public diplomacy

Hidden Successes In Public Diplomacy

There is an increasing recognition among public diplomacy (PD) experts that we need to pay more attention to the audience.  In fact, the word audience itself is losing credence as it implies one-directional communication.  Instead, we are urged to engage with our ‘partners’ in an on-going dialogue.  In PD headquarters around the world, there is also a trend to make PD activities more accountable and to build monitoring and evaluation into the design of programs, largely based on the impact the program had on our partners.


Examples of Meaningful Impact

The most successful programs are those in which our partners take ownership of United States Government initiatives, resulting in long term institution-wide changes which benefit both sides.

These gauges of successful public diplomacy programs rest on two assumptions.  First, there is the assumption that one has a partner willing to engage and work with us to enact programs.  The second assumption is that the most important successes can and should be measured.  But all PD professionals have had the experience of being directed by headquarters to deliver the unpopular message, knowing it may not necessarily be received well and may even be met by stiff opposition on the part of our interlocutors.  Our success as PD professionals is to deliver this message in as clear and culturally appropriate a way as possible, knowing full well that our interlocutors will disagree at the minimum.  Few of us are adequately trained for this kind of task and usually learn from our own experience.  More importantly these kind of necessary and challenging activities largely go unrecognized and certainly unmeasured as gauges of success.

I was once directed to inform the government in the country I was assigned to that the Department was going to curtail a very popular cultural exchange program.  I practiced my delivery in the local language and marshalled my arguments why this was the best solution for all concerned.  I then made the best case I could at a parliamentary session devoted to this issue.  The response to my arguments was so heated that the chairman informed the other parliamentarians not to kill the messenger.  Had I delivered the message in a different manner, would it have been received more favorably?  One can never know because one can never compare the results of something that happened to something that didn’t.  But I still believe that making the appearance before parliament and taking the heat mitigated the damage in a small way but I could never prove it.


Sometimes we cannot anticipate how our messages will be received (Credit Emerson SPJ)

While we always must defend our own government’s policies, maintaining long-term relations requires giving our contacts a fair hearing, even when we disagree. Allowing contacts to vent may indeed be an effective long term strategy and certainly provides a wealth of information which may inform future successful programming.  On her first trip abroad as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes went on a listening tour of Muslim majority countries  and was met by professional women very unhappy with U.S. policy at the time.  The tour was widely panned in the media as the events did not unfold as anticipated.  Yet many women I met in Turkey, even those who had not attended the programs, were impressed that such a high level official had come to listen and had truly seemed to hear what the audience was saying.  By any surface measurement of press coverage, the trip was seen as a failure but in terms of deep, long term impact it may have been an important success.

Our greatest successes often go unreported, or to state it in another manner, success is sometimes measured in the absence of reporting.  All PD professionals who have worked with the media have had the experience of either correcting the reporting about U.S. officials who were misquoted or ensuring that misstatements by officials do not get covered, because they were just that – mistakes.  This is possible only because the PD office in question has a long term relationship with the media outlet, ensuring continuing cooperation.

There are also occasions when the best strategy may be not to engage.  In one country I worked in, we decided not to engage with the most important and effective anti-globalization NGO.  As a hard opponent with a firmly held ideological view whose very existence depended on opposition to the globalization agenda, they could not be convinced or persuaded in any event.  In addition this group had already twisted the words and not given a fair hearing when the EU had tried to interact with this group.  By any network analysis, our decision not to engage would be viewed as a failure, showing the Embassy as barely connected to the most important player in this subject. But we had made a strategic decision whose effectiveness can never be measured.

In short, as the saying goes not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.  In an admirable effort to make our efforts more accountable, measurable goals are included in Integrated Country Strategy documents which lay out and justify our efforts for the coming years.  We can make inroads and experience the greatest successes in areas of overlap, where we have parallel agendas with local partners.  But there are many cases, especially in hostile environments, where our most important efforts cannot and should not be measured or even publicized. Just being present and listening may be our most important contribution, which lays the foundation for future measurable successes.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State.


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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