Defending Beers

Put yourself in her place. When I told Charlotte Beers last week that people described her job as trying to sweep back a tidal wave of Arab hostility with a broom, she laughed.

After all, the former advertising executive’s career wasn’t supposed to end countering Muslim extremists with positive images of America in a war against terror. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still intact when President Bush nominated her to the position of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in June 2001. The job, which she announced she will leave for health reasons, was meant to be the crowning achievement in a storied advertising career that included high-profile stints at Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson.

That’s right. If you want poison-pen vitriol about Beers, you’re not going to find it here. The nattering nabobs of negativism in this city—and that includes the bureaucrats as well as the press—have been sharpening their knives on her back since she came to town.

Think back to how it all began. Secretary of State Colin Powell asked Beers to take the post, overseeing information agencies abroad, after the two served together on the board of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. Her boardroom connections were one of many boosts to her ad career. At the time of Beers’ appointment, Powell joked that one reason he chose her was because she persuaded him to buy Uncle Ben’s rice.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something,” Powell said at the time. “We are selling a product. We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy.”

Then came Sept. 11. An intense media spotlight suddenly focused on Beers. No one can say she lacked courage. This was the woman who once ate dog food during an Ogilvy pitch for the Mars account.

What did we expect—that Arab anger would disappear at a swish of her broom? She tried. Beers’ biggest effort to rebrand foreign policy, the $15 million “Shared Values” campaign featuring mini-documentaries of Muslims in America, had mixed results. Some countries, such as Egypt, declined to run the spots, although Beers recently testified before Congress that awareness of the campaign in places where it did air, like Indonesia, was high. Critics complained that the campaign promoted immigration over American values.

Inside the State Department, Beers was surrounded by elitist snobs and diplomatic purists who didn’t want their reputation, or the country’s, sullied by marketing jargon. I shudder to think of a woman once known to drop such lines as, “I’m likely to say the most outrageous thing in the room to liven things up,” holed up with that buttoned-down crowd. They gagged her. She wasn’t allowed to speak to the press for months.

Outside, the pundits were savage. The whole idea of advertising America was soundly mocked. “If we can’t effectively fight anthrax, I guess it’s reassuring to know we can always win the war on dandruff,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich. While the idea of selling America has its problems, at least somebody was trying to tell the Muslim world that we’re not all a bunch of cowboys and bullies.

Beers is no quitter. But at 67, she has some health issues. She doesn’t know what the problem is yet, but she needs time to find out. “It is frustrating to leave in the middle of a very important project,” she told me. “It was not my plan.”

She thinks Powell will replace her with another person with advertising experience. “That is the reason he asked me to come aboard,” she said. “They know I think having marketing experience is valuable. It is very high- profile in the mind of the State Department.”

At least Powell gets it.