public diplomacy

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Wacky Weather Woes in a Climate of Volatility

Reporting volatile weather and global climate conditions should consider its public diplomacy implications. Photo source

Reporting volatile weather and global climate conditions should consider its public diplomacy implications. Source

August is usually the month of swimming, surfboards, sand castles, and hiking in the great outdoors, but many of us wake up these days with weather woes and trepidation. Should we pack life preservers for rafting or rescues?

All of us are now well acquainted with weather warnings alerting us to the latest dangers: To date, 17 wildfires along the border of California and Oregon have scorched 180 square miles of land. Meanwhile, reports continue about hurricanes churning in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

As a result, the bills are also mounting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that in 2013, there were around 17 weather/climate disasters that each exceeded $1 billion in losses across the U.S. Recent reports, including the US government Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, make clear that higher temperatures, rainfall changes, and natural disasters are linked to climate change and things that humans are doing to the planet in this century.

We need to tell people more than just today’s forecast. The World Meteorological Organization reports that 1998, 2005, and 2010 were the warmest years on record globally! Thirteen of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century. For the US, 2012 was the warmest year on record. For Australia it was 2013. We have to communicate these trends and their relationship to increased greenhouse emissions.

Public diplomacy offers many interesting approaches to weather, including wording and communications as well as monitoring and evaluation:

1. Let’s start by avoiding, at least in this article, the two controversial words: “climate change.” The phrase has become so politically loaded and scientifically debated that it risks eclipsing the bigger issue of bad weather. Those two phenomena are likely related, but mixing them in the same sentence gets people mad. So maybe we can just use another two words: “Mother Nature,” since she seems in charge.

2. We need more weather accountants. It is near impossible to follow the patterns, tracking and numbers of weather incidents. Adding it all up is a mind-numbing exercise. Fortunately, the White House Climate Initiative announced this year is going to do just that: thread together all the government data from NOAA, NASA, the US Geological Survey and other federal agencies.

3. Once we get the math and science right, we need to put it all this volatility into a larger context. That requires good communications. Much of the best analysis of weather lies in highly scientific and technical journals full of jargon. We need to train our science writers to speak in terms we can all understand. Concepts like “polar vortex” and “arctic blast” require stories and characters in addition to footnotes and sources. It would be useful to have national lesson plans both online and in booklet form to explain the history and current weather situation. Imagine getting a Guide to Understanding Weather when you board an airplane or step onto a bus or train. Hey—we have time to read while in motion.

Wacky weather is now seemingly a part of life. So let’s approach it with life skills from basic education to high level analysis. We could get weather coaches and climate counselors, send our kids to meteorological instead of music camps.

Or we can close the blinds, turn off the local news, and play hide and seek with Mother Nature. My guess is, she’ll find us.


Can a U.S. Summit Change Perceptions of Africa?

President Barack Obama (center) with (left to right) President Macky Sall (Senegal), President Joyce Banda (Malawi), President Ernest Bai Koroma (Sierra Leone), and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves (Cape Verde) in the Cabinet Room of the White House on March 28, 2013. Credit: Images

President Barack Obama (center) with (left to right) President Macky Sall (Senegal), President Joyce Banda (Malawi), President Ernest Bai Koroma (Sierra Leone), and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves (Cape Verde) in the Cabinet Room of the White House on March 28, 2013. Credit: Images

In advance of this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., National Public Radio published an article that discussed the goals of the summit, the first such event organized by a U.S. president for 40 African leaders. One is to bring African heads-of-state in contact with American business leaders for discussions on investment and business opportunities; the other is, according to the article, “to change the narrative” about Africa, from one mired in violence and humanitarian crises to that of business opportunities.

Business and entrepreneurship are not often considered as public diplomacy strategies, but it makes sense why they should be. After all, business affects the national economy, which then affects how the people see their lives and their country, informing their relationships with other nations. History supports this phenomenon: after the Korean War, it was economic reforms that provided the initial boost to help South Korea become the cultural and economic powerhouse it is today. Brazil’s economic growth in the past decade has renewed international business interests in the country, with many companies establishing South American hubs in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Changing continental perceptions are not new – both of the aforementioned countries were largely obscure in the world consciousness, recognized only by their regional identities until they received individual economic breakthroughs or high-profile public diplomacy events (i.e., Olympics, World Cup). But is a three-day summit in the U.S. the answer to changing the world’s perceptions of Africa? After all, Africa is comprised of 54 nations; to suggest that (largely Western) countries should singularly invest in an entire continent is vague at best and ignorant at worst.

In addition, none of the forums and panels are schedule to address specific regions or countries in Africa. Even the name – U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit – perpetuates the idea of Africa as a single unit with monolithic problems. The recent health crisis involving the Ebola virus is case in point: although only three African leaders, not the entire continent, had to drop out of the summit to address the crisis in their respective countries, international media seem to have already juxtaposed the issue with that of the entire summit involving all of Africa.

Whether the continent’s public diplomacy will be helped by the U.S.-based summit remains to be seen. Sources in the NPR article conceded that the summit is more of a “pageant” rather than a site for actual deal making. But if the amount of time, money, and attention paid to the summit are any indication, it’s clear that many are regarding it as more than just a show.

Passing of Dr. Walter R. Roberts, Public Diplomat

Dr. Walter Roberts, a veteran U.S. diplomat and pioneer of U.S. international broadcasting, died the end of June. This obituary is by Charles H. Dolan, Jr., a former vice chairman of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which Dr. Roberts served on.

Walter Roberts speaking from behind a microphone in the early days of the Voice of America. Credit: U.S. government

Walter Roberts speaking from behind a microphone in the early days of the Voice of America. Credit: U.S. government

Dr. Walter Roberts, an American diplomat and scholar who pioneered the practice of public diplomacy through radio broadcasts to Nazi Germany during World War II for the U.S. government died June 29 at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 97.

Dr. Roberts was born in Austria and was educated at the University of Vienna. In 1938, anticipating Hitler’s aggression in Europe, he (and his soon to be wife Gisela) left Austria and went to Great Britain on a scholarship to Cambridge University, from which he earned his Ph.D. In 1940, he emigrated to the U.S. and was working as a research assistant at Harvard Law School when the U.S. entered World War II.

While walking across Harvard Yard he was approached by Professor William Langer, who, with ties to the government said, “Walter you are fluent in both English and German, your country needs people like you to help with the war effort.” Without hesitation, Roberts signed on as one of the first employees of the newly created Office of the Coordinator of Information, which later became the Voice of America, in New York.

Public Diplomacy and the War Years

This early public diplomacy effort included broadcasts into Germany, starting in February 1942, called “Stimmen aus Amerika” (“Voices from America”) and included the pledge: “Today, and every day from now on, we will be with you from America to talk about the war. The news may be good or bad for us. We will always tell you the truth.” Throughout the war years and during the allied occupation, he was responsible for broadcasting credible news reports of both the successes and failures of allied efforts in Germany.

After eight years of service with Voice of America he was transferred to the Austrian Desk of the Department of State in 1950. While there he devised a way for the U.S. Government to make use of the its holdings of then unconvertible Austrian currency into a useable form while, at the same time, demonstrating the value of what would become “public diplomacy.” He employed the currency to fund the prestigious “Salzburg Seminar in American Studies.” He served on its board for over forty years. It continues to this day as the Salzburg Global Seminar, an innovative public diplomacy project that supports regions, institutions and sectors in transition.

In 1953, he was appointed Deputy Area Director for Europe in the newly created U.S. Information Agency (USIA). In 1955, he was a member of the American Delegation to the Austrian Treaty Talks that culminated in a State Treaty, signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers (U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union) on May 15, 1955 which ended the occupation status of Austria and restored its independence.

Meeting Tito

In 1960, he was appointed Counselor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in Yugoslavia where he frequently interacted with President Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav revolutionary, Communist and leader of the non-aligned movement. Tito was very impressed with Roberts’ diplomatic skills and his scholarly knowledge of the complexity of the cultures and history of the Balkans, and invited Walter and his wife Gisela to many social functions.

With an impeccable memory not just for diplomatic issues but also the finer things in life, Roberts recalled, “Tito impressed me as a gracious host and an informed conversationalist. Witty at times, he seemed to enjoy recalling past events. He was elegantly dressed; his suit appeared tailored on London’s Savile Row.” Roberts’ recall for such details was extraordinary. Only several months before his death, he wrote about a dinner party he attended with Tito in the early 1960s at which the featured wines were “a Croation Cabernet and a Slovenian Riesling.”

Roberts was assigned as Diplomat in Residence at Brown University in 1966, and in 1967 he was transferred to Geneva to serve as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. In 1969, he was appointed Deputy Associate Director of USIA and in 1971 was elevated to the Associate Director position, then the senior career post in USIA.

In 1973, his book Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945 was published; it was praised by Foreign Affairs as “the best book on the subject.” It was highly controversial in Yugoslavia and banned as it shed light on Tito’s ambiguous relations with Nazi Germany. As a testament to its longevity, it was reprinted and released in the former Yugoslavia last year. In 1974, he received the Distinguished Honor Award from USIA. He retired from the U.S. Government in 1974 to take the position of Director of Diplomatic Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). His influence on America’s approach to public diplomacy is demonstrated by the fact that while he left the Foreign Service almost thirty years ago, he continued to be a major influence on the practice of public diplomacy until his death.

Back to government

In 1975, he was called back into government to serve as executive director of the Board for International Broadcasting, which oversaw Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. In 1985, he retired for the second time from the U.S. Government and was appointed diplomat-in-residence at George Washington University, where he taught a course on “Diplomacy in the Information Age.” He presciently predicted in a 1986 New York Time article, “The communications revolution is going to be a major headache for the Soviet Union.”

A testament to his expertise in the practice of public diplomacy was the fact that two Presidents from different parties appointed him as a member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. President George H.W. Bush made the initial appointment in 1991 and President William J. Clinton reappointed him in 1994.

Final appearances

In 2009, he received the Voice of America “Director’s Special Recognition Award”. While officially retired, he continued to write prolifically and speak on public diplomacy. In 2005 Roberts helped establish a Public Diplomacy Institute at The George Washington University, and generously created an endowment in his name for what is now the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communicatin

His work as a great communicator was recognized in a March 22, 1986 New York Times article which opened with, “It is Ronald Reagan who is known as the Great Communicator. But in the capital, the Government communicator with what is probably the longest and most comprehensive tenure is Walter R. Roberts”.

In his final major public appearance, at the Public Diplomacy Council Fall Forum last November, Dr. Roberts told an audience of more than 250 members: “On February 1, 1942, American public diplomacy was born. That was 72 years ago, seven weeks into the war… I have no idea what future communications media will bring to us, but of this, I am sure: that international broadcasting will continue to exist because it is an integral part of public diplomacy, and public diplomacy, of course, is an integral part of diplomacy.” There was resounding applause.

Dr. Roberts (born to the late Ignaz and Elsa Rothenberg) is preceded in death by his beloved wife (Gisela Katherine) and is survived by three sons (William, Charles and Lawrence) and daughters in law (Patricia, Valerie and Shavaun), 7 grandchildren (Sherra (Fritz), Chelsea, Trevor, Matthew, Kevin, Katherine, and Mark, and two great grandchildren.

Brazil’s Public Diplomacy Ahead of the World Cup

Dilma Rousseff (left) and FIFA president Sepp Blatter (right) with the World Cup trophy. Source: AP

Dilma Rousseff (left) and FIFA president Sepp Blatter (right) with the World Cup trophy. Source: AP

With only a day until the 2014 FIFA World Cup, international press appear to have a singular focus on all that is going wrong in Brazil and its state of preparation (or lack there of). They are not entirely without merit – eight people have died in the construction and restoration of stadiums, of which delays have been widely reported; protests around the country are unrelenting and increasingly violent, to say nothing of the security in the favelas surrounding São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that police forces still struggle to control.

Given this, what has Brazil done from a public diplomacy standpoint to counter the perception that it is not quite ready to host the Cup? Not much, it seems. To the extent that virtually every major global news outlet – CNN, the BBC, even their own O Globo newspaper – focuses on the singular narrative of unpreparedness, Brazilians appear to be in accord with that narrative: not only are they unprepared, but they firmly believe that hosting the cup will actually hurt Brazil’s image abroad, according to a recent Pew survey. On Twitter, users are using the hashtag ‘#imaginanacopa’, or ‘imagine the cup’, in tweets to allude the pending “doom” Brazilians predict World Cup will have on their country.

Even President Dilma Rousseff, who is largely defensive to this reaction, is inadvertently focused on the looming chaos as evidenced by her call for increasing funds to security and police forces and admitting to foreign journalists just days before the opening ceremony that things are indeed being done at the last minute:

“Everywhere in the world these big engineering projects always go down to the wire,” she said from a dinner with foreign journalists – her first before the World Cup – at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. “Those who want to protest will be allowed to do so 100%,” adding that the vast majority of Brazilians will be supporting the Cup and protesters “will not be allowed to interfere or disrupt the tournament.” -, June 4

She has also taken the step of not speaking at the opening ceremony on Thursday, but largely at the behest of FIFA, which has also received a fair amount of backlash from the Brazilian public. Though the move is probably wise, it is not likely to be enough for Brazil’s public diplomacy to advance as it faces mounting doubt and weariness from both within and outside the country. Perhaps this reflects Rousseff’s somewhat laissez-faire attitude that once the games begin, all will be forgotten. She may have a point: in the 2010 World Cup, reports leading up to the event shed a similar light on the state of security in South Africa. The only legacy it has now is the buzzing sound of vuvuzelas.

Overall, however, Brazil has done a poor job of using a valuable soft power tool like the World Cup to promote its public diplomacy. There are a few opportunities for redemption: 1. The month-long event passes without any major disasters or deaths resulting from the dubious transportation systems, or 2. If Brazil wins the Cup, which, despite being the heavy favorite, some analysts warn that it is not as much as it should be for a home team. Otherwise, Rousseff may have to spend the rest of the year answering the question “Was it worth it?” rather than focusing on economic and foreign policies during her re-election in October. One can only hope that if she does win, public diplomacy lessons learned from managing the World Cup can be applied to the execution of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The US-German Relationship at a Critical Public Diplomacy Moment

The U.S. and German flags. Credit:

The U.S. and German flags. Credit:

I just returned from a week in Berlin—a lively city teeming with people. There is a whiff of spring in the air and the outdoor cafes have begun to crowd the sidewalks with the European buzz that Berliners uniquely create.

But along with good cheer is a damp residue from this past year’s revelations by Mr. Snowden that the American government has been eavesdropping on conversations between German officials including listening to the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. A post-NSA hangover has left German intellectuals reeling and ordinary citizens confused and angry.  Even the biggest supporters of Atlantic relations have found themselves challenged to defend a kind of surveillance and intrusion so antithetical to modern day Germany.

My trip was an opportunity to practice public diplomacy, which involved meeting with national security experts, academics, and a large contingent of students from multiple countries spending a semester in Berlin. It reinforced for me the importance of face-to-face contact and person-to-person dialogue to listen to the point of view of others.

Virtual diplomacy is great; E-exchanges are useful. But nothing beats sitting around a table, handing a physical business card to a new colleague, and chatting at coffee breaks about family and friends. Emotional setbacks in relationships have real consequences and they are best dealt with in human settings as opposed to on line.

The U.S.-German relationship is at a critical inflection point.  We need one another to confront the situation in Ukraine and to find common ground so that American-European-Russian relations do not lead all of us down a dangerous path.

In addition to Ukraine, our countries face common challenges around energy, finance, trade and the growing influence of China.  We have multinational trade deals at stake, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and monetary policies with impact on one another’s fiscal stability.  Not to mention climate change, terrorism, and the problems posed by failing states around the globe.

In the end, I think US-German relations can weather the storm.  Pragmatism tends to prevail in both countries.  A crisis often brings partners closer together, and for us, decades of close relations. But this relationship, like all relationships, takes commitment on both sides and a willingness to meet, talk, debate, discuss and disclose on the public side to deepen diplomacy.

Ukraine and the War of Words

In public diplomacy, words matters.  The situation in Ukraine is not only a battle involving troops – it is a battle over language.  All sides in the conflict will choose words that reflect their version of events on the ground.  Words can have legal meaning, political weight, and public diplomacy implications.

Key words and phrases for public diplomacy watchers following this crisis:


For the United States, the key public diplomacy challenge will be consistency of language to build a strong public case for a “United Ukraine.” US policymakers will need to be careful to stay on message and avoid veering into dubious terrain by either invoking old Cold War language or creating moral equivalency arguments over “self determination”. For example, Chechens want to determine their own future.  Some pro-Russian Crimeans want to determine their own future. Ukrainians want to decide their own future.

In the world of 2014, words travel as fast as technology.  My best advice for the Administration: Whichever words President Obama uses should set the script for other policymakers to use. If not, conflicts over words will drive the story.

Remembering a Great Public Diplomat: David Burke and the BBG

davidburke David Warren Burke, a man who stood for the finest in public diplomacy, journalistic integrity and the independence of media, died this past Friday. America lost a great public servant.

Just a week before his death, the Broadcasting Board of Governors announced the winners of the 2014 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Awards for exceptional integrity, bravery, and originality in reporting. David Burke was the first Chairman of the BBG’s governing board, a position he was named to by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and for which he served until 1998.

The BBG award winners of this year’s David Burke journalistic prize include reporters from VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, Al Hurra, and the Office of Cuban Broadcasting – men and women who put their lives on the line to tackle tough topics like ethnic conflict in the Central African Republic, violence in Ukraine, and security challenges in Iraq.  David would be so proud of them.

The loss of David Burke is personal for me. David was my first boss, a mentor, and a friend. He attended Tufts University and always believed in giving back to your university. As Executive Vice President of ABC News, David Burke gave back to his alma mater by hiring young, aspiring journalists (who had attended Tufts)  to work for him. I was fortunate to be one of those whose career he shaped.

Ironically, later in life, I became under secretary of state for public diplomacy, representing the Secretary of State on the very board that David Burke had once chaired:  The BBG. Things come full circle. Today, I salute the man who brought sense and sensibility to news, government, and public service.  My thoughts are with his wife, Trixie, the Burke family, and the long list of David Burke admirers.

Cover photo courtesy of

U.S. International Broadcasting: Framing the Challenge – Apples or Fruit Salad?

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) met again last week in its ongoing efforts to manage and improve our international broadcast operations. As both a public diplomacy practitioner and as a U.S. taxpayer, I have a keen interest in seeing that our limited resources for international broadcasting are spent as effectively as possible. As such, I have followed the long and ongoing debate over where and how we should broadcast, as well as how to measure the impact and effectiveness of our efforts with considerable interest. And although I have no deep expertise, nor can I offer any magic solutions, I do nevertheless think that we might usefully focus the debate by simply reframing the broadcasting challenge.

I fear that many of us (myself included) have misunderstood and over-simplified the challenges of international broadcasting. We tend to think of the BBG and the services that it oversees as roughly equivalent to conventional, commercial television or radio broadcasters like CNN, Fox, or even Al-Jazeera or CCTV. The danger in succumbing to that simple fallacy is that we then compare overall budgets and audience reach as if we are comparing apples to apples when, in actuality, BBG offers more of an assortment of apples, oranges, bananas, and other fruit.


Credit: The Guardian

In some limited markets, VOA or its sister services might have the means and licenses to broadcast directly and compete head-to-head with local broadcasters. Let’s call those “apples.” In most cases, however, the U.S. broadcasters partner with local affiliates who agree to carry U.S. programming on their own airwaves, sometimes on a contract-basis and in most cases, at no charge whatsoever. In those cases, the audience share is heavily dependent on the local affiliate, as well as the particular format, program, and time slot we agree upon. Let’s call these “oranges.”

But not all markets are created equal. In many countries, local affiliates are not permitted to partner with us at all and our own signals are blocked or jammed. Here the BBG and its services have had to explore creative means by which to deliver our programs, often over the internet or through other means depending on the local circumstances. We might call these “bananas,” “kiwis,” and “mangos.”

The precise mix of programming that we offer in each of these markets, moreover, differs depending on local demand and competition. In some markets we might choose a combination heavy on popular entertainment and lighter on news in order to attract a larger and younger audience. In other markets we might rely heavily on news and high-brow entertainment to reach a more elite and, perhaps, politically-influential audience. Both of these activities also fit within the VOA Charter, for example, which speaks of the requirement to “win the attention and respect of listeners.” Now instead of individual fruits, we have a range of different fruit salads.

Finally, even as the BBG and its services pursue all of these different broadcasting models, they are also faced with a media landscape that is being transformed by digital technology before our very eyes. Mobile and even smart phones will soon be ubiquitous around the world and internet and social media access will follow shortly after. The BBG – along with every other media player out there – is trying to maintain an appropriate balance of investments in old and new media formats while studying and adjusting to the evolution of media consumption habits in different markets.

The BBG reported recently that its services now reach a global audience of over 200 million people each week, but what does that mean given the diversity of markets described above? If we persist in thinking of the BBG and its services as a single, conventional, commercial broadcaster and use such aggregate numbers, we should simply be chasing audiences in large markets like India (where we actually cut most broadcasting services a few years ago). When we know that our target markets include smaller but critical countries like Afghanistan and Iran, why do we obsess over global market shares and total audience figures? Similarly, we spill a lot of ink in arguments and discussions comparing the BBG budget of $750 million to much larger amounts that China and Russia spend on CCTV and RT. Are the numbers at all comparable given our wildly disparate missions?

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent federal agency of the United States government responsible for supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international media. Credit: Wiki Commons

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent federal agency of the United States government responsible for supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international media. Credit: Wiki Commons

Having complicated the issue sufficiently, I will offer a few suggestions for areas that we should focus our attention on instead. First, where should we be? I think we all accept the fact that our resources are limited and that, as a result, we need to focus our efforts on the countries and markets that are most significant from a foreign policy perspective. This will also take into account the BBG standards and principles, of course, but those include first and foremost to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”

Second, we should discuss what model or fruit or fruit salad is most appropriate or even possible for given markets. We are not trying to be CNN, but shouldn’t we discuss whether we are trying to be NPR, Sean Hannity, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, reality TV, or some combination of them all? That in turn, will give us a better indication as to appropriate measures of success and effectiveness. In other words, we may not be chasing the largest audience numbers, just particular audience segments. Measurements should be adjusted accordingly. If the requirement is to reach younger audiences, we should not measure our efforts against audiences ranging from age 15 to death.

Third, I was delighted to learn that we have begun to explore deeper cooperation with other like-minded international broadcasters, sharing, for example, the costs and results of our research efforts. Might we not explore even closer partnerships on particular programs in specific markets where our interests coincide? How about jointly producing individual programs? Additionally, are there opportunities for the BBG to purchase and adapt U.S. commercial products or even partner with U.S. news organizations in our overseas broadcasting efforts?

The BBG and its services are not – and should not be – driven by a commercial desire for profit. Nevertheless, by framing them – either consciously or unconsciously – in the model of a conventional commercial broadcaster we run the risk of adopting global audience and budget-to-audience ratios as proxy commercial measurements of effectiveness. Instead, we should uncouple BBG performance from such measurements and use that freedom as a comparative advantage as we pursue our true objectives of advancing U.S. foreign policy and promoting access to objective news and information. In the end, we may find that the most effective ways of doing that involve targeting smaller audiences in particular markets or adopting all-digital internet platforms in others.

Fortunately, many of these conversations are already taking place. Let’s just not get distracted by the global aggregate budget and audience numbers, avoid conflating fruit salads with apples, and stay focused instead on what really matters here.

Going to the Well: Public Diplomacy and H2O


“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water,” said Benjamin Franklin more than two centuries ago.

Every day we read more stories about the lack of water around the world and the relationship between water, climate change, food, and energy. Already today 1/3 of the world population is affected by water scarcity.

The alarm bells around freshwater scarcity have been ringing loudly for years. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment—the first major comprehensive environmental audit of the planet, warned that nations must begin consciously allocating enough water to sustain the planet’s ecosystem.

The projections today are that 3.5 billion people will live in communities that will not be able to feed themselves by 2025 if we don’t address water shortages. Water scarcity presents us with an array of challenges from environmental to political.

One of the great challenges of 2014 will be how governments and citizens manage a resource vital to every aspect of life. To produce a calorie of food, it takes a liter of water and today about 1/3 of the world population is affected by water scarcity. Humanitarian and health crises spring from lack of adequate sanitation and shortages of clean, safe, accessible water. Future energy needs depend on an active water cycle.

We need a public diplomacy campaign about water that is consistent, and reliable. It is why projects like Planet Forward which networks young people in an active, engaged way, to tackle sustainability issues are so critical. NOW is the time to rise to the challenge and meet the world’s needs for water.

Malaysian Flight 370: A Case Study in How NOT to conduct Public Diplomacy

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, Malaysia’s Minister for Transport Hishamuddin Hussein, left, and director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, deliver a statement on the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner on Mar. 15, 2014. Credit: Associated Press via

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, Malaysia’s Minister for Transport Hishamuddin Hussein, left, and director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, deliver a statement on the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner on Mar. 15, 2014. Credit: Associated Press via

Malaysian Flight 370—specifically how the Malaysian government has handled the crisis to date—shows the negative side of public diplomacy, and reminds us why crisis communications matters.

From the moment the airplane disappeared from radar in the early morning hours of March 8, , the government in Kuala Lumpur faced a challenging task of communicating with its own citizens and citizens overseas. With passengers from a dozen countries on board—most of them Chinese—the public diplomacy assignment required careful, consistent, and credible information sharing.

That never happened. The result was conflicting stories, shifting narratives, and an overall picture of confusion. Now it will be difficult for the Malaysians to re-establish credibility.

The first rule of public diplomacy is to establish trust with your audience. Leaving aside the rules and procedures around an airline disaster, where victims need special handling, the basic goal of public information campaign is for government officials to disseminate information even when there is little to come by. The Malaysians needed to take hold of the situation and manage the flow of news in a 24/7 world where a cable operation like CNN might, as turned out to be the case, broadcast around the clock news about the event—dispatching reporters and cameras around the globe.

The second rule of public diplomacy is, if you don’t have an answer to a question, be candid and say, “We don’t know.” No information is better than bad information.

Lastly, be mindful of the power of the Bully Pulpit—a phrase coined by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to reflect the influence of the White House messaging platform. Deploying the Prime Minister of Malaysia needed to be strategic. There was no reason to put Prime Minister Najib Razak in the position of informing families that their loved ones were gone forever absent any wreckage of the plane to prove it.

To compound the error, the Malaysian government used social media incorrectly. It sent a text message to the families that read: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minster we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.” Without a debris field, the message seemed hollow.

Now, with the help of Australia, there is a chance to get Malaysia’s public diplomacy back on course. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott just met with the Malaysian Prime Minister and one hopes they will improve the information flow about the ongoing search and investigation.

In the end, the answer is training. We need to train government officials on how to communicate before, during and after a crisis, and how to use public diplomacy effectively. In a world of citizen journalism, news, and global information, the alternative is chaos.

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