Compared to what?

It's the ultimate answer to America's PR problem

Issue: "Enron's collapse," Jan. 26, 2002

America has a public-relations problem. For whatever reason, a whole lot of the world's 6 billion people seem not to like us very much. For some, it's just a distant disdain. But for many, it's a burning hatred.

But two things I learned years ago in the work of public relations still hold: First, assume the worst. Second, work hard to help folks see things in perspective. Whenever someone tells you that the cause you're promoting is full of holes, you've got to be prepared in a thoughtful and winsome way to respond by saying: "Compared to what?" For the near certainty is that if you're promoting any human endeavor, it does have its weak spots; some vulnerabilities are there, waiting to be exploited by the enemy. But you still have a right-and maybe a duty-to ask: "OK-so we've got our faults. We'll acknowledge that. But still, compared to what?"

We Americans need to do more of that on the world stage.

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But first, back to assuming the worst. Defensiveness rarely makes for good public relations. My boss 25 years ago told me that when I got cranky letters to the editor, the first line of my response should always be, "You may be right." "When you say that," he told me, "it's not the same as saying, 'You are right.' It's just buying a little time and disarming your critic a bit while you weigh the evidence." Through the years, I've found his counsel was wise indeed.

For understandable reasons, few Americans have been open over the last few months to frank discussions of their country's weaknesses. The murderers of 3,000 people in a single day are in no sense the moral equivalent of a cranky letter writer; nor do such monsters deserve anything like a meek "You may be right."

But neither are such murderers the moral equivalent of those who are merely our critics. Sometimes, we confuse them as such. For example, three good friends have during the past week pointed out to me with disdain a New Year's Eve statement by former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos on ABC-TV. All three thought Mr. Stephanopoulos bordered on the traitorous when he said: "One of the things that's been lacking here in the States is a real open debate about the effect of our policies in the world, about why some people in the world do hate us and the effect of our policies on them. I think we need a little bit more of that in the coming year." On this one, I disagree with my friends and think that Mr. Stephanopoulos-however partisan and wrong he has often been-is right.

One of the great proofs of strength is the ability to deal with, rather than to deny, weakness. When the Christian martyr Jim Elliott quoted the aphorism, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose," he might well have applied it to those who would protect the honor of their country, their organization, their family, their cause. You do no dishonor when you deal squarely with possible dishonor.

Are there big blotches on America's report card, both then and now? Of course. Do we fall short of our lofty goals, and sometimes look and even act like hypocrites? Embarrassingly, yes. Will we stumble again-maybe even seriously? To be sure.

Whenever that happens, Americans need to admit we were wrong, say sincerely that we're sorry, stand up again, shake ourselves off, make compensation where appropriate, and then ask sweetly but pointedly: "But compared to what?"

And will our image in other parts of the world sometimes be even worse than the reality justifies? Absolutely. The Pew Research Center reported last week that while 70 percent of all Americans think the United States is taking into account the interests of partner countries in the fight against terrorism, only 33 percent of "influential" people in those partner countries think that is the case. A strong anti-U.S. bias is going to be part of the world scene far into the future.

Yet there again, a gentle "Compared to what?" question is appropriate.

We are able to ask that question because, in God's mercy, America continues to be the most popular nation on earth. For all the warts and blemishes that are really there, and for all the bad press and misinformation that shouldn't be there but is, no nation on earth is our rival as the desired destination of the weak and the poor. By the millions, they proclaim year after year: "We know where down-and-outers get the best treatment. This is where we want to live."

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