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.
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.
Note: This entry was originally posted on ipdgc.gwu.edu 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.”
“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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.