public diplomacy

Balancing Relationships: A Model for Bridging the Exchanges Policy Gap (Part 5)

This is the fifth of a seven-part series. See parts one, two, three, and four for background.

In the previous sections I argued that policy drives all Public Diplomacy activities in the U.S. government and that it is possible and often desirable to couple short term policy objectives with long term relationship building.   The following model describes a more fruitful way of viewing PD programs with different tools used for different purposes and contexts:


Rather than distinguishing between exchanges vs press or short term vs long term, perhaps we should focus on indirect vs direct programming and consider ways we can combine both.   Both direct and indirect programming have distinct advantages depending on the goal and context but the most effective indirect programming should incorporate aspects of direct programming and vice versa.  All PD programming must support policy.  If a policy connection cannot be articulated, it is difficult to argue for funding.   And all programs must develop as much as possible long term relationships with contacts, which of course cannot last without two-way (or more) communication.

Failing to take the long term relationship into consideration often thwarts short term goals.  At one of my posts, a brilliant embassy officer easily won an argument on U.S. policy with a leading journalist, who left the conversation defeated and alienated.   Had the conversation been framed as a teaching opportunity with a possible win-win outcome rather than as an argument,  the journalist may have come back for future conversations on the topic that could have led to more informed articles and provided a future outlet to explain U.S. policy.  In everything we do, developing the long term relationship must take priority over winning the moment (although it is possible to do both if done skillfully).  Similarly any program, whether it be an interview or tweet on policy must have a two-way or more exchange of ideas.   A tweet which has no reach is a failure.   Even in the area of messaging, PD professionals must always keep potential and actual audience reactions in mind and learn what works in local contexts.

Indirect Programming reaches audiences and potential contacts who may not share our views.   In other words, hard audiences can be reached with soft content.  In many parts of the world, the Department of State has English ACCESS programs which teach English to underprivileged youth.  Many participants in this program and their families resist association with the United States but do want a desired skill, the English language, which will advance their academic and professional future.   Students in this program often progress from a simple desire for English proficiency to realizing that English is a window to the world and end up developing a curiosity about the United States.   In one country I served in, we invited parents to observe the classes.  We had to expand the program as word of mouth imagesAccessspread through the community of classrooms which were empowering their children.  In another country I served in, the methodology used in an English Language Fellow program of student centered participation and development of critical thinking skills reshaped the teaching of the entire university as students in classes in other subjects pressed to be more involved in their own learning.

Soft culture programs have long term and often surprising payoffs.   In support of American Studies, the U.S. Embassy in Germany gave grants to universities which often invited speakers who were skeptical of U.S. policy.  My German staff member  in charge of the portfolio made a convincing case that allowing universities to choose which speakers to invite gave us credibility and more access to higher education.  On a daily basis the American studies professors we worked with functioned as honest brokers, criticizing policy when they disagreed but almost always explaining U.S. life and institutions and providing useful context.  American studies professors were often involved in arranging speeches for our Ambassador in universities that won over  hostile audiences  by willingly engaging, taking criticism, and then making a convincing case for our policy.

Finally, press exchanges develop long term relationships with media while giving journalists skills and contacts to improve their reporting.   In the regular interactions with journalists and other contacts over coffee, lunch, or in receptions, PD professionals learn about local concerns, explain U.S. policy and establish a relationship of trust which payoff every time a crisis arises or a high level visitor arrives.

Direct programming is easily understood.   A large percentage of the speakers we brought to Germany came to explain and defend the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a trade agreement between the U.S. and Europe which is a top U.S. priority.  Although the agreement under negotiation is often demonized in Germany, those who heard the discussions came away with a more open mind.    Journalists and other contacts came to hear a high level official even if they disagreed with the policy.   They came not only to hear Washington’s point of view but to engage in a dialogue and debate.   This holds true for interviews as well, which are always two-way communication.

Thinking about all Public Diplomacy as serving policy with more indirect and direct tools at our disposal is much more fruitful than walling off exchanges from policy and policy from relationship building.  In short, PD professionals and academics need to focus less on the program itself and more on what the program is supposed to accomplish.   End Part 5

Disclaimer: The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the United States Government.

This is the fifth of a seven-part series. See part six 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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