Here's my hope for 2008—that U.S. CEOs start doing something about America's lousy image around the world. Till now, they've argued it's not their problem, that their companies are not "American," they're "global."
But now, U.S. customers want them off the sidelines. According to a Zogby poll, three-fourths of likely voters are concerned about America's reputation around the world. And more than half expect U.S. multinational companies to do something about it.
Despite recent accounting scandals, American companies have more credibility than the U.S. government in most corners of the world. They also have more feet on the street; and best of all, those feet aren't clad in combat boots. More than 6 million people work for U.S. companies abroad. They're all potential ambassadors—not for U.S. foreign policies, but for American values of individual freedom, equal opportunity and fair play.
Alleviating anti-Americanism is not a matter of patriotism, it's good business. No matter how "global" U.S.-based businesses are, their American roots show. That makes them juicy targets for publicity-seeking protestors, increases their security costs, affects their ability to recruit local talent and complicates their dealings with regulatory agencies.
The declining value of the dollar may mask the short-term sales impact, but the long-term macro effects may be even worse. Anti-Americanism costs the United States the cooperation of other nations in dealing with such global problems as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, climate change, HIV/AIDS, avian flu and the next security crisis, whether it breaks out in Iran, North Korea or the Taiwan Strait. A world shaken by conflict makes for a lousy market.
Here are five things U.S.-based global companies can do to help alleviate anti-Americanism:
1. Educate employees in working across cultures. For example, the passport-sized "World Citizen's Guide" pinpoints American mannerisms—such as a loud voice and hurried gestures—that can be perceived as boastful or arrogant. Get a free copy at www.worldcitizensguide.org.
2. Encourage employees to get involved in organizations that promote international understanding, such as the World Affairs Council (www.worldaffairscouncils.org), Rotary International (www. rotary.org) or the Lions Clubs International (www.lionsclubs.org).
3. Support organizations that facilitate cultural and educational exchanges, such as Meridian (www.meridian.org) and the American Field Service (www.afs.org).
4. Charge the heads of foreign operations to become active members of local chambers of commerce and to build stronger relationships with local journalists and business leaders.
5. Ensure that foreign operations become part of the local community through employee volunteerism and by investing in causes at the intersection of corporate competencies and local needs.
Some companies have already discovered that these actions not only help America's reputation, they're also good for the bottom line. When companies can do well by doing good, maybe there's reason for hope.
Dick Martin is the author of "Rebuilding Brand America" (American Management Association, 2007), and was exec VP-public relations and brand management at AT&T from 1997 to 2002. He can be reached at email@example.com.