Janet Steele

Janet Steele is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at GW. A former Fulbrighter and State Department speaker in Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor Leste, Burma, The Philippines, Taiwan, India, Sudan, Egypt, and Bangladesh, her view of public diplomacy tends to be from the trenches. She is working on a book on journalism and Islam.
Janet Steele has written 2 posts for Take Five

The Secret to Public Diplomacy: Looking at Email Dari Amerika

Book launch 5

Janet Steele (far left) at the launch event of her book, “Email Dari Amerika” in Indonesia, August 12, 2014.

What’s the secret to public diplomacy and how do you measure its impact?

Although I spent the summer in Indonesia working on my project on journalism and Islam, I’ve also been up to some public diplomacy – most recently two weeks ago, when I launched a collection of my Email Dari Amerika columns at @America – an outpost of the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy located in a fancy shopping mall in Jakarta.  It was a lot of fun. Here’s a link to the video, but the photos are more interesting because they’re in English :) The Deputy Chief of Mission spoke, which added a nice note of gravitas to what might otherwise have been a discussion of snow, Valentine’s Day, and my parrot.

Email Dari Amerika is not an academic book, but writing those weekly columns for three years took a lot of effort, and I’m proud of what I accomplished.  I had met Dhimam Abror, the editor of Surya newspaper, on a U.S. Government speaking trip back in 2006, and we became friends.  Later, he asked if I’d write a weekly column, and I said no – that my Indonesian wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t want to offer superficial commentary on current events, and that I wasn’t a very fast writer.  Dhimam observed that I wrote emails very quickly, and suggested that I write a weekly “Email From America” of 600 words about my life in the U.S. So I did.

I’m certainly an unusual American, but the column turned out to be fun to write, and I developed quite a fan club. The real challenge was filtering complicated ideas through my limited vocabulary.  I tried to think up topics that Indonesians would find interesting – what snow is like, Valentine’s Day, what it was like to be on the Mall during Obama’s inauguration.

I had a great editor who fixed up my grammar but didn’t change my sentence structure or syntax, so it still sounds like me. It all ended shortly after Dhimam left the newspaper, but Yayasan Pantau, a journalism training institute in Jakarta where I’ve been teaching workshops for the past 14 years, decided to publish a collection of them after I posted a translation of my “Valentine’s Day” column on Facebook. The fatwa against celebrating Valentine’s Day really annoyed me – as you know, in the U.S. Valentine’s Day is hardly an excuse for vice; in fact, the people who probably enjoy it the most are school kids.

There’s no secret to Public Diplomacy; it’s really connecting people to people, being sensitive to others, and demonstrating that all of us have far more in common than we realize. The problem is that when budgets get tightened, public diplomacy programs are among the first to go.  In recent years, I’ve been told countless times “we’d love to have you as a speaker, but we just don’t have the budget.”

The U.S. government investment that led to Email Dari America was two days of speaker honorarium plus travel expenses from Jakarta – well under $1,000.  As one former Public Affairs Officer with whom I’ve worked put it, “Glad we could send you on speaker and Fulbright programs to Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond. You have increased the value of our modest investments exponentially!”

It’s often hard to measure the impact of public diplomacy, but as the Press Attaché who invited me to Surabaya eight years ago recently wrote, “You have made my day! Now that is a real tangible impact! Seriously!”

From the Trenches

“You are an unofficial representative of the American people.”

These were the words of Richard Gong, the head of the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.  It was September 1997, and I had just started what I hoped would be an exciting year as a Fulbrighter. I’d been awarded a position as a Senior Scholar at the University of Indonesia, where I would be teaching in the graduate program of the American Studies department.  You could also say that this was the start of my career in public diplomacy.

I guest lectured for graduate political science graduate class at Cairo University

During the next twelve months, I watched the fall of a dictator, the complete reorganization of a media system, and the beginnings of democracy in a majority Muslim country.  I also learned Indonesian, re-focused my research to the study of journalism in Southeast Asia, and began to do work in public diplomacy that has since taken me all over the world.   The lessons I learned in Indonesia have been useful not only in other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Burma, and Timor Leste, but also more recently in on a USG speaker-specialist trip to post-revolutionary Egypt.

My start in public diplomacy may have been somewhat accidental, but I’ve been engaged in it for the past fifteen years.  I’ve been a speaker-specialist in ten countries, and although the topics and challenges have varied from post to post, I’ve never forgotten what Richard said.

I like that I’m “unofficial.”  As someone who’s spent a lot of time around embassies, I can’t imagine anything more difficult than being a diplomat, and having to guard each and every word I say.  I’ve met some great diplomats and some mediocre ones, but the best are those who truly engage with the countries in which they are posted, while never forgetting who it is they work for.

My narrative writing class at Alexandria University

In my work, engagement means taking each country and its media system on its own terms.  In Egypt, I spent a lot more time talking about the Indonesian press system than I did about what we have in the United States.  There’s a lot that Egypt could learn from Indonesia, another country that emerged from over 30 years of authoritarian rule with a tightly controlled press.  As I pointed out repeatedly, the man who in my opinion was Indonesia’s best and most democratic president, Abdurrahman Wahid, was not only a highly regarded Muslim scholar and one-time student at Al-Azhar, he was also the man who abolished the Ministry of Information.  As any Indonesian can tell you, democracy, good journalism, and the values of Islam are not incompatible.

I also like that I don’t represent  the American government, but rather the American people.  In nearly all of the places I’ve been — during Democratic and Republican administrations alike — it’s a cliche to say  “we like the American people, we just don’t like your government.” In Egypt, this meant that I was free to point out the weaknesses of both American and Egyptian media coverage of the handful of American NGO workers who were flown out of the country in apparent violation of the principle of an “independent judiciary.”  It also meant that I was free to note the hypocrisy of those Egyptian commentators who ascribed all progressive reform to “foreign interference.”

Accidental or not, this is public diplomacy from the trenches, and it’s what I’ll be writing about during my upcoming sabbatical year.  As I tell visiting journalist friends who come to the US and meet my classes, they may be the first Indonesian or Malaysian or Bangladeshi whom my American students have ever met.  At a time in which “we are all Khaled Said” or “we are all Trayvon Martin,” we are all public diplomats as well.  Like it or not, in this interconnected world, each one of us is engaged in public diplomacy.

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