A few days ago, I met with some high school students from a nonprofit community program. They wanted to know about my career and how they might better promote their program. I shared a few war stories—they were most interested in my Star Trek exploits—and then opened it up for questions.
One of the first queries was also one of the most profound: “With all that’s happening with our country right now, do you think America needs some good public relations?”
It was the second time in 24 hours I’d been asked about the American brand.
The previous day, a Canadian friend phoned me with a concern. His daughter and son-in-law are contemplating a career move to California. His question: “Should I be worried that they may be moving to a country in such turmoil?”
Not so long ago, I thought I’d never hear such questions. The American brand was one of opportunity, of an escape from persecution and despair, of a new beginning for building a better life. While never a perfect place, of course, America nonetheless held promise and hope found nowhere else in the world.
That brand isn’t merely tarnished, it’s obliterated. Left behind. In its place is something far darker, more hostile, decidedly belligerent.
We can blame lots of things and lots of people for the fall-off. It’s politics, yes. It’s self-centered and self-serving policy decisions. It’s internal strife, especially along racial and economic lines. It’s the false belief of exceptionalism, the celebration of greed, the might-makes-right fallacy, the conviction that we’re right and everyone else is wrong.
But in my experience, the biggest threat to any brand—whether a product, a business or a nation—is apathy.
Somewhere along the way, the United States stopped caring. It stopped caring about what was morally right. It stopped caring when evil threatened others, so long as evil kept its distance—hence the rallying cry, “America first!” And when evil came to call, America eventually stopped acting in the best interests of all and insisted on the interests of itself.
And the real tragedy is that, by and large, America doesn’t care anymore.
It was American compassion that Canadian writer Gordon Sinclair celebrated in a 1973 editorial, at a time when the U.S. was under harsh criticism for its involvement in Vietnam. “This Canadian thinks it is time to speak up for the Americans as most generous and possibly the least appreciated people on all the earth,” he wrote. I can name you 5,000 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble. Can you name me even one time when someone else raced to the Americans in trouble? … Our neighbors have faced it alone, and I'm one Canadian who is damned tired of hearing them get kicked around.”
One wonders whether Sinclair would pen such an op-ed today—or whether Americans would care.
As I’ve said many times in this space, “public relations” is not about merely delivering a message. It’s about forging relationships, about building dialogue so that we understand each other’s needs and work toward mutually beneficial results. It’s about a willingness to listen and to move together toward the collective good. That’s how progress is made. That’s the starting point for a solid, enduring brand.
So yes, America does need good public relations. It needs to remember that it isn’t alone, that the world counts on it to be a champion for what’s good and right. It needs to admit when it’s wrong, commit to doing better, and help others to do the same. It needs to re-embrace its image as a land of opportunity and welcome, and living out those ideals. It needs to re-engage with its compassion—for its citizens of all walks, and for the people of the world.
Those are the things that made America truly great. Those were the things that the world admired. And I firmly believe those things are still within us, if only we have the courage to let them out once more.
That was the assurance I gave to my Canadian friend—the potential to be what we were, the potential for goodness to endure, and the wise insights of people like his daughter and son-in-law to encourage it
“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last, best hope of earth,” said Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln shared his dream a long time ago. Now would be a good time to start making it real again.