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Draft. final appeared Public Relations Quarterly, 45 (Winter 2000), pp. 33-37.

A Public Relations Tour of  Embassy Row:
The Latin Diplomatic Experience

 By:  R.S. Zaharna & Juan Cristobal Villalobos
American University

 Former American Ambassador to France, Pamela Harrison was keenly aware of the emerging link between diplomacy and public relations.  “An ambassador's role,” she said, “has changed since the onset of instant communication and the centralization of policy making in Washington.  The job is now often one of public relations and establishing a prominent presence.”

 Perhaps no where is the merger between diplomacy and public relations more evident than among the foreign diplomatic corps in Washington, D.C.   Albeit they are in the nation’s capital, many among the diplomatic community lining Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue feel they are miles away from the White House down the street and even further from Capital Hill just a ten-minute taxi ride away.  Daily, the diplomats compete with pressing domestic issues and a host of international issues to gain the attention of America’s policy-makers, media and public.

 While more and more foreign governments are turning to American public relations firms, some embassies have developed their own creative public relations approach.  This article takes a behind-the-scene tour of the public relations strategies of four Latin American embassies located along Embassy Row.


 Mexico and the United States are becoming a family. They have more issues in
common but also more fights,” says David La Gesse, a reporter with The Dallas Morning News.  U.S.-Mexican relations represent $200 billion in annual trade between the two countries, with the U.S. begin Mexico’s largest foreign investor. Aware of how public perceptions of Mexico influence American political and economic decisions, the Mexican embassy in Washington has built a comprehensive public relations strategy.

 Mexico became a visible PR powerhouse with the successful passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  In the two years leading up to the vote, Mexico spent $20 million, amassing an armada of 44 public relations and law firms. For six years, Burson-Marsteller, had a $1 million-a-year contract, advising Mexico on how to improve media coverage, influence decision-makers and assess public opinion. In 1997, Mexico spent $11 million to promote itself as an emerging democracy and tourist haven.  While the economic crisis forced Mexico to drop its contract with Burson-Marsteller in 1999, the embassy retained three small firms for “strategic advice.”

 For José Antonio Zabalgoitia, Minister for Information and Public Affairs and head of the Office of Information and Public Affairs at the Mexican embassy, American public relations firms are just one more tool Mexico uses to cultivate its bilateral relations with the U.S.

 American decision-makers are a primary target for the Mexican embassy.  As Zabalgoitia argues, “Our goal is to make sure that those who make the decisions have the most complete and accurate information about the Mexican democratization process so that they can understand Mexican economic reforms.”  His office analyzes American media accounts of Mexico and how decision-makers might react. The Information Office works closely with the embassy’s Congress Liaison Office to coordinate their efforts and message strategies.

 The American media is another key audience.  The Information Office organizes briefings with journalists, coordinate interviews, and develops talking points for the Ambassador. The office organizes trips to Mexico for American journalists and businessmen and arranges media interviews for visiting Mexican officials. Although the American public relations consultants draft the embassy’s press releases, fact sheets, and public statements, all media pieces follow embassy guidelines.

 In reaching out to the American public, the embassy takes advantage of its extensive network of 42 consulates spread across the U.S.  Each consulate – many with its own communication official – delivers the same message, yet stresses the local angle in its interviews, press releases, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor.  As an official representative of the Mexican government, each consulate also actively participates in local business, school and civil functions. Through this localized strategy, the embassy tries to not only strengthen Mexican-American relations, but also influence the constituents and local media of decision-makers back in Washington.

 The Office of Information also uses electronic communication vehicles. The monthly  email bulletin, Mexico Outlook, details economic information for decision-makers and journalists. The embassy web site (www.embassyofmexico.org) provides general information on the politics, economy and tourism in Mexico, whiles its web editorials tackle controversial issues as such as the conflict in Chiapas and Mexico’s democratization process.

 Zabalgoitia disagrees with the general wisdom that a good press attaché has to
be a journalist. “I can talk effectively on any topic because, as a diplomat, I have a strong background in politics, economics and other topics that help me to supply the right answer. Very often, journalists do not have these skills.”

 On many occasions when facing a controversial issue, the Mexican government does not immediately articulate a position.  In such instances, Zabalgoitia, as the Minister for Information and Public Affairs, serves as the embassy spokesperson.  “I have to be aware of the repercussions in the U.S. and in Mexico of any statement usually a good reaction in Mexico implies a bad reaction in the U.S. and vice versa,” he says.


 Faced with an international image of a country ruled by drug czars and destroyed economically by the endless war between the guerrillas and militias, Colombia began work on its image in 1995 when it hired the Sawyer/Miller Group.  After evaluating public opinion surveys, the firm argued that trying to improve the country’s image through positive publicity would be seen as an obvious propaganda ploy.  So instead, Sawyer/Miller advised Colombia to change its image from villain to victim, then turn the victim into a hero, and then define the hero as a leader in the war on drugs.  Using that strategy, Columbia implemented an advertising campaign targeting U.S. policy-makers in 1991.
 That year alone, Colombia spent $3.1 million in consulting fees.  In addition to the advertising campaign, the Sawyer/Miller Group produced pamphlets, letters to the editors signed by Colombian officials, VNRs, and full-page ads in The Washington Post and The New York Times.  One editorial meeting with the New York Times Magazine resulted in a lengthy, positive story about the Columbian government’s successes in dealing with drug dealers.  The embassy promptly bought reprint rights and sent thousands of copies to journalists around the U.S.

 Despite all these early efforts, Colombia today still faces some of the same negative images.  Press Attaché Claudia Morales laments that most of the media requests concern drugs, human rights' violations and terrorism. "Our approach is to give journalists accurate information and explain the government’s efforts to improve the situation." She points out that, due to misunderstandings and inaccurate stories about Colombia, the Ambassador frequently writes letters to the editor.

A key to Morales’ effectiveness is her good working relationship with the ambassador.  Daily, she informs him on American media coverage of Colombia. Additionally, before any contact with the media, Morales briefs the Ambassador on the journalists, possible discussion, new developments on key issues, and response strategies. The Ambassador does not give official interviews.  Instead, he prefers to have a relaxing conversation with the journalists and build a personal relationship with them in off-the-records meetings. This is his personal style of influencing reporters.

 In addition to the media, members of Congress, and government officials, Colombia has  another critical audience: human rights organizations.  To address the concerns of this public, the embassy distributes “Peace Mail,” via email to organizations, journalists and members of Congress on developments in the Columbian peace process.  Additionally, the embassy web site embassy (www.colombiaemb.org/) has helped spread information.  As Morales noted, “New communication technology plays a very important role in our efforts.”

 Recently, American firms have rejoined Colombia in its public relations efforts.  An American lobbying firm presses Colombia's interest with the American Congress and administration, while BSMG Worldwide (formerly Sawyer Miller Group) has secured a $420,000 contract to create “communication links” with the media to promote Colombia’s image.

 David Meszaros leads the four-person BSMG team that works in the Colombian account.  As Meszaros explains, "the main mission is to educate the American media about Colombia, get good coverage, and nurture contacts with journalists, columnists, and think tanks. The message is that there are ‘bad’ and ‘good’ people in Colombia and that the government is the good guy."

 Of significance, the BSMG  team handled media relations for first official visit to the U.S. by a Columbian head of state in more than 25 years.  It also played a supporting role in the lobbying efforts to get a Colombian aid package passed Congress.  Again, the team focused on media relations -- pitching stories, distributing press releases and speeches and talking to journalists -- in an effort to influence American decision-makers.   For visiting Colombian officials, the firm not only arranges interviews, but also coaches them on their presentations and helps them develop talking points.

 As part of his own responsibilities, Meszaros meets twice weekly with the Ambassador to discuss media strategies. Even though Meszaros acknowledges that it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of a country’s image campaign, he says that BSMG has made “an impact” on the U.S.’s view of Colombia. "Over the years, this public relations firm has helped to rebuild Colombia’s image. Five years ago, the Colombian government was labeled as one of the most corrupt in the world, now no one can make that assumption."  Nor should one underestimate the monetary value of that public relations impact: in 2000 the U.S. Congress approved a $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia and President Clinton went to Colombia himself to symbolically hand them the check.


 The most remarkable aspect of Cuban public relations is how the image of a whole country is personified in the image of a single individual.  Paradoxically, just as Fidel Castro has been Cuba’s greatest public relations liability, he also has been Cuba’s greatest  public relations strength.  In an equally ironic twist, the battle over a Cuban six-year-old, Elian Gonzalez, inadvertently resulted in an information campaign that ultimately led to the easing of sanctions against Cuba.

 Lifting the sanctions entirely has been a major goal of Cuba.  After the fall of the  communist regimes in Eastern Europe and support from the Soviets ended, Cuba has been trying to attract investors by promoting the island nation as a safe and worthy investment location and as a unique tourist spot.  During the nineties, Castro has employed three major public events to bolster the Cuban image in the U.S.

 The first came in 1995, when Castro, wearing a suit in public for the first time, visited New York City to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.  During his trip, he sought support to end the embargo, met with American businessmen, journalists, and supporters, and invited international capitalists to invest in his "new economic paradise.''  However, the Cuban leader’s big moment came in a Harlem church when almost two thousand began chanting his name.  For Castro, it proved he could inspire a crowd even on American soil.

 Then came the papal visit to Cuba in January 1998.  As Pope John Paul II stepped out of the plane, Castro stood at the bottom of the stairs to greet him.  It was only two years earlier that the Cuban leader had visited the Vatican.  After that meeting, one Newsweek reporter said Castro “perhaps for the first time in his life, was humble and tender.”  The deference the Communist dictator showed to the Roman Catholic priest during the Pope’s visit to Cuba was not lost on the some 1,400 American journalists sent to cover the story.  Wisely, Castro kept a low profile, letting the Pope’s strong statements against U.S. sanctions speak for the Cuban people.   Even though Pope’s trip was eclipsed by the sudden explosion of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, the papal visit helped Castro humanize his – and by extension -- Cuba’s image around the world.

 Then, a year later, in January 1999, the popular Baltimore Orioles baseball team went to Havana to play against the Cuban national team. Cuban-Americans and right-wing activists protested that the game was just another of Castro’s public relations venture. They were probably right.  The Cuban government had carefully selected the public who attended the game; all were active members of the Communist party.  Castro played the role of a gracious host.

 Aware of Castro’s charisma and magnetism, the Cuban government regularly invites key American journalists and think tank personnel to visit the island. The main attraction is a meeting with Castro, a historical figure central to the most critical moments of the Cold War. The editors of Time Magazine and a group of CNN executives, including its president Tom Johnson, have been among Castro’s guests.  Many have remarked how they were taken by the charm and vigor of the Cuban leader.  It’s during these intimate meetings, usually conducted over a formal dinner, that Castro is able to tell his story and influence those who have a key role in shaping American public opinion.

 If Castro moves with ease in the public relations arena, Cuban diplomats in Washington have a much tougher task.  As Luis Fernandez, first secretary of the Cuban mission explains, promoting the Cuba’s image is very difficult.  Because of the strong anti-Cuba sentiment that has prevailed over the decades, the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Thus, instead of having an embassy, the Cuban government is represented by the Office of Cuban Interests contained under the auspices of the Swiss embassy.  Additionally, the strict U.S. sanctions mean that the Cuban government is not allowed to spend funds on promotional activities, such as hiring a public relations firm or buying advertising space in the media.  Finally, the Office of Cuban Interests has to counter balance the political and economic influence of powerful Cuban-American political groups.

 When one considers the public relations challenges and comparatively limited resources of the Cuban diplomat in Washington, the Elian Gonzalez case was both a curse and a blessing.  Again, during the seven-month custody battle over Elian Gonzalez, Castro used his charisma to serve as Cuba’s national spokesperson and chief public relations strategist.  He organized massive, public rallies demanding Elian’s return “home to Cuba.”  The rallies, by their sheer volume and connection to the controversy, were guaranteed coverage by the American media.  Similarly, Castro cloaked the U.S.-Cuban contest over Elian in religious, emotional rhetoric calling it a “struggle between David and Goliath."  Cuba, of course, was cast as the comparatively tiny but brave David who had the power of justice and goodness on his side.  Throughout this period, the Office of Cuban Interests not only had to deal with the onslaught of media and public inquiries generated by the controversy, but went beyond what most consider diplomatic duty.  The senior diplomat  hosted  Elian’s family in his own home for more than two weeks.

 Today, the Cuban diplomats have returned to their primary duties; presenting their government’s position in academic and political forums related to Cuba. They are continuing their work to strengthen relations with academics, business executives, and pro-Cuba solidarity groups opposed to the embargo.  Additionally, given Cuban government’s goal to provide Americans with a new perspective of Cuba, the diplomats have also been actively promoting cultural visits of Cuban musicians, painters, and sculptors to America.  As Fernandez noted in speaking about the benefits of these cultural visits, “Now Americans will not think only of politics when they think of Cuba.”  That is probably true.  They are likely to think of Castro or Elian.


 In Washington’s extremely competitive market of ideas, messages, and self-promotion, Argentina has chosen to lead its public relations efforts with two things that have made it famous around the world: beef and tango.

 The embassy created the “Smiling Beef Club” that meets every week at the ambassador’s residence. In a relaxing atmosphere, American journalists, Congress members and governmental officials join foreign diplomats to freely talk and enjoy Argentinean beef and wine. Those who regularly participate in the “beef parties” have their own club card. The Argentina embassy even sends beef to the White House, hoping that President Clinton or his senior advisors will enjoy their savory product and “think of Argentina.”

 Equally creative, the embassy established the American-Argentinean Tango Academy which holds weekly tango classes at the embassy and sponsors exhibitions and contests. The biggest news hook of the American-Argentinean Tango Academy is its president: the actor and tango fan Robert Duvall.

 Argentina also uses more traditional communication tools. For example, the embassy’s Information Office publishes slick brochures, promoting Argentinean political and economic successes as well as Argentinean artists. One information packet even includes an attractive CD rom. Daily, the Information Office compiles clippings from Argentinean newspapers and distributes them to American think tanks. The embassy’s web site (www.embassyofargentina-usa.org/) is constantly being enhanced with new links, sounds, and videos. With the effectiveness of new communication technology, the embassy stopped publishing its traditional newsletter.

 Argentinean Press Attaché Dante Loz differentiates between two types of journalists the embassy targets.  One type focuses on social and style news, the other covers international and economic news. The former is fed with tourism or entertainment news, and the latter with political and financial information.  Even though Loz’s main concern is with journalists in America, he says that he regularly receives requests from American journalists based in Argentina, including those working for The Washington Post, The Angeles Times and The New York Times. The embassy also feeds information to CNN (Spanish-language channel) and Univision, both of which have an enormous presence in Latin America.  The key of effective media relations, says Loz, is not to overwhelm journalists with useless information. “If you do that you will ultimately kill the effectiveness of the message.”

 Loz claims that countries such as Argentina, which have a good image and fair relationship with the U.S., do not need to hire American public relations consultants.  However, he argues that a good press attaché has to have some special skills.  Even more important than knowing how the media works, Loz says that you have to know how politics work. “You have to know how to handle political and diplomatic issues,” and he adds, “Those issues can be very controversial indeed.”


 Our Latin American tour reveals public relations goals that are as different as each country’s national cuisine and geography. Yet, each appears to be successfully making the journey from Embassy Row to the White House and Capitol Hill by making a realistic assessment of their country’s image and strengths, developing a focused goal, and then realizing that goal through creatively combining message, strategy and resources.

 The Mexican embassy, with extensive financial resources, focused its message on NAFTA and built a powerhouse of American professionals to communicate that message.  When the economic crisis hit the country, the embassy utilized its network of consulates as well as the Internet.  The Colombian government garnered the assistance of an American public relations firm to craft a strategic message and then fortified its embassy’s press office and took advantage of technology as well.  The Cuban mission, barred from spending funds on public relations activities within the U.S., relied on the powerful charisma of its president Fidel Castro to get its national message out of Cuba and into the American media.  The Cuban diplomats took it from there. Finally Argentina, spared from controversy and blessed with a good public image, used the positive appeal of its best-known national exports, beef and tango, as the public relations center piece for its embassy’s small-scale, diplomatic activities.

 Each public relations approach exemplifies the creative options that foreign diplomats can use to tell their country’s story to the American media, policy makers and public. Undoubtedly, in the increasingly competitive communication environment of  Washington, the diplomats’ task will become more and more challenging.  In the process, more and more American public relations professionals will likely join in the effort.