public diplomacy

Balancing Relationship Based and Policy Based PD Programming: The Internal Relationships – A Focus on Washington (Part 2)

This is the second of a seven-part series of posts. See part part one here

The successful Public Affairs Officer (PAO) must skillfully balance and successfully navigate three relationships:  a.  the Washington bureaucracy, b. other sections of the embassy, c. contacts abroad.  The following diagram outlines the key relationships that PAOs juggle on a daily basis (I have highlighted the internal relationship in blue):

State Press

PAOs Managing the Relationship with Washington

Here I will briefly describe the internal relationships which dominate an average PAO’s day, how one tries to get different offices in the embassy and Washington on the same page (often literally), and how a PD officer can deal with the inevitable case of competing priorities.

The PAO Washington relationship is key to success in public diplomacy.   Effective PAOs and Information Officers (IO’s), whose focus is the press, generally spend the largest portion of their days aligning themselves with Washington.  From the minute s/he wakes up usually very early in the

morning, the PAO (and of course IO) monitors the local press to identify news items which headquarters needs to see.   These range from highlighting a story which may require USG comment to giving Washington a feel for stories which affect its interest.  The PAO and the staff must always keep US policy in mind in order to determine what to include in the daily press summary and how prominently to place it.  The story featured most prominently in the local press may not be included at all or may be placed in the background of the press summary sent to headquarters.  Locally Employed Staff, who do the bulk of the monitoring, become highly attuned to USG priorities so that they can highlight appropriate articles.  The PAO and IO may also clear on speeches from Washington or guidance for appropriateness to local context to assure that the host government and populace will read the message as intended.

Similarly, the PAO and in concert with the Cultural Affairs Officer ensures that all exchange programs support U.S. policy and that the allocation of resources reflects Department priorities.   By example, this meant programming more speakers in Germany to support our economic agenda such as T-TIP and in Pakistan developing programs to reach a more diversified young audience.   The PAO and CAO are in frequent contact with Washington to learn of Washington priorities and models of effective programming.  All these efforts are to bring Washington and the post on the same page.

But it is a headquarters oriented relationship, which why the line from Washington on the chart above is thicker than that from post to headquarters.  The Public Affairs Office in the field receives its funding from Washington with a mandate of explaining and supporting US policy abroad.   Often there is a competition among other embassies for resources with the proposal that best supports policy in an innovative manner garnering extra resources.  While PAOs may inform policy and provide ‘ground truth’ to Washington with daily press summaries and other reporting, and may backchannel to warn of directives from Washington that could harm U.S. interests, once the policy is set the PAO must enact it to the best of his or her abilities.

State Press 2Mastering USG policy requires reading the daily Department of State ( and White House ( Press Briefings, a careful reading of all speeches by the President, the Secretary of State and other high level officials as well as daily Department guidance and suggested social media content.  The PAO must be aware of all high level visitors from Washington to the post and the content of phone conversations between the President or Secretary of State and in-country counterparts.  A fine reading of these texts provides PAOs and IOs with an up to date understanding of USG policy to use in daily interactions with press and other contacts.   I would argue that the public interaction of PD officers, which receive much of the scholarly attention, is just the tip of the iceberg for the more important task of aligning the officer with Washington views.  With this knowledge, the PAO or IO can reply to press queries, correct misconceptions may which may arise in conversations with contacts and ensure that all outreach, including social media supports USG policy.   By the same token, the spokesperson in Washington is able to anticipate and prepare for questions using information provided by the field.

To garner extra funds for exchange programs, the PAO must know how to connect proposals to Washington priorities and how to make the case that a program that might on the surface lack connection to policy actually has a direct link.   Many of my American and German staff had copies of the strategic goals placed in a prominent position in their offices to underpin any request for funding and other support.  End Part 2

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.

This is the second of a seven part series. See part one here, and part three here


About Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller is the Public Diplomacy Fellow at George Washington University on loan from the Department of State.


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