Institute for Public Diplomacy and 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.

4 Tactics for PA, PD, and Principal Officers on Twitter

 

Both public affairs (PA) and public diplomacy (PD) officers have the privilege of representing a greater principal actor in whatever position they hold. This was the case with President Obama, having Samantha Powers one of  his PD officers, and Josh Earnest as one of his PA officer; it is also the case with President Putin in Russia, and it is the case today under President Trump. However, the communication channels have changed for each of these actors in the new administration with the prominent role social media now plays, particularly Twitter, when speaking or tweeting with foreign and domestic publics. The constant use of the platform by President Trump has allowed him to create a sense of personal connection with reporters, constituents, and even international leaders, alluding to real-time and unfiltered content, but also weakening the role of the PA and PD officers who have a pervasive role of communicating policy. By analyzing the tweets from the current administration’s officials, President Trump (@POTUS), US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley), and Press Secretary Sean Spicer (@PressSec), each will give inside unto how the three should represent themselves and their policies on a social media platform such as Twitter.

The “I” in Team

President Trump has a unique role apart from the others because of the fact that he initiates the policies the other two advocate. For this reason, it is incredibly important for anyone in the role of the principal actor, as he is, to speak directly for himself. Out of the 238 tweets sent out in the first 70 days of the administration, 47 of which seem to be written by the president himself (using I, my, or me). In comparison, Spicer never used a pronoun in reference to himself, but Nikki Haley did. Seven of her 74 tweets in the same time period were about topics related to herself, from moving to New York to meetings she held. These personal pronouns are important for public diplomacy officers because of their ability to provide independent perspectives on the role they represent – this simple communication tool allows an audience to perceive a unique voice. Had Spicer or a public affairs officer used these pronouns, his primary audience of reporters would no longer use him as a source who is close to the principal actor they truly want information on.

Distance from the Principal

25 percent of the active user population on Twitter are journalists, therefore allowing Spicer the opportunity to speak with his most direct audience quickly. His credibility as a PA officer, comes from two things: proximity to the president, and ability to control the message of the White House. This represents the 129 tweets out of 225 total related directly to the president. The second aspect however, as mentioned above, can sometimes be interrupted when the principal actor, or President Trump in this case, tweets his own messages without putting a message through the office of the Press Secretary. Not including the messages using personal pronouns, the @POTUS account wrote 144 more in third person or spoke about the administration more broadly. On the other hand, Haley is also able to distance herself. Although she does represent the government which the president leads, as a principal officer, or head or a mission, she can refer to him less, as can other PD officers reference principal actors less, as seen in her two tweets about the president.

Personality

In addition to the importance, or lack, of showing personal use of the account, it is equally relevant to discuss mentioning personal topics on particular accounts. PD officers have the greatest ability of the three to show personality through their tweets because it allows them to portray to their followers knowledge of culture in their host country. Haley tweeted 25 times about topics such as her new favorite song, a television show she just watched, or her dog, Bentley. As she is representative of her own perceptions of the US actions, she is not as subservient as Spicer does to the President. Spicer does not have any tweets about personal matters. President Trump has one tweet about the Super Bowl, even signed DJT which occurs in seven other tweets – three of which were about the US generally, two about his role, and two about the media. While the principal actor may show personality in his tweets, as in the case of the Super Bowl, the 47 tweets mentioned above that speak directly about the president are a better use of this tactic. This allows any communications officers to direct audiences to the tweets for official opinions about important topics.

Foreign publics

While there are many other ways to analyze the tweets of leaders, from work related topics, family related, relaxed use of hashtags, etc., the last topic of importance to the PA, PD, and principal agent is communication with foreign leaders. As Twitter has a world-wide platform, it is impossible to contain messaging to just one part of the world. Therefore, a large part of tweets should be directed at foreign publics, but in different ways for each of the roles. From a PA standpoint, with the example of Spicer, it was appropriate for the small number of 19 tweets to discuss foreign affairs or meetings held with foreign leaders because his position is not to represent the foreign publics, but the principal. An even smaller number however, was that from President Trump. Only nine of his tweets related to issues of other countries. This may be due to the fact that he is yet to travel out of the country and is only taking meetings or calls in the US. Haley on the other hand had 33 percent of her tweets focused on foreign leaders and publics. This increase is due mostly to her face-to-face interaction with foreign diplomats every day. The real reason is the Haley’s mission is to represent the U.S. to foreign bodies, whereas Trump as part of his America first doctrine has focused mostly on domestic issues. However, this can also lead to problems when overlapping with personal content such as f the tweet from March 8, 2017, “On what will be an intense day on N. Korea and Syria, this was a sweet way to start the day…”Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. Happy Wed!” This could be seen as inappropriate when discussing such a serious topic.

Changes to make

From each of these four factors, there are many tips for future PA and PD officers as well as their principal actors. Social media can spark revolutions, but it can also be misconstrued. For example, on February 9, 2017, Spicer spoke at a daily briefing when he received a question about why the president tweeted one topic, but not another to which he responded, “you’re equating me addressing the nation here and a tweet?” As a spokesperson for the principal, PA officers must simultaneously contain a message, while maintaining credibility. Not only were the tweets of his principal actor discredited, so was the method, and the message at large.

On another note, to spread a message on a world-wide scale as Twitter can, it is important to connect with the audience you want to see the message. In many cases, this is foreign publics, whether these actors like it or not. Because seventy-nine percent of Twitter accounts are held by users outside of the United States, and over 68 percent of world leaders hold accounts, it is important for each to follow and be followed by foreign leaders. President Obama was criticized for following only three foreign leaders – Nikki Haley is following Prime Minister Netanyahu aside from President Trump, Spicer is only following the president, and President Trump is not following any foreign leaders.

 

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.

 

Event Recap: Challenges in the New Public Diplomacy Environment

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In honor of the Centennial of Walter Roberts’ birth, the Institute for Public Affairs and Global Communication and the Walter Roberts Endowment organized a panel on Challenges in the New Public Diplomacy Environment.

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Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs Frank Sesno reflecting on Walter Roberts’ career

Honoring Walter Roberts and Navigating the New Media Landscape: Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, Frank Sesno, introduced the program by recounting the contributions Walter Roberts has made to public diplomacy in general and George Washington University in particular. Mr. Sesno described how the new media age has transformed our lives, changed the way we obtain and share information, how we organize, mobilize and win. Each person now sustains a unique news feed and serves as his or her own executive producer, which upends old assumptions. The notion of objective journalism, of gate keepers, and even the notion of fact itself is being challenged as never before. Changes in public diplomacy reflect these changes in the real world, which the four panelists addressed.

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Professor Robert Entman discussing updates to his political communication cascade model

U.S. Media Diplomacy and Foreign Opinion:   Emphasizing that there is nothing more practical than a good theory, George Washington University Professor Robert Entman presented an updated model showing how information cascades from elite government circles through the media to the public and back again in feedback loops complicated by the growing power of social media. It is difficult enough to explain when and why Americans support U.S. policy as leaders try to spread their interpretations or frames through a hierarchy of networks, complicated by the ability of leaders to now bypass gatekeepers such as the media by addressing the public directly through social media. Persuading foreign publics to adopt pro-American frames becomes even more complicated as more communication paths form. Foreign leaders and the elites need to be motivated and have the power to spread pro-American frames to their public and gatekeepers. The public needs to be receptive to these frames as well for public opinion to be moved. The challenge is particularly acute in countries and publics hostile to the U.S. but even in close allies the multiple paths and networks for information to flow complicate the mediated public diplomacy efforts of the modern diplomat.

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Macon Phillips outlining the three key challenges facing Public Diplomacy at the Department of State

Connecting People to Policy – Leveraging Digital Tools/Social Media to Advance U.S. Foreign Policy: Macon Phillips, Coordinator of the United States Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs described three challenges facing public diplomacy at the Department of State: 1. thinking of policy in terms of objectives. Setting well defined, achievable objectives allows one to have an effective strategy and to measure success. This involves moving from telling people what they need to know to what they need to do. 2. Identifying priority audiences to achieve these objectives, which will affect even something as minor as putting together the traditional guest list. 3. Maintaining relations. One must maintain relationships and develop trust. The thousands of alumni of our international visitor and educational exchange programs should be viewed as allies and not just alumni. Nurturing and maintaining relationships will inoculate contacts, making them more resistant to disinformation. This will allow the USG to be less reactive and more proactive – a much better strategy.

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André Mendes discussing how the BBG has progressed despite facing public diplomacy challenges

Reaching global audiences – A changing saga of platforms, paradigms, censorship and ever narrower echo chambers: André Mendes, Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors André Mendes outlined three challenges.  The first is budgetary, reaching out to the world while following Congressional and other mandates requiring continued investment in certain areas and technologies.  The second is overcoming censorship with some of the most sophisticated censorship in the area of online software.  BBG has the world’s largest anti-censorship operation with one trillion hits while continuing to overcome short wave and satellite censorship from countries such as Ethiopia and censorship of all kinds from countries ranging from Mali to Russia.  The third challenge is the echo chamber effect, the fact that people naturally gravitate towards information they already believe in.  The problem though is that every search we perform creates a micro environment as ads, articles, and preferences are directed to what we already like.  The objective of online platforms is to make money by gathering clicks rather than to inform.  Individuals from all corners of the world know that they can make money by generating clicks on our preferred platforms by writing articles that will outrage us even if not true.  We are all willing accomplices by participating.  Finally, Mr. Mendes described the progress the BBG had made in the last seven years, from 165 million monthly followers, mostly in radio to 270 million today, half TV and half radio and digital platforms.  Given that this expansion has occurred under budget cuts of 150 million in an environment in which media in general is shrinking this is one of the world’s great success stories.

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Andrea De Arment giving insights on how digital diplomacy can and must be transformed

 Public Diplomacy in a “Post-Truth” World: Andrea De Arment, incoming Information Officer and Spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu Andrea De Arment emphasized that diplomats need to make the tough transition from a reliance on facts and figures to the realization that most people paying more attention to what people care about: feelings, personal beliefs, culture and religion.  To be truly effective, PD professionals need to be at the table when policy is being made to make the decision makers aware how a given policy will be perceived in various regions of the world.  One cannot be served a plate made in the policy making sausage factory with the mandate to make people think it is delicious.  Successful public diplomacy must engage so that diplomats don’t just push out information but listen to what is coming back.  Digital diplomacy also needs to entertain in a strategic manner.  Soft diplomacy grows audiences but one needs to go where the audience is to engage.  This requires leaving the safety of the walled compound to engage with the public to close the last three feet to use E Murrow’s phrase.

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Discussion Session: The discussion session revolved around issues of building trust both within institutions and with the public at large.  Our partners can carry our message sometimes even more effectively than we can, which is particularly important when working with hostile publics.  Diplomats need to use social media not only to transmit messages but to listen and to engage in the necessary give and take which builds relationships.  The best way to inoculate oneself from Fake News is build relationships of trust and to be credible sources.  To keep up with rapid developments, the State Department needs to move from a default clear to a default open culture, which will improve efficiency and motivate employees.  To be effective, one must have well defined goals of what success looks like, which also allows one to identify failure more easily.  One needs to change in order to survive but innovations should not be made for innovation sake but to more effectively support U.S. policy goals.

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.

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