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.
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?
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.
“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—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.
Finally, after too little attention, the concept of study abroad is making the news. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof champions the issue in a March 15 column announcing a winner for his 2014 contest to highlight neglected places in the world by sending a student overseas.
Kristof’s article followed news by Tufts University that it will help defray the costs for students to take a gap year abroad. All this comes on top of the annual Open Doors report on international educational exchanges which finds that the number of American students studying abroad for academic credit has increased 3% and that the number of international students in the U.S. is up 7% over the last recorded year. Together with yet unpublished data by SIT Study Abroad of World Learning, the case is strong for sending American youth on educational programs overseas.
Study abroad (and student exchanges writ large) are a critical tool in the backpack of young people if they want to be economically competitive, culturally enriched, and good global citizens and leaders. Data compiled by Marianne McGarrity, a graduate student researcher at SIT Study Abroad and Graduate Institute, shows that participants of study abroad programs often make life-long commitments to education, healthcare, and globally conscious efforts that solve problems. Alumni with international experience find positive use for foreign languages and overseas experiences in their careers.
In short, study abroad is life-changing in the best of ways. I did it in 1980 and credit that time overseas as a build block for a life in media, academia, and public service.
Good public diplomacy includes people-to-people engagement and the ideal scenario is to have more youth coming to America and going overseas. That is a global vision we should all subscribe to.
“Hello Schmuel,” I used to say to Sam Lewis, which made him laugh. The former U.S. Ambassador to Israel (1977) was not Jewish, but he remained a lifelong friend of Israel and of Jews and a friend of Palestinians—the ultimate public diplomat. He was a peacemaker—a man who bridged cultures, religions, histories and believed deeply in the power of negotiations to end stalemates and deadlocks. He devoted his life to the Middle East and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and he understood the power of people to move policies.
Sam Lewis died today at the age of 84. He was born October 1, 1930, in Houston, Tex. He received an A.B. degree from Yale University in 1952 and an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University in 1954. He joined the Foreign Service in 1954 and served as consular officer at Naples. From 1955 to 1959, he was a political officer and acting principal officer in Florence. Sam went on to great heights—Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, head of State Department Planning, and then President of the United States Institute of Peace where he remains a revered figure.
What I will miss about Sam Lewis is not just his gift of diplomacy and his ability to reach out to publics across divides. I will miss his smile, his laugh, his wit, and his wisdom. To me, Sam Lewis remains “Schmuel,” — a Mensch and a mentor—and will be sorely missed. My heartfelt sympathies to his wife, Sally, and his family which includes many nations and people.
Cultural diplomacy is a source of uniting or dividing people. The White House decision NOT to participate in the Sochi Paralympic games for athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities is a reflection of the crisis in Ukraine which has divided cultures and now cuts American participation off.
The Ukraine situation is a cultural breakdown between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars and other groups who struggle with cultural issues like language and history. Sports can be a part of positive diplomacy but is also a way to signal dissent with another country as is the case here. Cultural diplomacy – be it sports or other forms of so-called “soft power” is influential.
Recently I wrote about a form of cultural diplomacy known as culinary diplomacy where food is the source of bridging cultures.Taught and promoted at the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, food diplomacy is taking off in the United States as well, in part due to an initiative started by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Chef Corps which uses the power of chefs to teach slow cooking, agriculture, the business aspects of food, etc.
From Iran to Africa, from Haiti to Korea, from Ukraine to Uganda—food and sports are ways to motivate people: hopefully in a positive direction.
Ukraine will need good public diplomacy from the U.S.
Secretary Kerry is wise to be heading to Ukraine on Tuesday for both formal and symbolic diplomacy to signal to the ordinary citizen in Ukraine that the U.S. respects its territorial sovereignty and its human dignity. These are the moments when visits really matter.
With Russian troops on the move in Crimea, ethnic Russians also need to know that their rights will be protected. This conflict cannot afford to spiral out of control. Leaving aside the human toll that conflict could take, and the wider war this episode might evoke, there are public diplomacy and economic reasons for all actors in this drama to want a peaceful ending.
Crimea is a major tourism spot for Ukrainians, Russians and Western visitors. Even National Geographic has written about the seaside beauty, the vineyards and orchards of this Black Sea resort. Russia just emerged from a tourism boom in Sochi. It shouldn’t risk sending a message to the world that tourists should stay away from Russia and the Black Sea resorts of Ukraine. Moreover, economic issues like oil prices — which would spike as a result of any sanctions against Russia — should motivate all sides to calm down.
In 1782, Catherine the Great’s military general, Prince Grigory Potemkin wrote of Crimea saying “Russia needs its paradise.” But today, times have changed. This is 2014. Russia should not risk it all. Let’s hope public diplomacy and diplomatic talks result in a win-win for everyone.
On February 12, multiple peaceful-turned-violent protests erupted in the major cities of Venezuela. These rallies conducted by university students have snowballed into a national conflict between the state and its citizens. The students were pacifically voicing their discontent against the government for the innumerable injustices currently plaguing Venezuela. The mandate to arrest these students turned highly controversial and thus incited the monumental manifestations, teeming with violence, that have taken place over the past few weeks. The nation’s president, Nicolas Maduro, commanded militarized police authorities to inhibit the protests, which has regrettably resulted in many injuries and deaths.
These incidents simply add further lines to the long list of mistreatments of citizens by the Venezuelan Government. Although international media has been scant as the crisis unfolds internally, manifestations and pleas for support have now reached a worldwide audience.
However, as we know there are always two sides of the story. Instead of addressing or planning to resolve the issues tormenting Venezuelan citizens, President Maduro’s tactics included a massive campaign to portray his government, at least attempt to, as victims of a conspiracy plan to overthrow their regime.
Venezuela’s public diplomacy abroad
This week, President Maduro’s administration began strategic movements to diffuse their two important messages: first, that information reaching international audiences regarding the situation in the country has been manipulated and exaggerated by media agents; second, to convince the international public’s opinion that the United States is partly to blame for the instability in the country due to their intervention with internal affairs through supporting the opposition.
These approaches have been used both domestically and internationally. Within Venezuela, it has been easier to manipulate due to the government’s ownership over the majority of communication outlets, and the immense oppression of information over private or international ones.
One of the main global venues used to broadcast these messages are Venezuelan embassies throughout the world; mostly through their social media pages. Additionally, just this week the Venezuelan Chancellor for external affairs, Elias Jaua, has commenced a global tour in search for support of the current government and more broadly the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Have their public outreach efforts been effective?
The problem with Venezuela’s credibility is the shocking and inspiring number of demonstrations taking place in the country, as well as the increasing momentum gathering world-wide denouncing the events and actions taken by the government. What is being protested against President Maduro’s administration transcends above local needs; citizens demand fundamental democratic principles.
For instance, 1) media repression and the current control of information and media outlets, 2) Oppressing freedom of assembly by using militarized security force against protesters, and 3) jailing his opponents such as the incarceration of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These tactics, historically used by authoritarian regimes, have made it difficult for President Maduro to hide violations and defend his so-called democracy.
The social, political, and economic conditions in Venezuela are favorable to the development and continuation of large-scale protests and discontent with the government. However, it is the hope all Venezuelans to see their government actively working towards the amelioration of the country’s conditions, rather than actively seeking international approval and support of their 15-year failed socialist revolution.
The United States’ role
The structural conflict that has allowed for institutionalized state violence is due in part because all opposition groups or organization voicing the smallest criticism against the Venezuelan government are silenced, rebutted, punished, or censored by the government or its supporters. Thereunto, the United States government is indirectly forced to opt for ambiguous remarks and denunciations against Venezuela; carefully wording its discontent against the actions and the situation as a way to avoid accusations of “invading in internal affairs.”
Yet, even when President Obama’s administration is selective in its statements, Venezuela’s government will take any hint of criticism as a window of opportunity to rally up “anti-imperialistic” sentiments among its supporters and the region. For example on February 17, after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made his remarks about the situation evolving in Venezuela, President Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats from the country, claiming they were associated with and supported the opposition’s plot. Evidently, the United States responded with the same method. It is worth reminding the reader that the countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, proving the dire diplomatic relationships between the two governments.
The United States’ public diplomacy goals in this complicated situation should focus on defending its image among Venezuelans. Through this, the ultimate long term objective is the improvement of America’s reputation among Latin America’s left-wing countries.
Oriana Piña is a graduate student at the George Washington University pursuing a M.A. in Global Communications, with a concentration in Latin American Studies. She is passionate about democracy, diplomacy, cultural understanding and international affairs. Follow her at @OrianaIntl.
On April 12, 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv hosted a day-long conference for Ukrainian women entrepreneurs focusing on business owners of small and medium enterprises. The goal of the event was to promote the importance of Ukrainian women in fostering economic growth, build the confidence of women entrepreneurs to take on leading roles in business and society, provide practical tools for further empowerment, and serve as a platform for networking.
It was less than one year ago when I visited Kyiv as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Today, seeing the unrest, I am reminded of the importance of US-Ukrainian cultural ties. While in Kyiv, I helped launch the construction of the new American Center to build ties between our two nations. Former US Ambassador John Teft and I knocked down a wall as contractors worked to create a convening place to keep Ukrainians and Americans connecting with one another. I also met with bloggers and media, and was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Forum.
I visited school no. 168 in Kyiv where they are providing mainstream education to students with cognitive and physical disabilities. I met with children learning English through a State Department funded program. I was moved to tears at Babyn Yar, the site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis during their campaign against the Soviet Union.
As events unfold, let’s focus on the people as well as the politics. There are beautiful cultural sites throughout the country that must be preserved. Artists, journalists, young people, the LGBT community, and women must have their rights and freedoms.
Among the sports of the Winter Olympics, figure skating is unquestionably one of the most watched. Perhaps it’s the unique elegance of the program and skaters that sets it apart from other winter sports, which are often focused on speed and action, not artistry or beauty.
But similar to popular Olympic sports, gold medalists in figure skating are elevated to an unprecedented level in their home country, and no where is this more true than in South Korea. Before Yuna Kim entered the global stage with her gold medal at the 2010 games in Vancouver, figure skating was underrepresented in South Korea and overshadowed by the greater success it has had with speed skating and the short track. Even though Kim did not win gold in Thursday’s free skate program, figure skating will continue rising in popularity as Kim and other figure skaters rake in lucrative endorsements from the likes of Hyundai, Samsung, and Nike.
Kim also brings an overall recognition to her country through active participation in international organizations, such as UNICEF (of which she is a Goodwill Ambassador) and the International Olympic Committee (which she has expressed joining full-time upon retirement). In many ways, she is a walking and talking (and gliding?) public diplomacy campaign for South Korea.
It’s a story Americans can resonate with: Michelle Kwan, the highly decorated American figure skater who elevated the sport in a similar manner to Kim in the late ’90s, is now a senior advisor for public diplomacy and public affairs for the State Department. According to her, traveling all over the world representing the U.S. has put her in the unique – and not entirely unlikely – position of doing the same through government. (It also doesn’t hurt that she received a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 2011.)
“I work at the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, where we focus on a lot of exchanges, building mutual understanding,” she says in this Feb. 7 interview with WAMU 88.5. “We bring businesses, we bring athletes, we bring music. There’s a great exchange between countries, and it’s a great way to connect.”
Can figure skating contribute to a nation’s public diplomacy goals? If it requires worldwide celebrity status, consistent contact with foreigners, and partaking in globally-organized events, then it must. It is why events like the Olympics have been successful for so long – a country’s image can be made or broken through how its athletes compete. In South Korea’s case, Yuna Kim’s ubiquity in everyday life through her vast commercial and global presence serves as a singular force in their global image campaign, despite the controversy surrounding her final Olympics competition. No doubt it was a significant part of the IOC’s decision to give South Korea the role of hosting in 2018. How it plans to channel public diplomacy from now until then will be fascinating to watch.