By Patricia H. Kushlis
Of all the new appointments made by the Obama administration
in the area of media and public relations, by far the most intriguing is Macon
Phillips, the guru who shaped President Obama’s re-election social media
campaign. Phillips is slated to be the
new coordinator of IIP, the State Department’s troubled International
Information Programs Bureau.
I’ve never met Phillips but corridor gossip tells me he is
reputed to be a decent and reputable person.
Yet whether the skill set needed to run a successful domestic presidential
get out the vote media campaign is transferrable to one devoted to influencing hearts
and minds abroad is where the proof remains in the pudding.
A recent Washington Post story reports that Phillips will
face a tradition-bound bureau where those people with the social media skills
have moved on or back into their big name high tech firms leaving a void that
will need to be overcome. Having watched
this bureau over the years and having worked in two of its earlier
reincarnations during my own Foreign Service career, I see a far different
story because I don’t think any person named by the Post made any kind of
One of the reasons I chose work in this bureau for my last
assignment just before retirement in 1998 was because it was the most
innovative and creative part of the then US Information Agency. It was team based, non-hierarchical, flexible
and at the forefront of the Internet revolution.
After consolidation, its pared down hierarchy did not fit
the State Department’s model – so it was scrapped. The funds for staff training and the purchase
of the most recent technology were pared back so equipment and software aged
and skills atrophied. Even my team which
had focused on national security issues – and one would have thought would have
been the most significant of the substantive areas – was abolished during the
Bush administration. Those reasons still
And yes, many of the most creative and dedicated people
moved elsewhere in short order including to the Pentagon’s cutting edge
strategic communications operations or to work for one of its many contractors. But these were not the so-called
indispensable people mentioned by the Post.
Instead, the Department contracted out much of its social
media operation because, supposedly, IIP’s own staff was inadequate. Given what had happened there, it should have
come as no surprise. Too many civil
servants and Foreign Service Officers were driven out by incompetent leadership
regardless of administration.
What no administration has yet to grasp is that to be
successful, IIP needs continual care, feeding, support and respect for its
mission. Its staff needs to combine a blend of considerable
domestic and foreign policy knowledge, and international communication skills. It must be savvy enough to know when to
employ what, where and to be able to act in the immediacy of the moment.
The question today, however, is whether a bad situation can
be turned around. It is possible
but whether probable is a different story.
Why? I’m not convinced that the State Department can change its spots enough
to accommodate an open, not secretive, environment in its midst that is
minimally hierarchical or whether it will agree to fund and staff such a bureau
adequately and then let it do what it can do best.
To do so – at minimum – would take a continuous and long
term infusion of funds for training of permanent staff, the hiring
and adequate compensation of such staff (and I don’t mean contractors) with the
technological skills to keep up with the fast changing media environment plus
others with the requisite substantive skills.
Such a bureau also needs flexible open space and a pared down hierarchy
that encourages innovation plus plenty of support from a robust survey research
element, one that once upon a time existed but was disappeared into State’s own
Bureau of Intelligence and Research upon consolidation.
If Kerry, Phillips and Richard Stengel, the former Time
Magazine managing editor now slated to be the new Under Secretary for Public
Diplomacy and Public Affairs will make the changes necessary, then maybe there
will be a chance for a brighter US government international communications future. Otherwise, Secretary Kerry, just forget it.