public diplomacy

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Event Review: Building Bridges: Strengthening Education & Citizen Exchange Linkages between the United States and Cuba

Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan makes opening remarksSpeaking in both Spanish and English, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University Frank Sesno described in his introductory remarks the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba as the threshold of a new era. Hosted at George Washington University on September 9, the program— a collaboration with GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Affairs, the Department of State, and Sister Cities International–brought together approximately 200 representatives of NGOs, universities, think tanks, government, and the private sector to discuss academic and citizen exchanges with Cuba. Sesno emphasized the importance of building bridges through exchanges and GWU’s intention to strengthen relations further between the peoples of the United States and Cuba. Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan described the new relations between the U.S. and Cuba as a historic moment that comes along once in a lifetime. She noted that “the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the easing of some restrictions on trade and travel open a door to exploring a new relationship and creating a new paradigm to define relations between the United States and Cuba and between the American people and the Cuban people.” She added that ”people-to-people exchanges play a unique and critical role, helping people to build bridges where gaps exist, breaking down barriers that separate people of goodwill, building connections that engage and empower people, motivating them to become leaders and thinkers, and helping participants use their skills and develop new ones, which improves their communities.”

Mary Kane, President and CEO of Sister Cities International, informed the audience that nine Sister City members have already built relationships with Cuban cities, which include cultural and educational exchanges as well as humanitarian relief. Sister city relationships develop citizen diplomats who learn from each other and form relationships of trust which lay the foundations for peace and prosperity.

The first panel was moderated by professor at GWU and former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, P. J. Crowley. Crowley stated that in contrast to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place almost 26 yearsago, the Cold War in this hemisphere ended just a few months ago. As the United States seeks to build bridges, people around the world pay particular attention to what we do, not just what we say–and there is no more powerful statement than President Obama fundamentally changing the U.S. policy approach on Cuba. The State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Cuban Affairs, Joan Perkins, described the new policy approach of engagement as unchartered territory. She noted that while the re-establishment of diplomatic relations is a milestone, our goal with respect to Cuba remains the same — to empower the Cuban people and support the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. She described normalization as a long and complicated process that will take time and involve continuous dialogue by both countries. Perkins expressed the hope that the easing of travel restrictions will continue to facilitate exchanges because as President Obama has stated, our citizens are our best ambassadors. Jeff Braunger of the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control noted that the relaxation in the travel regulations can facilitate exchanges but emphasized that tourism to Cuba is still not allowed. Alan Christian of the Department of Commerce Bureau for Industry and Security explained regulatory changes that support the Cuban people such as the easing of restrictions on gifts to Cubans and of exports supporting the private sector. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Private Sector Exchange Robin Lerner described the privately funded J-1 program, which brings approximately 280,000 visitors from overseas to the United States annually for work and study based exchanges supported by private organizations. Last year, 49 exchange visitors from Cuba came to the United States on J-1 programs, mostly as short-term scholars conducting joint research at research institutions, museums, or libraries. With time, she noted that there could be an increase in the number of J-1 exchanges with Cuba.

The second panel, moderated by U.S. Embassy Havana’s Deputy Public Affairs Officer Lydia Barraza, offered a glimpse into existing private collaboration between Cubans and Americans. Jennifer Attal Allen, President and Executive Director of Academic Programs International, provided facts and figures on the educational system and outlined the procedure for entering into educational exchanges and acquiring visas. Michael Eizenberg, President of the Educational Travel Alliance, who has traveled to Cuba more than 60 times in the last 15 years, stressed the similarities between Americans and Cubans and the easily established rapport both sides enjoy. Eizenberg described all participants as winners and underscored the need for exchanges to go in both directions. Cynthia Vidaurri of the National Museum of the American Indian and Curator of Smithsonian Folklife Festival on Cuba described the incredible sophistication of the Cuban scholars and recommended deep engagement and reciprocity in establishing long-term programs in Cuba. Finally, Adam Kaplan, Vice President of Sister Cities International, described activities by the nine current Sister Cities members with relationships with Cuban cities and advocated for the development of long-term, multi-sector partnerships by communities under the sister cities model.

In his closing remarks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Gonzalo Gallegos described the remarkable evolution in Cuba-U.S. relations since he was posted there 12 years ago, stating that during his assignment in Cuba, his job was to highlight differences between our two governments, whereas today it is important to emphasize similarities between the two peoples. Gallegos urged participants to be creative and collaborate with citizens, universities, and NGOs in developing programs that can advance what the President started and foster mutual understanding. GWU Director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Affairs Sean Aday described GWU’s commitment to supporting further relations between theU.S. and Cuba and underlined some themes running through the conference, including that developing exchanges demands time and patience as one overcomes issues of protocol and paperwork and as one listens to partners to understand their needs. He noted that peer–to-peer exchanges can be the most powerful, whether it be military to military or artist to artist.

Lively question and answer sessions followed each panel. Some questions that could not be addressed during the program will be answered in follow-up e-mail messages. In networking sessions, participants exchanged experiences (and business cards) among themselves and with the panelists, exploring areas of future collaboration. The most common piece of feedback seemed to be that we host more events like these.

Other resources on the symposium:

State Department’s DipNote blog post
Sister Cities International’s blog post
Copy of the cuba event program
Videos of the program are at IPDGC’s YouTube channel

Can Digital and Traditional Diplomacy Sit at the Same Table? Yes.

Digital diplomacy is a complement to traditional diplomacy because it can reach specific audiences in a more timely, relevant, and flexible way. Jed Shein, co-founder of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition, said that digital diplomacy is “about recognizing where people are spending time today, where they are the most active, and how they receive that information.”

In fact, the fundamentals of public diplomacy can be found at the basis of digital diplomacy. It’s equally important for the State Department to recognize a target audience, identify the appropriate medium of information and choose the correct information platform when presenting a public diplomacy initiative online as it is in person.

The true essence of digital diplomacy is flexibility. Digital diplomacy efforts can be enacted across different online platforms including official blogs, social media pages, and websites, with relative ease. However, the  savants are those who show a demonstrated ability to differentiate between content type and online platform type. Many have not strengthened their online presence as much as they would like because they follow the common misconception that all digital platforms are created equal. While there is a place for official policy documents on official websites, social media pages are not the right place. Foreign ministries should post content that engages the local audiences and creates dialogue through videos, images, and text on social media networks.

It is encouraging to see the international diplomatic community embracing digital diplomacy. On January 30, the United Nations organized the inaugural Social Media Day at its headquarters in New York City. The event was a collaborative effort between the United Nations, Digital Diplomacy Coalition and a number of international countries. This one-day event involved panel discussions, briefings from social media experts, as well a hashtag campaign using #socialUN.

The event also allowed anyone online to livestream the event on YouTube. This effort on the UN’s part showed the flexibility and relevance of digital diplomacy. For instance, the #socialUN campaign connected diplomats at the same event while the online video stream attracted foreign publics that were unable to attend the event in person. Furthermore, UN Social Media Day showed that digital diplomacy can strengthen multilateral efforts between nations and collaborate alongside new civil society partners.

The Digital Diplomacy Coalition is a new partner from civil society that is taking entirely new approaches to building connections within the diplomatic community using technology. While they don’t conduct diplomacy on behalf of a particular nation, the Digital Diplomacy Coalition is an “international, independent, volunteer-based organization,” that fosters a collaborative environment for members of the diplomatic, international and technology communities “to leverage digital technologies for diplomacy.”

Originally founded by Scott Nolan Smith, Roos Kouwenhoven, Jed Shein and Floris Winters in 2012, the organization has collaborated alongside the likes of tech titans such as Google, Fosterly, Tumblr, universities such as Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University and Georgetown University as well as the foreign ministries of Canada, Jordan, Peru, Kosovo, and Italy among many other nations. By bringing influential people from tech, government and international spheres, The Digital Diplomacy coalition is creating an environment that is realizing the potential of digital diplomacy challenges and best practices.

The U.S. government is also looking for innovative ways to drive digital diplomacy efforts. In 2013, the State Department announced the launch of the Collaboratory, an effort to use technology to drive public diplomacy efforts. Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, explained that the program would serve as a “platform to collaborate, incubate and pilot new ideas that amplify people to people exchanges and connect people using technologies.” The Collaboratory will provide additional opportunities for public-private partnership as well as new programming ideas that are both timely and relevant for local audiences.

However, innovation in the digital diplomacy space cannot simply result in the recycling of old content. Innovation must be driven by entirely new forms of content that engage local populations in a personal manner. The efforts of New York artist Amir Bakshi is the type of innovation needed in digital diplomacy. In late 2014, Bakshi launched “Portals”, a contemporary art project that brings people together from opposite corners of the world through videoconference and a recycled shipping container. The first Portal connected New Yorkers with Iranian citizens who could see the life-size projection of their counterpart as they discussed issues related to daily life.

Bakshi’s New York exhibit also captured the attention of journalist, Fareed Zakaria and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock who signed up to participate in the cultural exchange. The Collaboratory could use a similar citizen-driven approach to create a digital diplomacy initiative that provides Americans and foreign citizens with the opportunities to become 21st century pen-pals. This type of initiative could also be more sustainable because local and foreign citizens have a hand in the diplomacy making process by driving the content themselves.

As the international arena moves further into the 21st century, which countries will adopt digital diplomacy as part of the status quo? What challenges will they face? Comment below.

Presidential Relations: How Yugoslavia got a Fulbright Program

Continuing our series in highlighting the interviews Walter Roberts conducted with former fellow Mark Taplin, this week’s installment features Walter discussing how Yugoslavia got a Fulbright program in the 1960s:

The New York Times also published an article in 1964 that discussed Senator J.W. Fulbright and former Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, William R. Tyler, pending visit to Belgrade the following November to sign the agreement.


Introduction to the Walter R. Roberts Interviews

By Mark Taplin, Former Public Diplomacy Fellow, George Washington University

In 2010, while I was assigned to George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs as a State Department Public Diplomacy Fellow, I had the good fortune to conduct an on-camera interview with Dr. Walter R. Roberts – a U.S. diplomat, broadcaster and scholar who lived a long, extraordinary life in public diplomacy.

The interview, which took place over two sessions in February and April of that year, was done under the auspices of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (IPDGC), with the support of the university’s Documentary Center. The interview clips are now available on IPDGC’s YouTube channel.


Dr. Roberts first came to the U.S. in 1939 as a graduate student and refugee from his native Austria. He began his career at the Voice of America, at the very outset of the U.S. government’s wartime information effort.   At the end of World War II, Walter transferred to the State Department’s Austria desk before joining the newly organized U.S. Information Agency in 1953. He served at USIA with distinction over two decades, occupying a number of senior posts in Washington as well as in Yugoslavia where he worked as U.S. Ambassador George F. Kennan’s public affairs counselor.

After his retirement from federal service, Dr. Roberts taught public diplomacy at George Washington University’s Elliott School, in what was certainly one of the first U.S. university courses devoted to the study of international information programs. He was a prolific writer throughout his life – on international broadcasting, on diplomacy, on Yugoslavia and on many other topics – and created a fund that supports the study of public diplomacy, the Walter R. Roberts Endowment.

Dr. Roberts passed away in June 2014, at 97, remarkably lucid and insightful to the very end.  His seventy-some years of professional involvement in the field of public diplomacy were unprecedented; accordingly, his recollections and observations are particularly valuable to scholars and practitioners alike.

Revisiting Holocaust Liberation: Paradoxical Propaganda?

During an official tour of the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, an Austrian Jewish survivor describes to General Dwight Eisenhower and the members of his entourage the use of the gallows in the camp. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of David Wherry

During an official tour of the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, an Austrian Jewish survivor describes to General Dwight Eisenhower and the members of his entourage the use of the gallows in the camp. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of David Wherry

In the introduction to his article, “The Paradoxes of Propaganda,” John Brown discusses a rather famous Nazi-era film—widely considered to be propaganda—called Triumph of the Will. Propaganda is one of those terms that often get lumped in with public diplomacy, but in fact there are key differences, both in their purpose and practice.

Today, propaganda is nearly used as a pejorative, a one-sided tool to persuade publics through manipulation, symbols and tricky language. Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is a means of explanation (without necessarily feeding conclusions), and can involve not only an output, but a listening and responding component as well (Melissen, The New Public Diplomacy, 2005).

Triumph of the Will was largely a domestic success, but was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response outside of Germany; Brown explains that such blatant and obvious propaganda could create “deep popular hostility toward the propagandists who are seen as the perpetrators of lies.” The lesson of Triumph? Sometimes, the best propaganda doesn’t look like propaganda.

Nonetheless, this type of propaganda could—and would—have serious historical consequences. This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and this year will mark similar anniversaries for concentration camps all over Europe. It marks the anniversary of when the world was first beginning to truly uncover the extent of Nazi crimes against humanity, document them and vow ‘Never Again.’ When General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his troops discovered Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchchenwald, in April 1945, he radioed back to Washington:

In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’ (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Ohrdruf”, 2014)

Eisenhower also requested to bring journalists over to document what he found and bring it to public attention. The resulting reporting and photographs, while not specifically intended to be propaganda, do in fact represent yet another example of Brown’s paradoxes of propaganda: The photographs of liberated concentration camp survivors were certainly not meant to propagandize in the style of Triumph of the Will, but that may be what made them most powerful and effective.

Normally, propaganda is one of those words that leave a nasty taste in peoples’ mouths, but as J. Michael Sproule notes in Channels of Propaganda, “society exempts propaganda from condemnation when social influence is perceived to be in the general interest” (1994). There were no agendas with these photographs—that’s part of their effectiveness as not necessarily anti-Nazi, but pro-humanity.

It is important to be aware of the difference between propaganda and public diplomacy; one involves listening, communicating and explaining policies, while the other involves forcing a message. As the photos and film of concentration camps show, propaganda can influence a society to dangerous ends. While propaganda may have helped spur the events that would lead to the Holocaust, good public diplomacy can perhaps help ensure it never does again.

With increasing anti-Semitic sentiments and physical attacks toward Jews making a comeback in Europe, as well as an ongoing undercurrent of Holocaust denial in the Middle East, this is a relevant topic more than ever. A timely Holocaust documentary, Night Will Fall, is finally seeing the light of day this year almost seven decades after it was originally commissioned by the British government, then shelved due to Cold War politics.

Unlike with public diplomacy, one of Brown’s paradoxes about propaganda was that one must hate it to do it well; filming the aftermath of a state-sanctioned attempt at genocide was certainly no easy task. Documentation like this may not work like propaganda in the traditional sense, but that’s part of its paradoxical beauty.

Miriam Smallman is a junior studying journalism at The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

VOA director discusses value, next steps in enhancing “America’s voice”

David Ensor (left), director of the Voice of America, does a live interview with Frank Sesno (right), director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at an event on campus, January 27, 2015.

David Ensor (left), director of the Voice of America, does a live interview with Frank Sesno (right), director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at an event on campus, January 27, 2015.

Note: This entry was originally posted on as an event recap.

David Ensor, director of the Voice of America, believes America’s voice is a “far more” effective weapon in foreign policy than most hard power tools, and that most Americans don’t realize the value it has in furthering US policy abroad.

He said this and more at Tuesday’s event, “America’s Voice: U.S. International Media in the Age of Putin, ISIS, and Ebola“, held at the School of Media and Public Affairs. In front of an audience of nearly 100 students, faculty, and professionals, Ensor shared his trajectory in becoming the director of VOA after 30 years as a journalist covering national security and a variety of other topics. He made the case for why VOA matters in today’s “crowded” global media market, despite having its roots in the U.S. government as a tool of public diplomacy.

“What VOA does is honest reporting and we do that because it’s the law of the land,” Ensor said. “There is room on the VOA platform for objective journalism and editorials supporting U.S. policy.”

After sharing two videos that demonstrated the VOA’s breadth of international news coverage in multiple languages, Ensor sat with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, and discussed in an interview format the challenges VOA has faced in recent times, such as budget changes, the Russian crackdown on international media outlets, and the value of studying journalism despite declining job opportunities for recent graduates.

“If given a bigger budget right now, I would spend that on improving our news services in Russian, then Kurdish and Turkish, and then Mandarin,” Ensor said. In regards to Russia’s ban on VOA in the country, Ensor said he would reach out to private companies and set up alternate news outlets in the former Soviet space to help bring alternative voices to the country.

“There’s a reason some governments around the world try so hard to block alternative voices. It’s a powerful tool than most realize,” Ensor said.

Following the interview, Ensor took questions from the audience, which varied from the protection of journalists in dangerous countries and efforts by the U.S. in competing with terrorist communication networks.

“Yes, there a lot more voices out there,” Ensor said in his closing remarks. “But we offer a certain kind of credibility that cuts through the cacophony.”

5 Lessons from a Public Diplomacy-Savvy Ambassador

Robert Ford (right), the most recent U.S. ambassador to Syria, engages in conversation with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at the 4th Annual Walter Roberts Lecture, November 12, 2014. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

Robert Ford (right), the most recent U.S. ambassador to Syria, engages in conversation with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at the 4th Annual Walter Roberts Lecture, November 12, 2014. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

“It is important to be ‘seen’ – being there physically matters if you want to be a successful diplomat,” noted Ambassador Robert Ford at the 4th Annual Walter Roberts Lecture last Wednesday.

Public diplomacy (PD) professionals have long emphasized that the last few feet of communication can make a huge difference in public perception and engagement. Ambassador Ford demonstrated clearly, through fascinating accounts from his tours overseas, that public diplomacy is essential to successful diplomatic work. Countering the notion that diplomats work behind the closed doors of government, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Algeria emphasized the role of active public diplomacy in breaking down barriers and conveying policy messages.

Here are the five lessons that Ambassador Ford referred to in his lecture that he had learned were important for successful public diplomacy:

1. It is important to be “seen” – being physically there matters

We often forget that many people around the world have never met an American, much less an American diplomat. People in Syria, Egypt, China or Brazil have a vision of Americans that is often formed by television programs, movies, websites, the news or the anecdotes of friends who may have come into contact with an American. One “ugly American” can color the perception of a whole village; conversely, one open, warm and understanding American student or teacher can influence an entire student body at a university.

Ambassador Ford noted that his visit early in the Syria conflict to Hama to witness local demonstrations and listen to the points of view of all parties had an enormous impact on the people he met and policy makers in Washington simply because he was physically there. He believed that his visit sent a message to Syrians that the U.S. supported the right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Over the years, as a public diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service, I have worked with many ambassadors. We have debated together the merits of “being there” to convey a message that actions could express more forcefully than words. Should the ambassador attend a funeral of a prominent dissident? What about attending the opening event at a film festival that was airing anti-American films? Would it be effective to speak at the opening of a Special Olympics event to highlight our concept of equal access for all? Or, to demonstrate respect for local culture and religion should the ambassador visit an historic mosque, church synagogue or temple?

As I accompanied these ambassadors, I met people who would consistently note how important it was for the U.S. to send the message of support for human rights, tolerance or inclusivity through the presence of our ambassador. No matter what the activity, just “being there” always had an impact and conveyed the essence of American values.

2. Reach out to regular people

At my last post in Cairo, we debated the merits of what we called “grassroots public diplomacy” or reaching out to regular people, Ambassador Ford’s number two on the list of lessons. But, who are “regular people” and why are they important? Traditional diplomacy has focused on relations between governments and government officials. For centuries, diplomats met in offices at foreign ministries or at formal events. Over time, diplomatic activity expanded to include critical influencers of foreign policy or public opinion, such as journalists, writers or cultural figures.

Regular people are basically everyone from the doorkeeper, elementary school teacher, and NGO worker to the owner of the local café. They are important because if you take the time to meet them, discuss and listen you can really understand the local economy, political situation or mood of a country. And, in societies where people believe their neighbors or family members more than the evening news broadcaster, your meeting could be significant in influencing public opinion.

I still remember the eyes of a mother from a poor community in Tunisia who took me aside at a student graduation ceremony to note that our English language after-school program had kept her son off the streets and out of trouble. We sat, surrounded by other parents, as she discussed her dreams for her son and I presented our exchange program opportunities. Taking the time to listen changed the entire dynamic of the event for everyone at a time when criticism of U.S. policy on Iraq was on the front page of every paper.

3.  Keep up with technology

Ambassadors are notorious for their discomfort with the latest in social media. First of all – by the time you get to be an ambassador, you are usually older than the rest of the staff at the embassy (apologies to ambassadors!) Persuading an ambassador to tweet, use Instagram, or blog usually results in the Public Affairs Officer and staff being assigned another task.

The point is not whether the ambassador or other diplomatic staff knows how to use the latest technology – it is whether they understand how to incorporate it as a tool for planning and strategy in communication and outreach. In his speech, Ambassador Ford highlighted the use of social media in a restrictive communications environment. When he could not reach out to present the U.S. administration’s point of view on the treatment of Syrian demonstrators, he could still get out the word via Facebook. Whether it is Youtube, Twitter, Facebook or another platform preferred in a specific country, social media allows a diplomatic mission to reach large numbers of people.

In Cairo, the embassy currently has over 850,000 Facebook fans. They post questions and comments in Arabic and English, sign-up for events, or participate in competitions. Once we asked, who are all these people? And in keeping with point number two, an event was organized to meet 100 of fans. They came from all over the country and from every strata in society: students, businessmen and women, alumni of exchange programs, journalists, teachers… the list was endless. They all had one thing in common: an enthusiasm to engage. And in keeping with point number one, some of them had never met an American and now there was an opportunity for American diplomats to “be there.”

4. Don’t overuse access to the media

The usual modus operandi of all ambassadors is to get as much positive press coverage of U.S. policy or diplomatic activities as possible. Public diplomacy sections, especially the press officers, spend hours strategizing on how to make this happen. They work hard to figure out how to use media opportunities to convey important messages to local publics. And, the press officer will also arrange events where the ambassador and other officers have the opportunity to listen to the insights and opinions of local press.

Ambassador Ford, however, reminded the audience that more is not always a good thing: “Don’t overuse access to the media.” Some messages are better delivered in person behind the closed doors of a foreign ministry or in a speech to a specific audience of businessmen. The message, when delivered via the media, can result in host government backlash if it is unexpected. Or, because you just made the issue part of a public debate – it gets buried by the response of multiple and conflicting articles and opinions.

Public diplomacy officers are always aware, as well, that journalists want access to the ambassador just as much as we want to get out a good story. Sometimes that results in the equivalent of journalistic “blackmail” – “I am doing a story on X and it will run tomorrow. Can you give me a comment?” Or, they run a story and when you call to note they have the facts wrong – then the journalist asks for an exclusive to set the record straight.

So, use media access judiciously and with awareness that it is the right tool for the purpose.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of outreach and soft power.

As a public diplomacy officer, I was heartened to hear Ambassador Ford note that soft-power and outreach can have a tremendous impact on foreign publics. He recounted a story of visiting a university in Algeria. He told the PAO (Public Affairs Officer) to keep it low-key since he knew that U.S. policy in Iraq was not very popular at the time. When he arrived at the university, he was overwhelmed by a large and very public welcome. It turns out that the English language and skills building programs established by the Public Affairs Office and implemented by partnerships with U.S. universities where tremendously popular and successful. The university president wanted more! I could recount more stories where finding common interest has resulted in politics being put aside – but, I am running out of space. These blogs are supposed to be under 800 words and I am over!

5 things to remember when doing digital diplomacy


Global communication concept

On October 3, the State Department held a conference on Diplomacy and digital/mobile media. On the last panel of the day, I spoke on how Public Diplomacy professionals use digital media in the developing world.

The Department has many different bureaus, offices and people involved in the use of digital media. We have websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, SMS, Youtube videos, and a multitude of other tools and platforms. We deploy these tools abroad via Public Diplomacy/Public Affairs offices at our embassies to listen, inform, engage and dialogue with foreign publics in support of a wide array of foreign policy goals and strategies.

Our communication is intended to inform and open discussion with these publics regarding our policies – possibly to be favorably disposed on an issue, to work with us in partnership, or to be influenced in some way that is favorable to our strategic interests or American values. Digital media has allowed us to bypass traditional media and carry our message directly to millions – even billions – of people around the world.

Field practitioners of public diplomacy, like myself, often debate how much and when to use digital media – and with what audiences. Whether providing information or content leads to influencing, empowering or transforming our audiences; whether the medium fits the message or the audience. Whether we are credible on Twitter or regarded as propagandists. Whether we will ever be seen as honest listeners if our policies or statements do not adapt and change to the expectations of those providing content and feedback.

We angst over how we can fit the digital tools into a whole strategy of communication that includes traditional press activities, academic exchanges, speaker programs or one-on-one meetings. We also wonder how we can keep the spontaneity of digital/social media in an institution where communications are not spontaneous – where they must be carefully crafted, debated, scrutinized, cleared – and sometimes miss the rapidly moving window of opportunity that digital media dictates.

Digital media allows us to reach larger audiences and broader spectrums of societies. It facilitates online discussion and debate. It allows for crisis messaging. However, we should be realistic of the challenges we face in many countries in using digital media to reach audiences.

First, digital/mobile media is infrastructure dependent. Countries around the world vary widely in the penetration, use and control of digital media. The Pew Research Center did a global study in 2013 and in general, the statistics showed that Internet use correlated with income levels. Most users were under 35 years of age. Some countries and regions had low penetration: Iraq 8%, Afghanistan 6%, Liberia 4.3%.

Smart phone ownership in many countries was very low: Pakistan 3%, Uganda 4%, Egypt 23%. Of course Europe, the Gulf, the U.S. were high. And – in my experience, literacy rates also influence digital media use. The issue that we face in communicating with publics in critically strategic countries is monumental.

Second, interactive media is intended to be interactive. When we send but do not engage, third party actors or mediators then influence or skew the interaction. Twitter is a good example of how credible “names” become the brokers of truth. Or, if we never respond, the user thinks we do not care to listen to them.

Third, digital media is anonymous and therefore entities can lie about who they really are, mimic and pretend to be someone else, or actively seek to cause mischief. We then spend a lot of time explaining that “we did not say that” when that is not our Twitter feed or website!

Fourth, in societies where personal, social interaction leads to trust, anonymous communicators (even if representing a government) are often distrusted. And in countries where media and governments regularly withhold information, or where rumors and conspiracies are credible… communications from the U.S. embassy often hold little credibility. Pew also published a project on “social media and the spiral of silence” that noted that people were less willing to discuss controversial topics on social media than in person.

Fifth, digital media is labor intensive. It requires 24/7 monitoring and maintenance in a world that never sleeps.

So digital media is a tool. The question is, do we want to use it to listen/analyze, inform, engage, or carry on a dialogue? And which one of these purposes will actually influence public opinion or lead to action. How can we choose the most effective tool for the audience of the purpose? How can we remain one step ahead of the technology curve in a given region of the world.

Lots of questions and food for debate.

A Day in the Life of a Public Diplomacy Officer at a U.S. Embassy

It seems that few people really know what we – Public Diplomacy Officers – do everyday. I get questions all the time from students at GW or other concerned citizens. After all, engaging and communicating with foreign publics is not really a self-explanatory descriptor for a job.

I ran into one American, in a location that I won’t name, who had no idea what the State Department did – much less as a public diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service. When I attempted to explain public diplomacy, he noted that “whatever it was”, he did not trust the USG to tell him the truth about anything, which was why he did not own a TV set. I am not sure whether this made my failure to explain any more palatable, but at least I had an excuse. And, of course, my in-laws always want to know whether public diplomacy is really a good use for their tax dollars.

So – let me set the record straight: the tax dollars are well spent. Public Diplomacy Officers in the Foreign Service work 24/7 explaining U.S. foreign policy; presenting American society and values in a positive light; listening to people who have strong opinions about our policies and engaging in dialogue with them; partnering on projects; and providing information to U.S. citizens in the event of a crisis.

Once you are a diplomat overseas – even if you are at the grocery store – you are representing your country. And, since we take our job of engaging foreign publics seriously, we constantly engage with people. We attend events. We respond to students and others who ask us about U.S. foreign policy or why Americans think freedom of expression is so important. We always answer the phone when a journalist calls – no matter how late in the day. And, due to the time difference overseas with Washington, we often work late into the night on press talking points, how/what to communicate with U.S. citizens about security, or on a problem with an exchange student.

Last week, I hosted a gathering with students and faculty at the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) to open a discussion about what a Public Diplomacy Officer does every day. The answer, of course, depends on the size and budget of the Public Affairs Office – and the critical nature of our foreign policy in that country.


Patricia Kabra (head of table) explains what it’s like to be a Public Diplomacy Officer at a U.S. Embassy to a group of GW students and faculty in the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 16, 2014.


At an embassy, the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) heads the section, represents the embassy as a spokesperson and develops public diplomacy strategies for the mission. The section usually has cultural affairs officers who focus on exchanges, cultural programming and programming: press officers who analyze media, set-up press conferences, write speeches and handle press inquiries.

Some sections have specialists in English Language teaching and Information/libraries. U.S. embassies are an anomaly in the foreign affairs community overseas in that most other embassies do not have public affairs sections. Instead, they divide culture and press into two unconnected components. Or, they combine press and political affairs in one section.

So, not only is it difficult to explain to Americans what we do, as most foreign diplomats do not understand it either. And, in some parts of the world, host governments are suspicious of U.S. intentions when we say we want to engage and communicate with “their” publics. The classic task of diplomacy, in their view, is for foreign officials to interact with host government officials, not the ordinary citizen.

The synergy between the various public diplomacy functions of press, culture, information and English teaching gives the Public Affairs Office and the Department of State a wide array of tools and tactics that can be deployed either together or separately to engage with people. Annually, we formulate a strategy to further specific policy goals in a given country. Periodically throughout the year, we analyze our programs and strategies in light of changes in the local environment or goals of the U.S. Administration.

In a broad sense, everything we do communicates something about America and our foreign policy – cultural performances, workshops, lectures, press releases and one-on-one meetings. The challenge is to use these tools in such a way that they communicate what is intended and engender a constructive conversation on critical issues. In one country, the best tactic may be in-person meetings and roundtable; in others it may be a broad media campaign.

The students at SMPA posed a lot of excellent questions: what makes a good public diplomacy officer? What do I need to know to pass the Foreign Service exam? How do you measure the success or impact of your programs? And finally, what do you do in an ordinary day? In future sessions, I will bring experts from the Department of State to discuss some of these questions. This last brown bag event highlighted a schedule that started before 8 a.m. with analysis of the media and breaking news stories – and ended with a late reception or a debate over press talking points with Washington until well after 1 a.m. local time!

Public Diplomacy in Action at IPDGC

The author (far left) and Professor Nathan Brown (immediate right) discuss the importance of dialogue in public diplomacy with a delegation from the Middle East at the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

The author (far left) and Professor Nathan Brown (immediate right) discuss the importance of dialogue in public diplomacy with a delegation of Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar University in Cairo at the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

As the new Public Diplomacy Diplomatic Fellow at GWU, I still stand with a foot slowly lifting off from my last “post” – U.S. Embassy Cairo and the other foot planted in an office at the IPDGC.

On September 9, both worlds merged as IPDGC hosted a delegation of Islamic religious scholars from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the major center of Sunni learning in the Middle East, as well as imams and representatives from the Dar al Iftah and the office of the “Grand Imam” at al-Azhar. The visit was organized by the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (CECF) and its director, Imam Bashar Arafat; and funded via a public diplomacy grant from the Public Affairs Office in Embassy Cairo.

The program, a three-week visit to the U.S., took the scholars all over the United States to meet with representatives of religious, academic, government and NGO institutions. This people-to-people dialogue was aimed at increasing awareness among the delegates and the people they met regarding points of mutual interest, concern and potential cooperation.

Professor Nathan Brown from the Elliott School Middle East Studies program joined me in a discussion with the delegation. Previously, Dr. Brown had met some of the delegates during a speaking program in Cairo, organized by the Public Affairs Office, on comparative constitutions. Members of the delegation were glad to see a familiar face. They were curious about the School of Media and Public Affairs and how media could be used to improve understanding rather than increase stereotypes.


Imam Bashar Arafat (right corner), director of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, partakes in the discussion with the author (left corner) in the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

They stated their dedication to increasing mutual understanding and their appreciation for the members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities who met with them during their visit. Members conveyed their concern for the threat from terrorist groups, whom they noted had nothing to do with the real “Islam”. Their final request was for greater contact and cooperation between George Washington University and Al-Azhar University in Egypt.

Opening doors to dialogue is an important function of public diplomacy. Listening to the point of view of others and finding common interests is step one in the process of explaining American society and values. A common foundation of knowledge and understanding is useful when public diplomacy professionals at the Department of State are trying to explain and convey U.S. policy objectives. On September 9, GWU and the IPDGC played an important role by offering a warm welcome to the delegation and listening to their concerns, goals and hopes for the future.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

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