Karen Hughes is the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
This week I attended a movie premiere, but without Hollywood stars – this is Washington after all. The stars of this film are the men, women and children of America, shown at work, at play and going about their daily lives. This new film was produced by Disney, at no expense to the taxpayers of America, and generously given to the U.S. government to help us welcome international visitors to our country.
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.
When I first started working on America’s public diplomacy a couple of years ago, a few things became very clear, very quickly. First, all our research shows that people who have visited America and seen us for themselves have much more positive views – in fact, travel industry research found that 74 percent of those who visit here are more likely to feel extremely favorably about America. So, one of my first goals became to attract more people here.
But that collided with another reality – that in the aftermath of September 11th, new security regulations designed to protect both our citizens and our guests had slowed the visa process, made our airports seem less friendly, and generally created a perception that was more off-putting than welcoming. I remember coming through an airport after an international trip – it seemed confusing and intimidating – even though I spoke the language. The only TV monitors were blank, and I didn’t see even a single sign that said welcome or we’re glad you’re here.
I started looking for partners to help us put out a better welcome mat, and realized that the travel tourism industry had a shared interest in bringing people to our country. We started brainstorming ways to make the entire process, from getting a visa to standing in an airport security line, more customer friendly. One of the things we all talked about from our very first meeting was using television monitors to display a welcoming video message as people stood in lines to go through customs.
Providing a warm welcome is more than something nice to do. Attracting people to our country is vital to our economy, our national interests, and especially to public diplomacy. I believe our education and exchange programs have been our single most effective public diplomacy tool of the last 50 years, and I’ve worked hard to make them more strategic and expand them. We’re bringing key influencers like clerics, journalists, teachers, business leaders – and we’re sending more Americans overseas to learn languages and more about the rich cultures and contributions of other countries.
I meet with veterans of these exchange programs and they almost all say the same thing – the experience changed my life. It also has the potential to change the world – more than 130 of our exchange participants have gone on to become leaders of their countries, including the current prime minister of Great Britain, the president of France, and the president of Turkey. We want to make sure the same thing is true 20 or 30 years from now.
I like to describe the way others view our country as a complex tapestry that is woven by many different artists from many different threads– from the pop culture of Hollywood to government policies of Washington, from the products of our companies to the personalities of our people. This video will now become one of those threads, illuminating the many smiling faces of America to welcome international guests.
We have already sent the video and associated posters to embassies and consular offices across the world, where it will greet aspiring visitors long before they arrive on our shores. We’re going to play it in waiting rooms and at embassy events – and we hope it will inspire many who otherwise might not have thought about traveling to America to come and see it for themselves.