Stay the Course!

by Bud Goodall

In a recent speech given to the Heritage foundation, Colleen Graffy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs asserted that the main problem with U. S. public diplomacy is that we aren’t getting the word out about how well our public diplomacy is working. “We need more PD on our PD!” she said (boldface in the original text):

We have invigorated our public diplomacy by fusing policy and public diplomacy and creating new tools by which to effectively operate in these two–short-term/long-term frameworks.

She gives examples of our successes, including and EU news alert system,  a rapid response unit, a streamlined approval process for ambassadors’ media appearance requests, a new media hubs in Brussels, Dubai and London, a new TV studio, a European liaison position, a “pre-active” approach to media, a TV adviser position, and a Senior Adviser on Muslim engagement.  She also cites an overall emphasis on “getting visual” on communicating the U.S. message.

No doubt these new tools for diplomacy (all but one of which involve the “old” media) will enable officials to get a message out in response to, and perhaps anticipation of, the communication efforts of the bad guys. But the idea that these tools will somehow gain ground in combating violent extremism or rebuild our image seems questionable at best. Where is the evidence of effectiveness? What has actually been done and how do we know it is working?

In that same speech, the Ms. Graffy, a lawyer from Santa Barbara who has been living in London for the past 15 years, forcefully argued against the reformation of the USIA on the grounds that:

Strategic communications that use public diplomacy to promote our policies cannot take place when the two are estranged. It is hard to do when you are in a separate office, on a different floor–when you are in a separate office in a different building [emphasis original] I would say it is well nigh impossible.

The implication of her statement is that State Department officials can neither walk from one office or building to another, nor use email, nor text messages, nor pick up a telephone to coordinate strategic communication efforts. But the old USIA used to conduct boots-on-the-ground public diplomacy rather effectively while spread across all of the regions of the world. Their expertise and experience should be reinvigorated to meet today’s PD challenges.

I find the Deputy Assistant Secretary’s remarks strangely out of touch with our strategic communication needs as well as probably disheartening to DoS officials from the former USIA who are currently engaged in PD and strategic communication work. Perhaps “getting visual” is an easy way to sell America’s reruns of the Santa Barbara soap opera, but I think that “getting the message out” is less likely to be effective than active engagement using a pragmatic complexity model rather than an advertising campaign. To do that means making better use of seasoned USIA staff and a newer, more responsive strategic communication strategy for the rugged landscape we find ourselves on.