their economies; they want to meet Arabs and know them better. 

4). Direct is Best - People Want to Know You 

This point can't be made enough. In all of our polling and focus groups, we find Americans wanting to know Arabs, in person. Nothing can replace this kind of direct contact. Targeted groups of American influencers need to be invited to see the Arab world for themselves. And, of equal importance, groups of Arabs (especially young professionals and women) need to come to America to speak to audiences across the country. Such visits will also generate local media, which is much more receptive (and, oftentimes, more influential) than national media. This cannot be a one-shot deal, but should be part of a sustained and targeted campaign that focuses on key communities and groups. 

5). Empower the Private Sector 

Government can't do this alone. The private sector should be empowered to take on this effort. It's not only good for business, it's important for the future of U.S.-Arab business ties. In addition, we should take a lesson from the business community. Business people know how to strategize and develop a marketing plan, make a pitch and close the deal. I've always thought that we should do our politics the way we do business, not the other way around. In fact, if we did business the way we did politics, we'd all be poor. 

6). You Have Constituents in the U.S. and Must Work with Them 

The Arab world has untapped human resources in the United States. There are millions of Arab Americans who feel proud of their culture and heritage. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have worked in the Middle East and feel affection towards the region and its people. And, hundreds of thousands of others benefit from the relationship between this region and their jobs in America. They are constituents for a better understanding. 

7). Don't Attempt to Detach One Country or One Region from the Broader Arab, Muslim Context 

They are inextricably linked in the public's mind. You not only shouldn't try to separate them, you can't. 

8). Calls for Reform Are in Order, but Are Not an Excuse 

Some intellectuals have fallen victim to self-flagellation saying, "We have nothing to sell." While self-criticism and calls for reform are important, they are not "show-stoppers." A successful PR campaign must be waged. My country, for example, has a host of social problems (high murder rate, racial discrimination, and a host of other ills), but we still have the confidence to sell. And if flaws are openly acknowledged and honestly treated in such a campaign, it can be even more successful. 

9). Know Your Story and be Confident that it is Good 

It is a human story and a remarkable story that needs to be told. It's a story about deep and abiding U.S.-Arab partnership in trade, investment, cultural exchange and mutual defense; about progress and change currently taking place in Arab countries; about real people who share values and hopes for the future with their American friends; about Islam as a religion and a way of life that creates value and inspires hundred of millions to lead lives of virtue; and about the common threads of religion, history and culture that have shaped and continue to shape our common destiny. 

It's a story worth telling and Arabs must be the ones to tell it.

 

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute and can be reached at [email protected]


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  4 Comments   Comment

  1. Sylvia Horton from Canada

    I do not know what this author is talking about. Americans are not interested in knowing Arabs or Muslims better. They are only interested in the oil and the money. Evidently, the author does not listen to Glenn Beck, Pat Robinson, and Franklin Graham, to name a few.

    I was traveling to go down South, and I met an Immigration attorney. He told me that it was so hard for an Arab or a Muslim to get into the country (US) now. I know from experience that this is true because I tried for years to get my husband into the US. And I am American. All they did was play games with us.

    We need to stop concentrating on who accepts us and who doesn't, and be about serving and trusting Allah. Being an African American and remembering the Civil Rights Era, I know first hand that when Americans hate, they hate!!! It doesn't matter what you do, they still hate you.

    There are plenty of American shows, both radio, and tv, that teaches hate against the Muslims and the Arabs. Wake UP!!

  2. Dawood Haq from USA

    The Arabs are enjoying the rewards for corrupting Islam with their Tribalism. Allah has settled far greater disputes and wars within a few years yet the Arab world continues to fester for over a hundred years.How come muslims all over the world live in peace except the Arabs and those contaminated with their culture of death.As a Muslim I can only be ashamed and angry by the hostility of non-muslims toward muslims here in the West because of the actions of some barbaric 'muslims' .

  3. Robert Peel from UK

    I agree, but I am afraid after our shameful behaviour towards not just Arab, but all Muslims and our outrageous efforts to justify or cover up the rapes, the murder and torture-indeed the outright genocide of Muslims by Americans and our troops, Muslims will be in no mood to embrace us any time soon, and rightly so. We will be for ever looked upon as the grotesque and evil ogres we are; and in Afghanistan - I strongly suggest that Europeans and the Americans simply never venture there again, even by mistake, because Afghans, unlike the Japanese or Vietnamese, never forget and each successive generation is brought up with the burning obsessive desire to avenge his family and friends; and this can go on for hundreds of years; and who can blame them? This previously posted clip of Americans murdering civilians is an excellent reason of this rationale: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article17393.htm Sadly, our entire political and social machine is designed to foster hate, fear and disgust for all Muslims. The daily barrage by rabid Zionist controlled hate-Muslim media by the likes of Rupert Murdoch whose is anxious to somehow precipitate a Muslim holocaust through his media empire or CNN's lunatic avowed anti-Muslim racist Glen Beck, are designed to brain-wash masses to abhor Muslims and Islam - but then for the thinking person, on reflection- for what reason? The equation to peace lies in not just leaving Muslims alone but in being genuine and honest in our efforts to eradicate racism and violence towards all and not having one set of rules for one group and a contradictory policy towards Muslims. Unless we are assuming that somehow 3 billion Muslims will suddenly disappear, we need to trash all our policies, ideas and perceptions, and move diametrically away from a Jewish/Israeli centric policy and make honest amends with the Islamic world. Failing that, we condemn generation after generation to unending wars, horrendous destruction, suffering and misery.

  4. Adam from Nigeria

    Sorry but Dr James seems to be missing the point either intentionally or who knows?

    Under the current situation no westerner likes any ... Arab no matter what that Arab has to sell! Arabs have oil that the west must or can STEAL and is currently stealing so what the hck is Dr James saying? The palestanians have been at it (for half a century now) begging to be recognise; what do we see? the zionist with the support of the west are saying NO, what we want is to annihilate your lands ("our god given right") and don't care about your children or where they end up sleeping.

    As long as the zionists will be in control of the western governments, the Arabs will have no place in the share of these markets this i can bet with my life.

    End of story!