The State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, spoke at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston Wednesday about the challenges of her job. Ambassador Hughes, who is also a close personal friend of President Bush, sees her job as more than public relations.
In a rare appearance back in her home state of Texas, Ambassador Hughes provided a comprehensive overview of the job she took on, at the president's request, last August. She noted that many skeptics, both here and abroad, view her work as an attempt to smooth over real grievances and policy disputes with friendly appearances and public relations allure.
But Karen Hughes says she also brings the world's views back to Washington.
"Public diplomacy does have an impact on policy," she said. "I come back from these trips and I communicate things. I sometimes tell the president 'this is a concern' or 'This is a problem' or 'people do not understand this' or 'people want you to change this.' I hope it does have an influence on policy."
Hughes says she has the ear of the president and also works closely with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on tailoring U.S. responses to controversies involving U.S. policy around the world.
She says there once was a time when getting information to people around the world was the main challenge, but that the expansion of news media outlets has created a different problem.
"Today, in many parts of the world, we have information overload," she added. "A lot of it is very bad information. A lot of it is wrong information. A lot of it is conspiracy theories and anti-America and anti-Israel, but there is a lot of information and what we compete for is attention and credibility in a very crowded media environment."
Hughes says the need to counter misinformation and misconceptions about the United States is especially critical in the Middle East. She says she has encouraged U.S. diplomats to appear on Arabic broadcasts of both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya to explain the U.S. point of view on various topics. She acknowledges, however, that on some issues, notably the war in Iraq, such efforts are unlikely to change minds. On some matters, she says, there will be disagreement, and the goal of public diplomacy is to diminish misunderstandings and to counter false impressions.
Hughes says special U.S. radio and television broadcasts to countries in the Middle East are having a positive impact. She says U.S. ambassadors in the region tell her that the mix of American and Arabic music, combined with short news presentations on Radio Sawa has been especially effective.