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Group Seeks to Improve America's Image


A growing number of American companies are training their employees to be good "world citizens" before sending them abroad to represent the companies' interests.

Often, this means teaching the employees not to exhibit character traits that many in the international community consider obnoxious and typically American. It is an endeavor that is being facilitated by a relatively new organization whose founder unabashedly hopes to improve America's image by improving the country's unofficial ambassadors.

Keith Reinhard is legendary in advertising circles. He is chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide, an advertising agency with offices in 96 countries. He has been named one of the 100 most influential people in advertising history by an industry publication. And that same publication ranked a jingle he wrote early on in his career as the Number One musical ad campaign of the 20th century.

That jingle was "You Deserve a Break Today at McDonald's," and today it is recognized even by Americans who were not yet born when the campaign was televised in the 1970s and early 1980s.

But these days, Keith Reinhard is looking to sell something much more personal than fast food. "I began thinking about creating a group like Business for Diplomatic Action just a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," he says.

Business for Diplomatic Action is a non-profit group that is enlisting the U.S. business community in a massive campaign to improve America's image abroad. Keith Reinhard says although the war in Iraq has certainly done a lot of damage to the American "brand," the fact is the United States suffered from a less-than-desirable reputation in the world long before the March, 2003 invasion.

He says he saw this in a 17-country survey his researchers conducted early in 2002. "Even so soon after 9-11," Reinhard notes, "The negatives were consistent across all regions of the world, and they were quite strident. And U.S. foreign policy was not one of the negatives at that time."

So what were the negatives? Reinhard says the top two had to do with the morally questionable influence of the American entertainment industry, and with the possibly exploitative relationship American corporations have with some of their host countries.

But then there was a third category of criticism. "The third was the collective personality of the American people," Reinhard says. "This is the 'Ugly American' syndrome still very much in evidence in our research. And we were seen as loud, arrogant, ignorant of other cultures, totally self-absorbed. The (failure to speak another) language issue always comes up."

This was something Keith Reinhard felt he could work with. He founded Business for Diplomatic Action in January of 2004, and after getting a grant from the National Business Travelers Association, the group put together a brochure called the "World Citizens Guide."

So far, more than 40 major corporations - including American Airlines and Lowes Hotels - have agreed to provide the brochure to their executives before sending them abroad on company business. The corporations will also participate in a seminar program which Business for Diplomatic Action plans to launch next month.

Keith Reinhard says his group wants business travelers to tone down the talk of wealth and power, and to read up a little bit on the sports figures and pop culture icons in the countries they'll be visiting. "It's really amazing how easy it is to develop a relationship though a discussion about sports or pop culture," he says. "It happened yesterday when I was seated next to a Frenchman, and I asked about how the football team Paris St. Germain is doing. And the Frenchman said, 'You know about Paris St. Germain?' Well, I took a little time to learn a little bit about it."

And that is exactly what he is asking the 7 million Americans who travel abroad each year on business to do.

Keith Reinhard says he is treating America the way he would treat any one of his corporate clients that had an image problem.

"When we have a brand in trouble in the marketing world, we carefully listen to all of the perceptions, both positive and negative, and then, of course, we hope to build on the positive perceptions," he says. "But with the negative perceptions, we need to divide those in half - those negative perceptions which are true, in which case we need to change the product; those negative perceptions which are not true, we need to change the communication."

To that end, representatives from Business for Diplomatic Action have met with a number of government officials, including U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, to talk about doing more to promote tourism to the United States. Keith Reinhard points out the U.S. government spends just $7 million a year promoting tourism, whereas Australia spends more than $125 million.