OK, Now I’m Confused

by Steven R. Corman

I just ran across this “Washington whisper” item in USNWR:

President Obama has nominated longtime national security expert Philip J. “P. J.” Crowley as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, a move that suggests that the department’s public diplomacy with foreign nations will be stepped up. Crowley, currently a senior fellow and director of homeland security at the Center for American Progress, is expected to play more of a background role, explaining U.S. diplomatic moves to the foreign media and nations rather than handling the daily briefings. He is widely respected in the press and among military and diplomatic officials for his past government service and his steady advocacy while at the progressive think tank. During the Clinton administration, he was the spokesman for the National Security Council and a Defense Department communicator. He is a retired Air Force colonel who has also worked with NATO. If he is confirmed, as expected, it will help Secretary Hillary Clinton build on her public diplomacy program, say State Department officials. As one source put it, the goal is to “narrow the perception gap between what we say and what we do.

This is confusing.  I know definitions in this domain are kind of fuzzy, but I always thought public affairs was targeted primarily at domestic audiences.

To wit, publicdiplomacy.org says that public diplomacy

seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences.

Public affairs, on the other hand:

seeks to foster understanding of these goals through dialogue with individual citizens and other groups and institutions, and domestic and international media. However, the thrust of public affairs is to inform the domestic audience.

(my emphasis in both quotes).

Yet the announcement above says Crowley will be “explaining U.S. diplomatic moves to the foreign media and nations” and that he is going to “help Secretary Hillary Clinton build on her public diplomacy program.”

So is this a PA post or a PD post?  If Crowley will be doing PD, what will McHale be doing?  And who will be doing PA?

7 Responses to “OK, Now I’m Confused”

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  1. John says:

    Speaking from the perspective of the U.S. military, we tend to consider Public Affairs as outreach to any civilian group, whether foreign or domestic.

    I don’t know how State intends to divide the responsibility, but from my experience Public Affairs is charged with interactions between the public and the corporate body (the actual State Department), while Public Diplomacy is an operation conducted by State to improve the perceptions of America as a whole.

  2. editor says:

    John, thanks for the comment. As I said in the post, these definitions can be fuzzy. So the publicdiplomacy.org definition of PA includes international media. I think this is a recognition that when the State Department, holds a press conference or writes on its blog, this does not just affect domestic audiences. But as it says the emphasis is on domestic communication and this is how it has been in the past at State.

    Nothing says they can’t change things. But given that they’ve got the PA guy doing clearly PD things, there seems to be some kind of conceptual shift that hasn’t been explained.

    The military does draw this distinction too, at least in a couple of sources I have seen like this article from Joint Force Quarterly and the Army’s IO Doctrine (see “related capabilities”). Of course, according to recent reports the PD part of the military mission seems to be going away, so I guess this is going to change too.

  3. Greg says:

    Steve: Your underscore muddled thinking and conflated terminology. And such misuse is nothing new in parties in power at State. The reality in any case is that the State spokesman speaks to the world, not just the U.S., the perogative of “public affairs” in practice. The danger is something very different: that “PD” positions and resources mandated under Smith-Mundt for only foreign audiences effectively be turned into “PA” mouthpieces.

  4. Steve
    I can see why we get get trapped in the semantics of PD and PA. The way I look at it is the way I look at marketing and PR: boundary blur. Or for that matter internal and external comms. the firewalls have collapsed.

    The present administration appears to be fully aware of how domestic and international policy outlets need to be in sync, as opposed to the being exclusively as a conduit for propaganda or press releases.

  5. Greg says:

    Angelo, et al: The PD/PA at State distinction isn’t academic; it’s the law. Smith-Mundt. Don’t waste our time treating it a simply a semantic exercise. It’s the entire organic/statutory basis for American public diplomacy. The legal minds now serving as President and Secretary of State shoudl understand this well.


  1. [...] of  a few years back.  Speaking of public affairs, McHale did not take this opportunity to unpack apparent recent changes in that function at [...]

  2. [...] OK Now I’m Confused (April 17).  Steve Corman comments on an apparent blurring of lines between public affairs and public diplomacy in the State Department. [...]