Global Communication

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When Policy Meets Public Diplomacy: U.S. losing its edge in attracting international students

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Chinese students attend an Education Fair at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to learn more about study abroad programs in the U.S.

 

U.S. public diplomacy efforts are about attraction, rather than coercion. A major variable in measuring “attractiveness” of the U.S. is through attitudes of potential foreign exchange students. The ability of the U.S. to attract bright minds from around the world has bolstered the country’s development since its inception and fuels the U.S. “melting pot” narrative. China is now the primary source of these foreign exchange students. The recent release of Institute for International Education’s 2016 Report revealed that numbering almost 330,000, Chinese international students comprise 31.5 percent of the total number of international students in the U.S. Sheer volume holds weight, but from a public diplomacy perspective, the numbers are less important than the attitudes behind them. Why do Chinese students choose to study abroad in the U.S.? Will this trend last? Research I conducted in 2015 concludes that unless the U.S. sees major education and public diplomacy policy shifts, we have reason to doubt it will.

In 2015, I completed an in-depth study of the evolution of Chinese students’ motivations to study abroad in the U.S. Its findings highlighted a need for the U.S. to foster policies that attract foreign talent as the web of international politics becomes increasingly multipolar. These conclusions ring true today.

The rapid influx of Chinese exchange students, who make up the majority of foreign students in the U.S., will play an unprecedented role in Sino-U.S. relations, as well as in the U.S. economy as potential future skilled immigrants. Through historical contextualization, observations at U.S. Consulate Guangzhou, as well as primary interviews of study abroad participants from the 80s, 90s, and today, my research concluded:

  • In comparison with students from the 1980s, 1990s, and even early 2000s, today’s Chinese students have a greater freedom of choice and the economic means to take advantage of that freedom of choice. To date, that choice has overwhelmingly been to study abroad in the U.S., but both quantitative and qualitative data suggest that trend is waning as students begin to consider other countries in place of or in addition to the U.S. as study abroad destinations.
  • Though modern-day students make the decision to study abroad out of desire for a better education and personal development, practical factors dictate which study abroad location and program students choose. Factors that may affect a student’s decision include the cost of a program and a country’s immigration policies, which may become even more important in the future as developed countries reach equilibrium in terms of education quality.

The student exchange trends described above call for the U.S. to adjust its education policies to continue attracting foreign talent, a factor that is crucial to the economy’s continuing success. Giving international student policies a more important role is not a betrayal to the “America First” rhetoric on the rise. In a recent interview, Thomas Friedman described his new book as a “manifesto for the eye people”. The “eye people” are those who thrive in the middle of the hubbub of globalization and interconnectedness and draw power from it. The “wall people” are those who withdraw into extreme nationalism. To thrive, the U.S. needs to maintain its status as a hub of global leadership. America’s largest group of international students is beginning to perceive the eye-to-wall shift. When will we?

Click here to read the full study.

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Four things President Trump should remember for his first speech abroad

From his decision to host Chinese president Xi Jinping at his home in Mar-a-Lago Florida to his apparent refusal to shake Angela Merkel’s hand during her recent visit to the White House, President Trump has been forging his own path when it comes to US foreign relations, bucking tradition and instead providing his own personal brand of public diplomacy. The same says-what-he-thinks, does-what-he-likes mannerisms that propelled him to victory in the 2016 elections are now being used in the White House to greet foreign dignitaries and leaders alike.

While such unpredictability may have connected with American voters, President Trump may not always have the luxury of an American audience. As he gets further into his administration, the time may come when President Trump is expected to deliver a set of remarks in front of a foreign audience. Whether he gives just three speeches abroad, like President Bush, or a dozen, like President Obama, there are a few lessons that President Trump can learn from previous administrations experiences abroad. Here are the four things President Trump should remember for his first speech abroad.

1. Choose a good location

First things first — choose an appropriate location for your speech. Visuals matter. Ronald Reagan’s speech in West Berlin, for example, was amplified by the choice of his location. His challenge to Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was made more powerful because the chosen location for the speech.

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President Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy of the White House Press Office.

He allowed audiences viewing the speech live, as well as those watching from around the world, to see the very wall to which he was referring; to view the physical boundary that separated the East and West. By remembering that speeches are not only heard, but also watched, a speech can become more powerful and more poignant.

2. Speech should be connected to policy

In Matthew Wallins’ blog post for the American Security Project (ASP), he states that matching action to words is a critical factor in maintaining the credibility for public diplomacy officials. When the president goes abroad, he is, in effect, acting as the US’s most powerful public diplomacy official; thus, his words must be connected to US policy action in order to maintain credibility.

During his historic trip to China, President Richard Nixon’s primary policy goal was to normalize relations and communications between the two nations.

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President Nixon toasting with Premier Enlai. Photo courtesy of the White House Press Office.

The toast, which he gave at a banquet in Peking, emphasized Nixon’s desire to exist in peace with China, while more subliminally promising to the Chinese people that the US would not try to influence their system of government.

Chairman Mao reportedly appreciated his honesty, and as a result, state media reported on their meeting favorably.

3. Don’t be afraid to take on the real issues.

Speeches provide a unique opportunity for presidents to address a captive international audience, as well as communities that they may not otherwise have access to. Though it may be uncomfortable at times, the best way to capitalize on the audience’s’ attention is to be forthright about the issues you want them to pay attention to. Wallin also makes this point in his ASP blog; transparency is key.

For example, when President Obama gave one of his first international speeches at a university in Cairo, he did not attempt to shift away from the significant policy issues that divided the Muslim world and the US. While the purpose of President Obama’s strategy in the speech was to open a new dialogue with Muslim communities, he went about this effort in two ways: the first method was to admit and apologize for what he perceived to be the previous administration’s mistakes; the second, was using his platform to address the contentious issues between the US and the Muslim communities. He openly condemned attempts by Muslim leaders to deny the Holocaust and 9/11. He rejected the use of violence by Palestinians.

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President Obama addressing the crowd in Cairo. Photo courtesy of the White House Flickr.

By seizing upon his position and his audience to address the actual issues facing the two sides, President Obama was able to turn the page on one chapter of Islamic/ American relations, and have the new beginning he sought.

4. But make sure your message doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Like any public diplomacy officer, presidents must first understand the cultural context of the country they are walking into, before they can expect to be listened to by the general public. At the end of the day, if no one in the audience is listening, the speech will have no impact. It is therefore important that President Trump connects with his audience, and shows some understanding and appreciation for the history and culture he’s addressing.
Each speech requires a different method of connection. In his Cairo speech, for example, President Obama used personal testimony to engage with the Muslim audience he was attempting to reach by describing the deep ties to Islam that his Kenyan family has, as well as his own experiences living in Indonesia as a young boy. In the first President Bush’s address to the people of Leiden, he connected the history of the early Pilgrim settlers to the proud history of the Dutch people. President Kennedy, meanwhile, in his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, used the German language to demonstrate his efforts to understand the position of the people of Berlin and of Germany more broadly. Even these small acts can have profound effects on the reception of the speech.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

It’s a New World: Rewriting Donald Trump’s Twitter

It’s no secret that the prominence and importance of social media has grown tremendously in the last decade. Facebook, Instagram and particularly Twitter have become key tools in political engagement of all sorts. Candidates, journalists and extremist groups alike have seen the outreach level of Twitter, and have used this engagement to build networks and create a narrative for themselves. Donald Trump has been revolutionary in his use of Twitter by engaging with his electorate directly. We haven’t seen a president use Twitter this much and by his own hand. Due to Twitter’s international presence, his tweets can have an enormous impact on the United States’ diplomacy initiatives worldwide. Therefore, we offer his team some guidance about how to potentially better their messaging abroad.

While many have criticized President Trump, few have presented real solutions. I believe that the issue isn’t with Trump’s use of Twitter, but how he uses it and the impact of his word choice and slant. In order to make Twitter a public diplomacy tool, President Trump might step back and consider editing his tweets with a foreign as well as domestic audience in mind. This would require input from officials closer to foreign audiences We offer some examples of potential edits to some of Donald Trump’s more challenging tweets.

Tweet:

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Donald Trump in this tweet defends his executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”. The media largely covered the executive order as a ban on Muslims. His tweet, whether purposefully or not, continued the media narrative instead of projecting President Trump’s intent, which is well defined in the order name. Due to its perpetuation of a ban and not an action taken in the name of national security, Donald Trump’s tweet fails to counteract the prevalent narrative. This tweet creates a mismatch in rhetoric regarding the intentions and logistics of the executive order.

Edit:

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This kind of language helps clarify the intention and helps elucidate and promote a narrative of protecting the nation from dangers abroad. It also directs away from the media narrative of discrimination on the part of the executive branch. This tweet also steered away from the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism”. This key erasure of Islamic from that term points to the root of the problem this order aims to solve, which is violent extremism, and the danger it poses to the United States.

Tweet:

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Here, President Trump reacts to the 9th circuit court decision to not reinstate his executive order. The intent behind this tweet is decently sound, however the word choice and combative nature give it a harsh undertone. In his questioning of this decision, the tweet challenges the checks and balances system of our three-branch model of government. Donald Trump demonstrates a doubt in the structure of the US government, which could potentially compromise our confidence and high ground when fighting for true and functional democracies internationally.

Edit:

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First and foremost, this revision comes out and expresses Donald Trump’s respect for the court system that his original tweet calls into question. This way, he is not only showing respect for the system, he remains a part of it by expressing his intent to continue in the constitutional process. The edit expresses his commitment to the initiative, as it keeps the original language of the second part of the tweet.

Tweet:

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In this tweet, Trump compares the meetings his staff had with Russian officials with formal meetings between two presidencies. He diminishes the strength of the presidency, as he questions the legitimacy of the enumerated power of the president to act on the part of the United States internationally. Without these powers, the public diplomacy initiatives worldwide are compromised, as the executive is the key to these processes. This poses a threat to his own presidency, as it reflects on the branch overall, and less on the Obama administration individually.

Edit:

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In the realm of public diplomacy, it is important to make the distinctions between diplomatic relations and potential international tampering. This Tweet isn’t the best reflection of President Trump’s dedication to preserving to dignity of the office of the presidency. We recommend against posting it at all, especially given the current ongoing investigation.

I hope President Trump can take these instances into account moving forward. It is a new reality with Twitter right at our fingertips, and adjusting is an important part of a presidency. Bringing in a communications team to fully develop these messages before they click send should become a consistent plan going forward.  I hope President Trump can take into account the public diplomacy implications of these 140 characters.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

Event Recap: Explaining Our New Cold War With Russia: Can Trump End It?

Just a day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations into the Trump’s campaign contact with Russia, the Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication partnered with the Walter R. Roberts Endowment to host a lecture and Q & A with former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. McFaul’s lecture explored what had ignited the U.S.’ new Cold War with Russia – and what had changed after nearly 30 years of relatively constructive relations. In his lecture, McFaul outlined three possible explanations for the faltering relationship and Russia under Vladimir Putin.

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Credit: Logan Werlinger

We cannot blame international politics

Firstly, McFaul discussed why the inherent structure of international politics doesn’t account for Putin’s interest in expansion or the strained relationship the U.S. has with Russia now.

“There’s this idea that this is just a natural correction. That Russia is a great power and is acting like a great power,” McFaul said.

But if that were the case, that Putin being more aggressive is just a natural correction, a similar pivot would have happened with Japan and Germany after World War II. At that time, great powers had fallen, but with U.S. aid and investment in each country’s ability to establish a democratic government, each country became a global power without becoming aggressors towards the U.S. If Russia were simply building up to become a major power again after the fall of the Soviet Union, there wouldn’t be a need for a strained relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Instead, perhaps the two countries could have worked together to establish a stronger democracy in Russia. According to McFaul, an error the U.S. made was not investing enough in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Up until 2013, the world seemed to think that Russia was just becoming a more mature, global power. It wasn’t until Putin’s plans shifted so wholly that the rest of the world started to take notice that Russia was becoming an aggressor, not a peaceful power.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the rest of the world started seeing a real shift in Putin’s plan. In 2013, Putin was concerned with the Eurasian Economic Union. He wanted the Ukraine to come on board with the EEU, rather than join the West to make the union large enough to be sustainable. Furthermore, up until 2013, Putin seemed to be going in a positive direction on the world stage mostly because of the olympics. The Sochi Olympics was Russia’s time to export a “new Russia” to the rest of the world. Putin’s administration reclaimed authors and artists that were excommunicated during the Soviet Union, and presented Russia as an inclusive country.

“They released Khodorkovsky. [Russia was] essentially saying, ‘We’ve had a rocky space. This is a signal to you, the United States, to have a new relationship with us’,” McFaul said.

Soon after the Olympics’ closing ceremony ended, though, Putin invaded Crimea.

If international politics was the real reason the new Cold War began, it would have started far before Putin decided to invade Crimea because simply the idea of Russia becoming a great power isn’t a threat to the world order or balance of power.

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Credit: Logan Werlinger

And it’s not U.S. Policy

Another theory McFaul was quick to dismiss is that Russia has to be aggressive towards the United States because U.S. foreign policy pushed it into a corner. But to Putin, the U.S. seemed to be an emerging threat around in the early 2000s and into 2013. NATO’s expansion, the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq, the NATO bombing in Serbia in 2013 and U.S. support for color revolutions all could have been perceived as Western aggression towards Russia.   According to this theory, “We are too demanding of Russia, we were lecturing them, we support color revolutions. Putin had enough and his actions are a reaction to what we did”.

However, after these perceived threats the U.S. and Russia began a reset designed to be a win-win relationship between the U.S. and Russia – the idea was that through a strategy of active engagement, the U.S. and Russia would find common interests to strengthen both countries. It is important to note that at the time of the reset, Medvedev was president, and seemed more open to more open relations with the U.S.  According to McFaul, this worked for the most part. The new START treaty was put into force in February 2011, and it called for nuclear limits on both countries, eighteen on-site inspections of both countries and no constraints on missile defense or conventional strikes. During the reset, the Iran deal was also signed, which worked in both the U.S. and Russia’s interest to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, the reset also included the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which supplied material to forces in Afghanistan in a combined effort on the war in Afghanistan.

“At the height of the reset, sixty percent of Russians had a positive view of Americans, and sixty percent of Americans had a positive view of Russians. That was five years ago,” McFaul said.

U.S. policy aided Russia during the reset – and it showed in approval ratings. The economies of both countries were steadily rising and there was more support of American-Russian relations than had been in years. If U.S. policy were to blame, how could one explain all of the positive developments in the relations after the perceived threats? According to McFaul, there is only one last narrative that could explain today’s tensions.

Russian Domestic Politics – it starts at home

When power shifted from Medvedev to Putin, the U.S. incorrectly thought that nothing should really change, according to McFaul.

“We all knew that Putin was doing everything behind the scenes anyway. We didn’t think anything would change,” McFaul said.

However, internal pressures created Putin’s aggressive pivot towards the West because he needed someone to blame the conflict on. Putin saw the U.S. supporting the revolutions in Egypt and Libya – and in his view in Russia too. Putin viewed demonstrators as traitors. Once Putin’s ally and Ukrainian leader Yanukovych fell in 2014, Putin pivoted completely against the U.S. as he saw U.S. ideology threatening his reign. The demonstrations in the Middle East and in Russia between 2011 and 2012 forced Putin to try and look stronger in his own country.

“The good news is, I don’t think Putin has a master plan to recreate the Soviet Union,” McFaul said. “There’s no evidence that that’s what he’s doing. The bad news is that Putin’s not changing. He can be in power legally until 2024, and Putin needs an enemy.”

As long as Putin feels threatened by revolutions and demonstrations in his own country and in those immediately surrounding Russia, the U.S. will continue to be his enemy. And, according to McFaul, a Trump presidency that is friendlier towards Russia won’t do much to change that.

Trump’s hothead meets the Cold War

Trump speaks about Russia as if the goal is to be Russia’s friend, McFaul theorized, and that could backfire.

According to McFaul, President Trump was confusing goals with means. “The job of a diplomat is to represent your country’s interest in another country. Not to be that country’s friend,” McFaul said.

Because of the Trump Administration’s recent controversies, like Sessions’ recent recusal and Russia’s interference in the 2016, Trump will have difficulty making any headway in Russia–U.S. relations. As of now, it might be politically impossible for Trump to grant any significant concessions to Russia without the exchange looking like political favors.

Furthermore, according to McFaul, there’s not much Russia can give us in negotiations.

“They could lift the ban on adoptions, but on bigger things I’m less optimistic. Our overlapping interests are much smaller than they used to be,” McFaul said.

Unfortunately, it looks like the new Cold War won’t be ending any time soon. But according to McFaul, it’s important to realize that a powerful Russia shouldn’t be a fear. Rather, the more pressing need is to reduce the idea that the U.S. is Russia’s enemy, and that they are ours.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

 

The Okinawa Base Debate: A Microcosm of Contesting Narratives

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A crowd gathers to protest the Okinawa base relocation.

 

The U.S. crafted the existing international system after World War II. This system carries on today through existing norms, treaties, and international bodies. In the unique case of Japan, U.S. influence lives on in its very Constitution. It is no coincidence, then, that with such a high level of influence, U.S.-Japan relations remain strong. However, multiple outside influences threaten the U.S.- led world order and challenge U.S.-Japan relations. Examples include the rise of regional powers and a multi-polar system, security threats in the Asia Pacific, and political shifts in the U.S. that normalize isolationist rhetoric and downplay nuclear proliferation. In the transition to the new world order Japan is redefining its identity and national narrative to cope with these changes, rather than recycling the post-War narrative crafted for and at the hands of the U.S. Maintaining one of our strongest alliances relies more than ever on the idea of the alliance itself. How will the U.S. craft its narrative in the face of a shifting international system? The Okinawa base relocation debate is a microcosm of this narrative contest.

Nowhere is Japan’s struggle to come to terms with the post-War world order more pronounced than in Okinawa. The debate over U.S. plans to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has lasted over 20 years. U.S. and Japanese governments have been lobbying for the base’s move to Henoko, a more remote part of the island than the central hub of Futenma. However, the larger question is not whether locals support the base move, but whether they support U.S. military presence on the island at all. Okinawa already houses the majority of the American military presence in Japan, which residents feel is an unfair resource burden. Narratives ranging from environmental activism to pacifism have emerged in criticism of U.S. base relocation.

Now, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasizes normalization and revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution, protests have reached a clarion call. Abe is continuing his campaign to realign Japan with the ever-shifting construct of “the West,” while many in the Japanese general public and the majority of the public in Okinawa prescribe to a divergent vision. Okinawa can be viewed as a microcosm of the narrative contest between traditionally defined notions of the “West” and rising counter-narratives about the West itself, as well as its importance in the multipolar order. Below, we map both pro- and anti-base narratives to depict counter-points and potential areas of collaboration. The outcome of this narrative contestation provides a window into future trends in U.S. – Japan relations.

This post uses the phrases “Base Relocation within Japan” and “Base Removal from Japan” as labels to analyze the broader contesting narratives. However, note that these are simplifications of local narratives with complexities beyond the scope of this post. Sourcing for narrative examples without links can be found in the footnotes.


“Base Relocation within Japan” narratives:

  • Emphasize the existing tacit understanding of the locals for the need to move the base
  • Focus on rising regional security threats and the need for continued deterrent capability of U.S. military
  • Place blame on previous Japanese government for introducing the idea to move the base elsewhere or outside the country all together. Highlight that the base relocation actually has a high level of city government support
  • Reassure the Japanese public that moving the base to a new location but still in Japan will improve safety, as it will not neighbor a large city
  • Promote the dichotomous narrative: either move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station to Henoko District, an assumed prerequisite for the continued shift of U.S. military forces to Guam; OR leave the base in Futenma in the midst of a large city and scrap the shift to Guam

In contrast, “Base Removal from Japan” narratives:

  • Raise concerns about the general safety of the locals surrounding military bases
  • Stress the impact on the environment
  • Highlight threat to Japanese history and culture
  • Generate fears of U.S. spying on Japanese private citizens
  • Argue for continued U.S. military presence, just not in their own prefecture (the “not in my backyard” argument)
  • Don’t dispute, but bury regional security issues, including rise in China’s defense spending and increasing aggression in the East China Sea, at the bottom of articles or include caveats
  • Emphasize the Japanese national government’s distance from and misunderstanding of locals, thereby disputing their legitimacy in implementing local policy
  • Catalogue the Okinawans’ “battle scars” from repeated instances of violence and war, including experiences with rape and robbery by U.S. soldiers, and U.S. use of Okinawa during the Vietnam War

Find examples of “base removal” narratives: here, here, here, here, here, and here.


If Japan’s national government is to achieve public support for the base relocation issue, the U.S. needs to rebrand its military as a force for peace in the region and win the narrative contest. There are some overlapping points between the two narrative camps, notably the consensus on rising regional security threats. However, for those in the “anti- base relocation” camp, the negative portrayal of U.S. soldiers and the linkage of the modern-day U.S. military with collective memory of violence on Okinawa trumps abstract regional threats. In short, the “anti-base relocation” camp does a better job making concerns relevant to Okinawans’ everyday lives. The U.S. needs to do the same, while addressing local needs and concerns.

This can be accomplished through:

  • More people-to-people interactions: i.e. engineers on base make visits to local schools to conduct classes and workshops
  • A demonstration of understanding of Okinawans’ experiences during the Vietnam War through events honoring Japanese casualties and memorial sites
  • Military cooperation with local government on humanitarian aid and disaster response
  • U.S. military’s direct response to local concerns through town-hall type events with extensive Japanese press coverage

The failure to address the Okinawa base relocation issue leaves space for competing narratives to gain traction. The above actions will contribute to an overall battle to “win the narrative”, not just in Okinawa, but within the U.S. – Japan security relationship as a whole.

The views presented in this post are the author’s own.


“Base relocation within Japan” Additional Narrative Examples:
(March 24, 2013 Sunday ). EDITORIAL; Govt must make utmost effort to realize Futenma relocation. The Daily Yomiuri(Tokyo), Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic
(December 15, 2011 Thursday ). EDITORIAL; Govt must advance Futenma issue to lessen Okinawa’s base burdens. The Daily Yomiuri(Tokyo), Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic
(November 7, 2011 Monday). Leave Futenma base as is? Not an option. The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic

 


Photo attribution:Protesters raising fists: By Nathan Keirn from Kadena-Cho, Japan (NAK_2421.jpg; to the Commons uploaded by odder) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Crowd gathering: By Nathan Keirn from Kadena-Cho, Japan (Masses.jpg; to the Commons uploaded by odder) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When Public Diplomacy Is a Bad Joke: The importance of in-groups and out-groups to the successful use of humor by diplomats

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Secretary of State John Kerry jokes with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta | State House, Nairobi | August 22, 2016 | Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

 

Derision is a complicated thing. At its most sophomoric, derision is little more than blowing raspberries on the playground – good for a laugh at someone’s expense but without much of a point. When given proper thought and execution, though, derision can deliver persuasive satire or charming self-deprecation, both of which bond audience and humorist closer together.

While diplomats use humor regularly to engage foreign audiences, often with successful results, there is little study of its use as a public diplomacy tool. Unfortunately, there is no formal understanding of the strategic use of humor when engaging foreign audiences. As a result, we see some nightmares when humor is poorly applied. When a diplomat’s joke bombs, the risk of real bombs is greater than when a new stand-up chokes at Comedy Works. It’s like Bono pleading with the UN to send a CVE-comedy task-force to Syria – we seem to know that there’s something there, but we just can’t quite grasp how to harness it.

Let’s talk about the failures of derision in public diplomacy. The most glaring example is “Think Again, Turn Away,” a counter-terrorism effort so poorly conceived that even our own comedians mocked it. In 2013, the Global Engagement Center from the U.S. Department of State launched the video “Think Again, Turn Away” on YouTube, intending to reach the same young audience that ISIS targeted online for recruitment. It wasn’t long before people realized that the snark-filled, sardonic PSA was utterly tone-deaf.

 

 

The team that produced “Think Again, Turn Away” undoubtedly understands the situation in ISIS-occupied territories better than most. They just don’t know comedy.

For every joke, there is an in-group and an out-group. These groups may be defined as those who get the joke and those who don’t, or along the classic laughing with/laughing at split. Derision especially lends itself to this split, more so than other comedic styles. Creating distinct in-groups and out-groups can reinforce or undermine existing narratives, depending on how those groups are framed.

Think of it this way: Everyone has a story in their head that tells them who they are. That’s our identity narrative. We have stories about our place in that world. We call those system narratives. In every narrative, there is a protagonist (the in-group) and an antagonist (the out-group). Generally, people like to be the protagonists of their own stories. We make this happen by aligning our identity narratives and system narratives in such a way that we belong to the in-group throughout. So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.

 

Here is a narrative map for a typical ISIS recruit, based on research on ISIS target messaging:

  Identity Narrative System Narrative
ISIS Recruit Young, over-educated & underemployed, an outsider (perceived or actual) of mainstream society, destined to and/or worthy of greatness Living in a society that is hostile towards identity, unjust, limited opportunities to advance; the West is keeping true believers down, only the caliphate is righteous

“Think Again, Turn Away” tries to undermine the “righteous caliphate” narrative by using sarcasm to cast ISIS in the out-group. However, the video fails to draw the potential recruits into its in-group. Therefore, it’s mockery only reinforces the theme of separation between recruits and the West present in both narrative levels.

 

So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.

Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups isn’t just good comedy – it’s good communication. Philip Seib says that successful communication is always audience based and ties into the narratives of that audience’s socio-political context. Obviously, “Think Again, Turn Away” is not audience based. Rather than embrace its target audience, clearly marking themselves as being “on the same team,” or both part of the in-group, the narrator mocks the ideological society that said audience expressed interest in joining. That is why the video targets its specified audience, after all. By mocking the group with which the audience has already identified, even superficially, it casts both in the out-group, cementing the audience’s allegiance to the butt of the joke.

One might have done less damage trying to sincerely persuade potential recruits to join ISIS. John Oliver points out that the State Department is “banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that [“Think Again, Turn Away”] is sarcasm,” the implication being that the intended audience won’t get the joke. Alternatively, the audience might understand the joke, but doesn’t find it the least bit funny. Either way, the video reinforces extremist messaging by squarely casting the audience in the out-group.

Whether or not potential recruits have the capacity or inclination to “appreciate” the video’s try at sarcasm, humans respond to humor cognitively and emotionally.  No one likes being mocked; it makes us feel bad. You learned this blowing raspberries on the playground. When the audience you are trying to reach is also the butt of your joke, you have missed the point.

 

The views expressed here are the author’s only and do no necessarily represent those of George Washington University.

Strategic Communications and Foreign Policy: A Conversation with an NSC Press Spokesperson

Emily Horne in Conversation with Janet Steele, ESIA, October 2016

Emily Horne in conversation with Janet Steele, ESIA, October 2016

In a conversation moderated by IPDGC’s program director Janet Steele, National Security Council Press Spokesperson Emily Horne answered questions about her role in the NSC, its media strategy, and elaborated to students about her career path. Students, faculty, and industry professionals attended this event and were invited to join in for the second half of the conversation.

Emily Horne is currently an Assistant Press Secretary and Director for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council, where she serves as spokesperson for a range of foreign policy issues and advises White House and other senior U.S. government officials on media and strategic communications. Before joining the National Security Council she was the director of communications for General John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, where she built the communications strategy for the Obama Administration’s counter-ISIL efforts and traveled to over 30 countries supporting international efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. She has also served as Spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, including temporary tours as spokesperson for the U.S. Embassies in Sri Lanka and Nepal. She began her career in government as an unpaid intern in the State Department’s Office of the Historian.

Event Recap: U.S. Ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun Discusses Networks & Engagement in Public Diplomacy

In an insightful and entertaining session on March 24th, U.S. Ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun discussed the importance of engagement and networks in public diplomacy. Ambassador Barzun described how since almost all phones sold nowadays are mobile phones, the term itself has become an oxymoron. Barzun believed that the term public diplomacy was following the same trend line as the importance of public engagement increases.   

To illustrate his point, Barzun asked the audience to describe which 130-year old company produced the first digital encyclopedia. The answer was Encarta, which was backed by the world’s most powerful and rich software company Microsoft. Yet this multi-billion dollar company was driven out of business by a ‘kid from Alabama,’ Jimmy Wales, who developed a bottom up model called Wikipedia, ‘the largest knowledge transfer engine in history.’

Barzun then asked the audience to imagine four squares along the following lines:

Digital Hierarchy
Analogue Network

According to Ambassador Barzun, the magic was not going digital but going network and digital.  But one could have very effective combinations of analogue and network such as conference calls. The key Barzun emphasized is to engage. Inside an organization one can be surprised what one can accomplish if rather than task people, one asks people for help. In public events the key is to listen, seeking not so much to be understood as to understand. “Outreach” or “reaching out” is not nearly as effective as engagement, which involves understanding and listening.  

“If you listen, people will hear you differently,” he said. “If you repeat the pattern, good stuff happens.”

Answering a question about socio-media analytics, Ambassador Barzun noted that “things can be very precise without being accurate.”  Judge the effectiveness of what is happening in the digital world by comparing the same to the analogue or real world. Computer or digital tools can be misused or overused. Twitter can allow an overuse of a broadcasting approach or power point can be overused to bombard audiences with information: “If power corrupts, Power Points corrupt absolutely.”

Ambassador Barzun stated that public diplomacy can build a reservoir of good will. You can fill the reservoir ‘a cup at a time’ or sometimes with a ‘hose’ and refill it when it gets punctured and fill it again. A positive example was President Obama’s dancing the tango in Argentina, which he said demonstrated humility and an interest in the local culture.  

Ambassador Barzun closed by describing the image of the hierarchy, which could be described as triangles, with, for example, a Minister of Foreign Affairs at the top of the pyramid, and the circle of influences such as journalists to the wider public, which could be imagined as a cloud encircling the other two. We are living more and more or our lives online but engagement remains paramount. If one approaches challenges in a hierarchy mindset, one will fail just like Encarta.  

 

VOA director discusses value, next steps in enhancing “America’s voice”

David Ensor (left), director of the Voice of America, does a live interview with Frank Sesno (right), director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at an event on campus, January 27, 2015.

David Ensor (left), director of the Voice of America, does a live interview with Frank Sesno (right), director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at an event on campus, January 27, 2015.

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.”

U.S. International Broadcasting: Framing the Challenge – Apples or Fruit Salad?

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.

A-fruit-bowl-007

Credit: The Guardian

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?

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent federal agency of the United States government responsible for supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international media. Credit: Wiki Commons

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent federal agency of the United States government responsible for supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international media. Credit: Wiki Commons

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.

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.

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