Anything Can Be Sold Campaign: Try ‘Afghanistan, Always An Adventure’ — The Pomegranate Peace (Excerpt)

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rashmeeRashmee Roshan Lall started with The Times of India newspaper in Delhi, made a brief foray into publishing as editor of Rupa and HarperCollins India, and then took up broadcasting with the BBC World Service in London. She presented ‘The World Today’, BBC World Service’s flagship news and current affairs program. She was subsequently The Times of India’s Foreign Editor based in London, reporting on Europe. Till June 2011, she was editor of The Sunday Times of India. A Foreign Service spouse, she previously spent a year in Kabul, Afghanistan, working for the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Section. She also spent six months in Washington, D.C., reporting on the 2012 American presidential election.  Visit her website at www.rashmee.com.

The Pomegranate Peace is a work of fiction.  The author of that dark dramedy on Iraq clearly see this book as art imitating life.  Five million dollars in U.S. taxpayer money, handed over to an Afghani-Canadian contractor resident in Vancouver to grow pomegranates instead of poppy? Check.  Peter Van Buren  writes that “one could retitle Pomegranate Peace as We Meant Well, Too and not be too far off the mark.”   And we have to agree.  The excerpt below is Chapter 11 of the book; we imagine this is how you brand a country — with a PR flak, lots of money and a small shot glass topped with magic and imagination.  Read more via Amazon, HuffPo, the Good Book Corner.  Thanks to Rashmee, Piers  and Arcadia Books for permission to share the following excerpt with our readers.

pomegranate peace cover

Reprinted from The Pomegranate Peace by Rashmee Roshan Lall by arrangement with Arcadia Books Limited. Copyright © 2013 Rashmee Roshan Lall. Available as an ebook from any ebook platform.

* * *

Mr Khayber Ahmad, veteran of regime change, was not the only one thinking ahead to yet another transition. Over at the embassy, we were obsessed with plans for departure. Our president had set a date, or at least the year: 2014. We had 700 days to shape up and ship out. I was on the Transition Planning Team (Small), otherwise known as TPTS, or Tippets if you wanted to run everything together because you had run out of time, or patience, or the desire to be accurate.

Tippets was born of Tipple, the Transition Planning Team (Large) or TPL. The smaller group had a hundred people; the large was twice as big. Tippets was supposed to think, plan, do (TPD). That is how ‘Campaign Afghanistan’ began. Out of two acronyms and a string of alphabets. I was there. I saw it come into existence. I watched it take shape and I was present when it was launched.

It took a little while for Campaign Afghanistan to become the new standard for management courses taught at American universities. But it happened because of Sam Starkowsky’s excellent and highly readable book, The Donkey in the Dark. The book became a bestseller and Little Sam was anointed the world’s favourite management guru. But at the time, no one could have imagined that Little Sam would turn the 30-million-dollar ‘Campaign’ into the American version of Rumi’s 700-year-old story ‘The Elephant in the Dark’. And a solid business theory to boot, one which is routinely cited as the essential philosophy of creative problem-solving.

Everyone now knows the way in which Professor Starkowsky reprised Rumi. The original had a group of men touching an elephant in a dark room and offering wildly differing reports on the creature. The one who touched the trunk said it had to be a hosepipe; the man who felt the beast’s ear thought it was surely a fan; the third ran his hand over the animal’s leg and pronounced it a pillar and the fourth caressed the elephant’s wide back and decided it was a throne. Just as Rumi used the story to illustrate the limits of individual perception, Little Sam’s modern fable about a dozen Americans and a donkey underlined the importance of seeing the whole, not just parts of a problem. I have to hand it to Little Sam. I never knew he had it in him. He seems to have been the only one at a Tippets meeting to see the big picture.

It seemed such a good idea at the start even though the memo that set it off was the usual bureaucratese:

Agenda for TPTS:

TPD for APA – Sustainability. Selling Afghanistan to tourists, businessmen, the world.

To decode, this meant that the Transition Planning Team (Small)’s Think, Plan, Do strategy for Afghanistan-Post-America was all about selling the country as a brand.

As a former journalist, I was on the Tippets Working Group, which was smaller – just 25 people. We spent a whole day talking ‘Afghanistan, the idea’. Much of the time we debated the images that come to mind when the name Afghanistan is said out loud. Mountains, brave men, weapons, war, beautiful but benighted women. What, if any of that, to sell? Could it be sold at all?

Opinion on the working group was mixed. Little Sam thought that anything could be sold. Anecdotally, even refrigerators to Eskimos.

‘And in the real world, plots of land on the moon are sold,’ he said gravely. ‘And what about the promise of hundreds of thousands of dollars if you send a check for a mere ten bucks to a certain address? Dreams can be sold,’ he added persuasively, ‘though sometimes they might be dud.’

 

 

Bob said reality might get in the way of selling a basket case like Afghanistan.

We felt we were making progress but not fast enough for Washington. The pressure for results was building. An election year was coming up and the administration wanted to reassure the American public that we really were leaving and that there really was a limit to the blood and treasure we poured into the dun-colored wastes of Afghanistan. DC wanted a tangible transition strategy and it wanted it fast. This is why 30 million dollars was allocated to Campaign Afghanistan and Kinetic, one of the world’s biggest public relations companies, flew its senior vice-president, Ed Harper, and 15 flunkeys into Kabul from New York.

The first thing Ed told the Tippets Working Group when he arrived at the embassy was ‘Anything can be sold’.

Ed was tall and silver-haired with a patrician nose and the gracious air of an ambassador. It came of belonging to one of Boston’s oldest families – much older than mine, incidentally – though the money was new and came from a Toyota car dealership and I think he mentioned a Catholic somewhere in the bloodline. I could just see Mother rolling her eyes. Anyway, good genes and the instincts of a go-getter were the perfect combination for the world of public relations. Ed played an enormous role in Kinetic, swinging huge deals and swinging worldwide public opinion in impossible 180-degree turns. There was the phenomenally successful rebranding of vast and vaguely menacing Kazakhstan as ‘Big country, a big people’. Kinetic could also take credit for the rebirth of a much-maligned multi-national burger chain, whose arteryclogging, heart-stopping products became newly loved as ‘Food to live for’. This was very clever because it played off the health warning that this was what you died of. Kinetic sold its services worldwide with the subtly suggestive message: ‘With us, the world moves. Go Kinetic.’

When Campaign Afghanistan began in earnest, Ed led from the front, somewhat like a janissary in the court of an Ottoman sultan. His platoon of well-trained PR foot soldiers were ranged behind him and we, the Working Group, brought up the rear.

The first decision under his command – and I still think it was a good one, despite all that transpired later – was to hew out a smaller Core Group, called COG for short. My facility with the written word made me a natural choice for COG. Little Sam’s tendency to Stars and Stripes Haiku meant he was on as well. Ten other colleagues were picked and in Ed’s rather self-regarding phrase, ‘the strategy went kinetic’.

It stayed that way. For a fortnight, COG helped Ed and his team create a master plan to sell Afghanistan by sleight of hand and slick associations of word and image. In a symbolic gesture, Ed insisted we partake of root beer floats during the process, using ice cream and cans of soda from the DFAC. ‘It’s America at its best,’ he said.

‘Childhood in a glass,’ I murmured, remembering my first one, in my grandmother’s kitchen, with Grandfather telling us it was like an edible chemistry experiment because the ice cream had to go into the glass before the root beer or it would bubble up and fizz over.

Ed grinned. ‘The absolute truth. And that’s what we’ll do with this project. We’ll have nothing but the truth,’ he said, all silver-tongued to match his silver hair. ‘If the truth is ugly we can make the truth better but we will sell nothing but the truth.’

‘What is Afghanistan? What is it to you? Ask yourselves the question. I want one word from each of you or a short phrase, four words is ideal. The pitch has to sell the story of Afghanistan briefly and compellingly.’

We learned that it was known as the elevator pitch: selling an idea to a prospective client in 30 seconds.

It was the start of the Brainstormer 15, which is what Kinetic PR called the whole business of reducing Afghanistan to a few words. We had just 15 days to whittle down Afghanistan with all its thousands of years of history, culture and conflicts. I idly wondered at public relations companies’ tendency to military maneuver of the sort that is called tactical exercise without troops.

We started by analyzing the words and images that came to mind with the name Afghanistan.

‘War,’ someone called out.

‘Guns,’ said someone else.

‘Fearless men.’

‘Lawlessness.’

‘Traditional,’ offered Little Sam.

‘High mountains.’

‘Oppressed women.’

‘Opium.’

‘Lapis.’

‘Graveyard of empires.’

‘Naan, kebab, Qabli pulao,’ I said somewhat predictably, shamefully greedy even at this moment.

‘Fine carpets,’ said Bob.

By the time all twelve responses were in, we felt we had pretty much got Afghanistan contained. In 22 words, we believed we had laid bare the heart and soul and nerve and sinew of this extraordinary country.

‘Great,’ Ed said. ‘But I’m taking a reality check here. I’m having problems squaring most of these word pictures with reality. Is this really what you think? Do you never think Taliban? Osama bin Laden? The reason you’re here? The reason we are here? All of us.’

‘Yes, but that can hardly be part of Campaign Afghanistan. It can hardly be a viable way to sell this country to the world,’ Bob demurred.

‘Why not?’ asked Ed. ‘You came and when I say you, I mean us, Americans. Perhaps others will come too? For trade or tourism or kicks? Perhaps they will come because of what went before?’

Little Sam interjected. ‘But surely that’s not the point, Ed? Surely, we don’t want to sell the world something that’s too disturbing to the system?’

‘You’ve got to sell what you’ve got,’ was the imperturbable response.

‘It’s dangerous,’ murmured Brendan from the General Services Office, which did all the leasing, procurement and management of the embassy.

‘Exactly. Dangerous. I’m surprised no one used that word to sum up Afghanistan.’

‘It’s so dangerous that all the hotels in Kabul advertise the fact that they have seven-micron abrasion and blast-resistant film all around the building,’ Brendan said. He seemed childishly pleased with Ed’s concurrence, almost like the class swat finding favor with the headmaster. ‘I had to laugh when this Afghan logistics firm sent an email offering the embassy armored land cruisers for a tour of the country’s historical sites,’ he continued.

‘You might as well say Afghanistan’s mountains mean skiing will become big and people will see it as the unskied Switzerland of Asia,’ Bob said sarcastically.

Ed looked at him. ‘If you did say that you wouldn’t be wrong. Some folks are working on exactly that and they say central Afghanistan has some of the best outback skiing in the world. It’s supposed to be, ah, challenging, a place other skiers haven’t been, and it’s got no runs so all of it is a black run really. I’ve heard it said that Afghanistan would offer the kind of skiing that would have been familiar to skiers in the Alps in the 1950s.’

‘I believe heli-skiing is another idea some companies are playing with,’ said Brendan chattily.

Bob ignored him and focused on Ed. ‘When you say challenging, you mean grueling and dangerous, don’t you? And the exciting possibility of being blown up by a landmine that’s lain in the ground for years?’

Before Ed could answer, Moira, a large woman in HR, suddenly said, ‘This is not an adventure I’d want to sell my 21-year old daughter.’ Her placid face was framed by waves of pale blond hair. She looked a bit like a surprised cow wearing a wig. ‘If you say danger is the right word to describe this country, this is not the sort of adventure I would want to sell anyone and it doesn’t matter whether I know them or not.’

‘Aha. That’s it. Adventure. Afghanistan, an adventure. That’s it. You got it, ma’am,’ Ed said in a congratulatory fashion.

Moira dismissed his approval with a shake of her blond waves. ‘When I said adventure, I meant that it would be wholly dishonest to sell this danger to innocent people. Afghanistan is not an adventure, it’s dangerous.’

‘It is an adventure and occasionally dangerous. But I hear you, ma’am. I totally understand your concerns.’

‘I’m not sure you do,’ she responded. ‘I’ve been posted many places and I can tell you that conditions like we have here would mean the embassy would be evacuated. You wouldn’t have civilians – people like us – in a warzone. And you’re trying to sell innocent people this danger? You’re trying to spread the danger?’

She sounded outraged but Ed was soothing. ‘Quite. Quite. I’m sure you’re right, ma’am, that embassies elsewhere would be evacuated. But Afghanistan is atypical, wouldn’t you agree? Believe me when I say that describing this place as an adventure is probably the most honest piece of marketing you’ll ever find in the business. An adventure is by definition unusual, exciting, daring and sometimes but not always dangerous. Afghanistan is all of these and more.’

Moira looked confused and said nothing more.

With amiable adroitness Ed pressed his advantage.

’OK, so we’ve got two words: Afghanistan, adventure. Before we start on the next phase, getting another word or so to complete the picture, I’d just like to get you all thinking about something equally crucial. Shotgun versus deer rifle.’

He looked around at our uncomprehending faces and explained. ‘Standard public relations strategy.’

‘You’re going great guns,’ joked Bob. ‘Guns are so much part of the reality of Afghanistan, but deer rifles – ah, I think not.’

Ed laughed. ‘This is not about using guns in the sales pitch. It’s shorthand, if you like, for what strategy to adopt. You may not be a hunter and I’m not, you may never have even held a firearm, but you know the difference between a shotgun and a deer rifle. The rifle sends a carefully aimed shot for a long distance. The shotgun is useful at short range and sends a large number of shots – like a handful of gravel – out at a target. So, shotgun versus deer rifle? Which is right for the Afghanistan story? Or will it be a combo?’

We looked at each other uncertainly. Campaign Afghanistan seemed to be getting more complicated by the minute.

But Kinetic PR pushed us through the Brainstormer 15 and by the time it ended, we had our pitch: ‘Afghanistan, Always An Adventure’.

Ed pointed out the possibilities of the word ‘always’. ‘It pays heed to something you said,’ he told Little Sam, ‘tradition. But tradition is a loaded word. It can have negative connotations. “Always” transforms the negative into a positive. And it says something solid about this country: that it’s not new; it’s been around a long time. And that it will be around a long time.’

All along, Ed had remained determined it was ‘good, honest marketing’ to brand Afghanistan an adventure.

To me, the four-word summing up of Afghanistan seemed persuasive enough. And I was intensely proud of my idea for an Afghan trail mix, which could be packaged and sold to take along on the adventure. Ed described it as ‘simply brilliant’ and I was ecstatic to have made my own small contribution to Afghanistan’s culinary repertoire. But the masterstroke, or so I always felt, was the comma between ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘Always’. With Ed’s encouragement, we had pondered the most effective symbolic representation of the country and arrived at the turban. It was traditional male gear and Afghanistan was nothing if not macho and traditional.

The comma was to be a miniature turban. The crown of the turban would be the top of the comma, its long tail mimicking that of the punctuation mark.

We felt pleased at our imaginative chutzpah in creating a pitch-perfect symbol of Afghanistan for the fridge magnets.

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