Analysis: Constructing Hughes’s Legacy

by Christina Smith

On October 31, 2007, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes announced her resignation.  Hughes, a former television reporter, worked as the Communications Director for President Bush during his first term, striving to improve his image for the nation’s voters.  After leaving the White House the first time, she returned in 2005 to serve in the State Department, where she was tasked with the daunting mission of improving perceptions of America overseas.

Upon her resignation, Hughes stated:  “I feel I’ve done what Secretary Rice and President Bush asked me to do, by transforming public diplomacy and making it a national security priority.”  In a Washington Post Editorial, Hughes cited poll results indicating the growing discontent over Islamic extremism and highlighted the new public relations campaign meant to welcome foreign visitors as indicative of her success.  The campaign’s centerpiece consists of a video created by Disney and directed by Cuban immigrant Frederico Tio. In a press release surrounding the video, Hughes stated, “Disney’s creativity and excellence wonderfully capture the essence of America, which is embodied in the diversity and values of our people.”

The joint State Department-Homeland Security video, entitled “Welcome: Portraits of America,” is a seven-minute montage of live-action footage and still images.  It portrays the most popular representations of the U.S:  prominent monuments and national parks, sprawling towns enveloped by fall foliage, vibrant cityscapes, and soaring bald eagles.  It contains visuals of American industry – construction, fishing, firefighters, and Hollywood filmmaking.  And the final scenes contain diverse images of Americans, including two young women in traditional Islamic headdresses, telling travelers:  “Welcome.”  The video will be played in foreign embassies and in international terminals at U.S. airports.

In her blog posting on the video’s release, Hughes noted:  “As a communicator, I believe the first principle of effective communications is clarity – and this video clearly says:  We want you to come to America, you will be most welcome.  At the same time, it quietly communicates the greatest strength of our country – our people.”

Principles

The video is largely an embodiment of Hughes’s public-relations approach to diplomacy.  Throughout her career, Hughes has focused on the crafting of image.  Discussions of her resignation in the mainstream media and blogs describe her fixation with public opinion polling and reactionary (as opposed to proactive) image restoration efforts.  In addition to the “Welcome” video, Hughes fostered scholar and journalist exchange programs in order to change Middle East perceptions of America, but did little to assist moderate Muslims in fighting the “war of ideas.”  Washington Post journalist Robert Satloff contends that her departure allows the President to fix Hughes’s ” failure to prioritize ideological warfare over public relations.”  As Satloff points out, the crucial war against radical Islamic extremism demands much more than image construction and/or maintenance – it demands the empowerment of local moderate populations.

Hughes’s approach to diplomacy is likely a result of her background as a journalist and Bush campaign strategist.  Image construction is indeed a major part of political campaigns, and this notion is heightened when dealing with the Presidency.  Political communication scholar Thomas Hollihan (2001) suggests that the public constructs reality by creating images of people and events.  These highly subjective images are being consistently created and re-created as new information surfaces.  Hollihan also contends that image campaigns are “risk-averse” strategies because they are abstract and non-threatening and he discusses how deeply embedded negative images can be quite difficult to change.

Analysis

These qualities are wholly evidenced in the aforementioned video.  With the proliferation of information on both U.S. success and failure circulating widely and instantly throughout the globe, the U.S. image overseas is indeed an ongoing project.  Also, the video presents a generic vision of America meant to avoid controversy.  It has no text or lyrics to be misinterpreted by foreign audiences, it displays a (misleading) range of American people and traditions, and it contains imagery of non-descript towns and cities.  And, as the critiques of Hughes’s “legacy” demonstrate, a superficial public relations campaign is unlikely to produce widespread changes.

Since the announcement of her resignation, journalists and political pundits have attempted to socially construct the “legacy” of Karen Hughes.  Some journalists have discussed both the increase in the diplomacy budget and several initiatives, including the launch of the Counterterrorism Communications Center, the creation of rapid response teams, the establishment of relationships with Arab journalists, and the development of regional media hubs in Arab countries as indicative of her achievement.  In a Washington Post story, an anonymous source noted that Hughes “realized that the background work was going to be her legacy.”

However, many others argue that Hughes’s “legacy,” is marked by failure, asserting she made “no appreciable impact on improving global perceptions of the United States,” (Beirut Daily Star’s R. Khouri), and that support of the U.S. has “plummeted” (New York Times H. Cooper).  Furthermore, some journalists and bloggers went so far as to suggest that Hughes’s “mission [was] not accomplished” (Baltimore Sun’s M. Silva) because she was “small minded” (D-Ring blog’s S. Field) in her approach.  Again, these comments reflect her tendency to focus exclusively on image improvement.

A Washington Post article on her “legacy” defines the new priorities that must be set to ensure the U.S. wins the public diplomacy battle:

This strategy would involve overt and covert ways to assist anti-Islamist political parties, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, media outlets, women’s groups, educational institutions and youth movements as they compete with the radicals. It calls for marshaling government resources – our embassies, aid bureaucracies, international broadcasting units and intelligence agencies, as well as our commercial, educational and civic relationships – to give anti-Islamists the moral, political, financial, technological and material support they need. A key feature of this includes empowering local Muslims with information about the salafist or Wahhabi connections of their radical Islamist adversaries (p. A17).

If one supports this analysis, then Welcome:  Portraits of America will not sufficiently meet the requirements of the well-rounded, proactive, strategic public diplomacy approach being called for in the wake of Hughes’ resignation. Additionally, the contestation over the social construction of Hughes’s “legacy” will likely favor those who argue her approach was ultimately a failure.

Further Reading

  • Hollihan, T.A. (2001). Uncivil wars:  Political campaigns in a media age.  Boston:  Bedford/St.Martin’s.

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