Research Trends in Public Diplomacy

The following are the talking points from a presentation to the International Studies Association annual conference on Feb 20, 2015. This Emerging Scholars panel is held every year at the International Studies Association conference to highlight upcoming scholars and studies of public diplomacy. This year, as part of the program, I would like to provide some sense of what has come before, and, how this has defined the nature of questions currently being asked in PD research. This is my own perspective as much as it is a snap shot of public diplomacy research – so I apologize if I have missed something that you feel strongly about. I defer to the curation of power of Bruce Gregory’s periodic literature review to fill in the gaps. So this is not a road map of where to go from here, but something more like a complicated subway map around the hub of pubic diplomacy studies. This panel is ultimately part of a growing effort to cultivate the stakeholders of public diplomacy research, and to encourage scholars from a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives see public diplomacy questions as their own. Here are some areas that I believe define the nature of public diplomacy scholarship right now, followed by a list of notable absences and areas to encourage future work: 1. The New Public Diplomacy The fallout of this term has been a renewed focus on non-state actors, polylateral approaches to international politics, and a marked normative emphasis on how public diplomacy should be practiced. As public diplomacy scholars wrestle with emergent factors that may – or may not – challenge what we understand public diplomacy to be – the term “New Public Diplomacy” roughly encapsulates the factors that have influenced the practice and institutional thinking around PD. I won’t belabor the long list of those who situate themselves in this body of writing, but they may be found among scholars from across disciplines such as History, Diplomatic Studies (especially those concerned with the existential crisis of diplomacy as an enduring institution), and Communication. 2. The Continuing Refinement and Critique of the Soft Power Concept The currency of soft power as a way to talk about the strategic necessity of public diplomacy continues to resonate. However the difficulties associated with defining and analyzing soft power continues. We find work by scholars concerned with: – Empirical public opinion and media effects research – Conceptual and Typological development – Institutional and organizational analysis – “Relational” Approaches to comparative soft power From public diplomacy research has come theoretical and normatively charged pieces on the rise of “relational” approaches to soft power, where the capacity of soft power is found in the cultivation of social capital over time, which changes the way publics may assign legitimacy or tolerate foreign policy actions in the future. I believe that “relational” public diplomacy is not so much a new thing, as it is an articulation – through both practice and strategy – identifying where the leverage of public diplomacy is found given new political and media-related circumstances. 3. Public Relations It is important to recognize the continued efforts by Public Relations scholars to study public diplomacy. Though not always visible to International Studies scholars, PR scholars have steadily applied long-standing PR theories (e.g. excellence theory) and hypotheses to the practice of public diplomacy. I think these studies should prompt new thinking about theories and methods to approach public diplomacy for those studying the field outside of PR. 4. Mediated Public Diplomacy This emerging body of work builds off the currency of a 2008 Robert Entman article about the viability of media framing and public diplomacy strategy, to open up and invite the insights of political communication scholars into the field of PD. What I think is important about this emerging perspective is that encourages empirical studies from established fields of inquiry – deploying rigorous methods, using potentially important primary and secondary data, and laying a foundation for thinking about the attribution of impact to public diplomacy and its inevitable relation to media flows and conflict. I also think it highlights the importance of media framing as a vehicle for strategic narrative making, which is something of concern to international studies scholars. It also has the potential to advance studies in press/state relations. 5. Content Analytic Approaches I have noticed a rise in studies of media content (especially here at ISA) – that examines newspapers, websites, television, social media (though not always explicitly framed as public diplomacy study). These include both automated and hand-coded methods. What’s exciting about these studies is how they can point to correlations between efforts of advocacy (and other forms of PD) and impact found in media coverage, framing, or in the diffusion of messages and tags on twitter – “engagement actions” like sharing. Like the mediated public diplomacy perspective, I think these kind of studies that rely on empirical assessment of discourse begin to unearth the sometimes elusive role that public diplomacy plays in providing the narrative equipment used in the imagination of foreign policy options – among both publics and policy-makers. 6. Digital Diplomacy This is related to the previously mentioned studies, in that this kind of work deals with the significance of media and communication technology. Technology-focused studies examine the impact of technology affordances – in how organizations perceive the transformative potential of platforms like social media, as well as act on those strategic assumptions. These kinds of studies offer varying degrees of unpacking the concept of “mediatization” from both sociological and instrumental perspectives. From how strategic thinking is transformed, to the basics of how diplomats use tools like Twitter. 7. Comparative Studies There has been significant attention to comparative approaches – this is not surprising, given how the concept has grown, and become refracted, through local contexts, imperatives, and exigencies. Public diplomacy may share some surface level terminological similarities, but it proceeds from often very different cultural and political understandings of why and how states need to communicate to foreign publics. 8. Related and cognate concepts Public diplomacy is a large umbrella term that combines a variety of arguably ... Read more »

The 2014 US Advisory Commission Comprehensive Annual Report

Yesterday the Public Diplomacy Council and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy put on a forum in Washington DC highlighting the recent release of the US Advisory Commission’s 2014 Comprehensive Annual Report. The Advisory Commission’s Executive Director Katherine Brown (@_KatherineBrown) and Senior Advisor Chris Hensman offered highlights and key recommendations from the report. For those just hearing about this report, it reflects the labors of a newly revitalized Commission with a rather daunting task of providing both oversight and promotion of US public diplomacy. I’m sure it is not easy being both cheerleader and critic to a practice that is not often visible to the US public, the subject of episodic congressional critique, and is uneasily coupled with more traditional instruments of diplomacy. The report is a step towards demystifying the sheer scope of public diplomacy to the public, to practitioners, and to scholars, as well as provides a platform to voice common grievances and recommendations for improvement. As I have indicated earlier, I think the report is important– a rather unprecedented attempt to document the range and costs associated with public diplomacy programs offered by the US Department of State and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). To be fair, I’m a bit biased, since the report also contains recommendations I provided to the Commission’s previous report on Research Methods. But I do think it highlights both the diversity and scale of the US public diplomacy effort – even if it does not ultimately provide a deeply critical intervention or indictment. Aside from some recommendations about specific US public diplomacy programs (e.g. the planned closing of the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico, for example) – much of the criticism is by implication. I think the report is on-balance laudatory rather than incisive, but nevertheless unprecedented in scope. The report also does much to make clear just what the US is doing under the auspices of “public diplomacy” and how it is supposedly servicing the needs of US foreign policy. The report is crammed with information on the Washington-based organizations charged with managing US public diplomacy, the BBG’s various journalistic outlets, the State Department’s regional bureaus, country-level contextual data about demographics and programing and, the costs associated with such programs. The report was mandated under the Advisory Commission’s reauthorization in January of 2013 by the US Congress, and draws on data based on 2013 budget information. It also contains insights derived from the Commission’s interviews with practitioners, official documents, and the cooperation of the numerous bureaus and organizations charged with doing US public diplomacy. Perhaps these organizations – often faced with considerable criticism – saw this as an opportunity to communicate to a broader constituency about what they do on a daily basis, rather than see their work get publicized during the periodic exposes of the Office of Inspector General. The report was intended to survey the scope of US public diplomacy, gain insight from practitioners and leaders to figure out what is working, to identify for congressional leaders the potential areas of duplication and highlight opportunities for reform or improvement. The report leads with a series of recommendations based on the findings of the report. I won’t belabor them here, but I want to address some findings as they are worth mentioning: One of the recommendations that stood out for me is the need for more research and evaluation. This is not a controversial claim, and it echoes much of the previous Commission report findings. But it pervades nearly all aspects of the Commission’s evaluations of US public diplomacy in this document. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that practitioners and policy-makers recognize much of the limitations currently facing research and analytical efforts. As one official noted, we are “stripping the copper” just to find enough money to do this evaluation. But it’s nevertheless important that the Commission makes this claim directly on behalf of the various arms of US public diplomacy, outside of parochial budgetary interests. Of course, research informed by trained methodologies and practices of evaluation derived from benchmarks in academia and commercial campaigns are not by themselves a corrective for any country’s public diplomacy. As James Pamment has argued, the imperatives of measurement can in fact limit the scope of what public diplomacy means – where engagement is reduced to what metrics can demonstrate. More importantly, I think the practice of research – including formative, contemporaneous, and post-hoc analysis – really necessitates consideration of what should be measured and why. Put another way, as public diplomacy practitioners and policy-makers consider how to best demonstrate their impact and provide opportunities for course-correction – they also must inevitably confront the strategic question of purpose. For example, it’s one thing to measure opinion, but it’s another to provide demonstrable evidence that opinion, attitude, or behaviors link up in meaningful ways to short and long term policy objectives. What do “engagement actions” (e.g. retweets) signify? It’s not that such measurable things don’t mean anything, but it’s imperative to frame their significance. Even the best methodologists are limited by the questions they must answer. Of course the question of strategic ambiguity is not new in public diplomacy (e.g. how should, if at all, PD serve strategic purposes), but I think it resurfaces here again in the desire for research analytics to provide a corrective. What remains to be seen, by implication from this report, is a reconsideration of how research can both improve the practice of public diplomacy as much as expand the imagination of how it can and should contribute to policy. But I digress. The report rightly represents the age-old criticism that public diplomacy should be more sensitive to the realities of the post, rather than be directed from Washington. It also notes the resilience and cost-effectiveness of “traditional” public diplomacy programing, such as the venerable Fulbright and IVLP exchange programs. What’s also interesting (for me at least) about this report is how it cobbles together all that is being done in the name of US ... Read more »

Read the report

I just got my hands on the first Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting, produced by the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. I am still processing this large document (it’s 262 pages long). This is undoubtedly an important report that will help to clarify the practice of public diplomacy for a broader audience, and perhaps expand the domestic constituency of interest for US engagement abroad. But before I provide some observations on its content, I have to say the first thing I thought was that this report would unleash another wave of armchair public diplomacy pundits and critics. I’m not saying criticism isn’t warranted or welcome in many cases, but consider this: Within hours of the reports release, the following report was posted on the Daily Caller, which criticized the lack of resources across all aspects of US public diplomacy for measurement and evaluation. This (important) observation is not really controversial and is present in previous Commission reports. However, the headline and subsequent claim seems to suggest another story: “the committee overseeing the federal government’s “Twitter war” against terrorist propaganda admitted on Thursday that despite nearly $1.3 billion dollars in annual programming, it cannot measure the success of those efforts.” Clearly, the US is not spending 1.3 billion dollars to counter ISIS propaganda. This figure represents the combined expenditure across all aspects of US public diplomacy, not just its internet trolling of ISIS on Youtube. As the report itself states, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications budget for FY2014 is $6.07million. Scoring points on a public diplomacy for clickbait is understandable, I guess, but there is so much more to the story of US public diplomacy around the world than pilot social media projects. Read the report before framing information out of context. Read more »

Playing for Keeps

It’s nice to say things that sound strongly worded – they make you sound like you should be taken seriously. But I have to take some issue with this article from The Hill, which highlights comments made by US congressman Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, about the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its supposed inability confront the Russian propaganda “machine.” The BBG manages US international broadcasting, including the VOA and the surrogate radios Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (among other services). Chairman Royce states the problem is: “…the bureaucratic structure over top of these radios, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is badly broken,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Orange County Register. In contrast, ““Putin, the former KGB colonel, is playing for keeps.” But what’s the real criticism here? Granted, the argument that BBG is poorly structured is widely recognized as true. Commentators have been calling for BBG reform for years. And the proposed reforms are generally considered necessary. But organizational reform in Royce’s comments may really be code for setting up the VOA as a US counterpart to the propaganda of Russia. I’m surprised we keep having these debates in the US – it’s a tension built into the dual mandate of the Voice of America, “to tell America’s story” but also to demonstrate democratic journalism and model the role of journalism in society. It’s politically difficult to defend both. This is true now, it was present in debates over USIB after 9/11, and it was present in the early years of the Cold War. But turning VOA into a mouthpiece for US policies and perspectives is simply a bad idea. It’s a reaction that ignores the realities about how people incorporate news into their daily life. Global, local, and trans-regional media environments are diverse ecologies of media consumption – even in authoritarian countries. People understand what propaganda looks like, and can easily tune out across the multiple platforms through which they make sense of their lives. Audiences have multiple sources of news and information, and countering blunt propaganda with propaganda is not the answer. This does not mean that the VOA can’t be transparent in providing US perspectives. The US should rather, think about the context for which broadcasting can serve US goals. In some contexts, IB outlets can be used to counter or question Russian narratives, not just through reporting, but also through engagement with media audiences via social media. And this is already being done across the US government. The IB strategy for say, Western Europe’s support of a sanctions regime is different than, say, an IB strategy for empowering democratic and civil society norms in Ukraine or other satellite states. And a strategy would almost certainly be different when trying to intervene into the centralized, vertically-integrated and authoritarian media system inside Russia. Crafting a knee-jerk institutional response to Russia’s propaganda does not do justice to the legacy of credible journalism and the ethos that the VOA has established. And let’s face it, it appears that something the US is doing is actually working, given Russia’s slow back-pedaling. “Playing for keeps” does not mean giving into the temptation to erect some sort of US propaganda machine. Yes, Russia has been steadily investing in its strategic communication and propaganda institutions for some time. The US should also invest, in the kinds of communication tools and strategies that reflect its communication values as much as reflect the realities of how audiences incorporate media into their social, cultural, and political lives. The US needs a media strategy that acknowledges transparency (including the way global media flows provide a glaring optic on the US’s own problems), and the circulation of narratives that it may not always control. Before you start talking about US perspectives and persuasion, think about the dynamics of attention. Playing for keeps is not “flooding the zone” of social media with bots and paid Internet trolls. Of course, it’s not just hashtag diplomacy either. Ultimately, this may require thinking what it means when a nation-state requires a “voice” among foreign publics, or realistically, can any sort of “narrative” be effectively managed. This is both a “big” strategic question, but also, a focused question about what tools can be leveraged (and for what purpose): to counter a regional campaign, to enlist supporter for a multi-stakeholder treaty, to promote civil society, etc. etc. Can the BBG and VOA stand for reform? Sure. But to quote R.S. Zaharna, let’s not shackle these institutions to narrowly focused visions of “information battle.” Read more »

Rethinking US public diplomacy and digital engagement

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Ardaiolo of the Public Diplomat, a podcast and website produced by students and scholars at Syracuse University’s public diplomacy program. Here is the link: U.S. Public Diplomacy in a Digital Context I speak about my research into how digital platforms have been incorporated into US public diplomacy, and how this reflects broader institutional shifts in the practice and discourse of PD. Basically, I argue that technology is not driving change by istelf, but rather serves as a context for reconceptualizing PD and the larger field of diplomatic practice. I also talk a bit about the US strategy toward Ukraine and other programs. Read more »

Does Technology Persuade? (Part II): Looking to Media Practices for Insight

This is cross-posted over at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. How does what we know about information and communication technology (ICTs) and persuasion help practitioners makes sense of how to integrate technology into the mission of public diplomacy? We know that ICTs can be: A) Persuasive by its ability to facilitate or enable other attempts at persuasion. B) Persuasive as a transmission vehicle (the medium endows some form of credibility or legitimacy). C) Persuasive as a kind of context for communication – an intermediary – that enables the influence potential of social ties. Have such insights been leveraged for U.S. public diplomacy? The State Department’s Office of Innovative Engagement, for example, has been busy probing the potential of such technologies for particular contexts. Their work aims to build up a pragmatic sense of the knowledge necessary for technology integration. For example, an embassy might make great use of Twitter, but not need a costly investment in a platform like Pinterest. This kind of “contextual intelligence” (to borrow from Nye), can make the crucial difference between building unprecedented connections to an audience and a pointless social media campaign. Yet some critics continue to point to the failures of U.S. public diplomacy’s use of “digital” diplomacy tools by how they are disconnected from strategic goals, as if the State Department is using such tools simply to be present on Twitter, Facebook, or some trendy platform. Likewise, these tools are themselves criticized for not directly facilitating a policy objective (as if a media platform should directly achieve an outcome). Others question the worth of seemingly trivial online games, polls, or activities put on US websites to facilitate engagement. While yet others fear that the cost-saving advantages of virtual platforms might discourage funding of proven programs that accrue benefits (e.g. – the mutual understanding often tied to cultural diplomacy or education exchange). While there may be some merit to the multiple critiques lodged against U.S. digital diplomacy efforts, I think they must be matched by a serious consideration of how publics live online, and, how this reality yields opportunities for what we might call “engagement” in ways that serve diplomatic ends. This kind of insight was expressed in the 2013 Office of the Inspector General report on the activities of the International Information Programs bureau, but the specifics of strategy were not articulated. Rather, the report indicated that there should be a strategy. Thinking about practice The kind of “probing” I suggest about technology can be accomplished by interrogating the expectation gaps between what policy-makers say about new media platforms and the insights gained from a practice-oriented approach to how audiences use such technologies in their everyday lives. “Practice” theorists, such as Nicholas Couldry, have championed ethnographic audience research that reveals the kinds of things we do with platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. that sustain social ties, mitigate influence, and enable personal agency. These kinds of insights are also present in the cyberculture research by scholars such as Danah Boyd, Nancy Baym and many others examining how ICTs are enmeshed in the fabric of personal, communal, and larger network relations. This kind of research doesn’t upend the big social theory assumptions about politics, power, and human nature (the kind of claims Morozov is keen to debunk). Rather, it zeros in on the meaning-making practices that signal how communication technologies are important to people, and why. This is the kind of actionable intelligence that I think public diplomacy practitioners have always needed. I use the term “expectation gap” to illustrate how the underlying assumptions about public diplomacy (what it can accomplish, its ethics, its best methods, etc.) become apparent in the failings or successes of a particular mode of technology. When we argue about the effectiveness of a particular technological platform for public diplomacy, we also implicate the ambitions of public diplomacy in the uneven, stratified, and often culturally-defined terrain of ICT diffusion among foreign publics. What does this means for practitioners? It does not mean a retreat from tech. Yes, there will be hiccups. Integrating the insular, bureaucratic culture of communication within diplomacy, with all its disincentives for open and transparent communication, with the material culture of netiquette among foreign publics is not something obvious or easy. US public diplomacy has been dubbed a “cauldron of innovation.” To live up to this label, it must engage in more pilot programs, mine the localized knowledge of the communication infrastructure, and remain aware of the work being done outside the context of diplomacy. As an interface between diplomats and publics, public diplomacy must leverage knowledge of how people, publics, and organizations live increasingly mediated lives, where politics are shaped by media connections or facilitated by politics uniquely engendered by media contexts. Indeed, the history expressed in public diplomacy memoirs reveal Foreign Service officers doing these very things all along. Now, as before, public diplomacy practitioners and policy-makers need to be better consumers of knowledge production about media technology (though perhaps less so the systemic debates that define international relations theory). This is not new, and it’s admittedly a little unfair to heap yet more onto the plate of public diplomats struggling to thrive in a broader diplomatic culture that may not take for granted the necessity of public diplomacy. Yet, when an ambassador wants to start tweeting, we need better justificatory narratives and evidence that illustrate how and why technology matters to extend the potential of diplomacy, where it is needed, and importantly, where it is not needed. And importantly, we need to be honest about the subjects of our critique. Is it about the deployment of technology or the strategy of public diplomacy itself? Read more »

Does Technology Persuade? Questioning Assumptions in US Public Diplomacy (Part I)

This is cross-posted over at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. Should public diplomacy policy-makers turn to digital diplomacy tools for the future of practice? I ask this question to provoke some reflection among public diplomacy watchers beyond the quick criticism of tweeting ambassadors and social media campaigns. There seems to be some debate over whether or not digital media practices represent the future of US public diplomacy. Just check out the comments section on the announcement of Macon Philips taking over the position as Coordinator of International Information Programs. Philips brings his experience working in the Obama campaigns, which successfully leveraged social media to achieve a political objective (i.e. win an election). And yet, you get the sense from detractors that digital engagement advocates ignore how audiences have always been complicated, literate consumers of information – regardless of media platform. I am not sure what this amounts to: a critique of using new media forms for public diplomacy, or, a critique of claims made by its proponents about the requirements of influence today. Still, I don’t think it’s right to dismiss the rhetoric of novelty surrounding digital diplomacy as simple faddism. Clearly something is happening in the field of diplomatic practice related to technology. Diplomats, NGOs, and other actors see digital platforms as a crucial element of how they shape and target the narratives they want to promote and the relations they want to cultivate. Yet how we talk about the benefits, the dangers, and the misapplications of communication technology for public diplomacy is laden with implicit arguments of what can and should be possible through communication media in the service of public diplomacy: the enduring tensions between the competing imperatives of influence, understanding, and cultural relation-building. Recent investigations analyzing the United States’ use of social media for public diplomacy suggest that we should revisit the assumptions that technology (i.e. information and communication technology) plays in the logics and practices of U.S. public diplomacy. By raising this question, I do not intend to provide yet another critique of diplomats using social media badly – such as questions raised about the use of Facebook by the U.S. Bureau of International Information Programs. What I find interesting about such concerns is how wide-ranging the critiques are. It’s too expensive. It’s ineffective. It’s somehow antithetical to the purpose of public diplomacy. Such arguments reveal that the strategy of public diplomacy (still) remains an open field to speculate over norms and purpose – with ample space for anyone with an agenda to let loose on public diplomacy practitioners. But as USC argumentation scholar G. Thomas Goodnight contends, the spaces of controversy are generative – meaning we should look at them to understand how the meaning of the terms involved are being defined, argued, and stabilized (however tentatively). The semantics of public diplomacy coalesces from the blogs, reports, legislation, and importantly, practices that inform debate over how the U.S. should engage with foreign publics. Part of this debate inevitably involves attention to technology – the media platforms of relation-building, advocacy, and influence. What has emerged from discussion about public diplomacy and social media that might tell us something about the persuasive qualities of technology? A questioning of technology invites a larger inquiry into the nature and purpose of public diplomacy itself, and represents a good place to start questioning how we are thinking about the meanings attached to technologies lifted out of their social context, and into the realm of foreign relations. It is tempting to approach the question with skepticism. For example, Evegeny Morozov’s extensive critique of technological rhetoric spans a range of topics, including public diplomacy. What I think is important about his work is his attention to how so-called “affordances” are rhetorically endowed upon technologies like the “Internet,” and that there are broader social consequences to the academic theorization about such technologies. Morozov heaps much of his critique on those academics who position technology as a pivotal (and often ambiguously described) catalyst in contemporary social and political theory, that is ushering a host of profound changes to how we govern, forge relations, and sustain markets. For this kind of rhetoric in public diplomacy, read Alec Ross’s speeches. Regardless of whether you buy into Morozov’s agenda wholesale, an important aspect of his critical view is that we should pay attention to the discourse that defines the powers of technology in ways that displace, efface, or otherwise transform social institutions. Tarlton Gillespie’s article on the “Politics of Platforms” nicely highlights this kind of thinking.For Gillespie, the rhetoric of significant stakeholders in the communications industry works to shape the floating signifier of “platform” in ways that privilege market position and relations with the government. Technology “platforms” are as much a rhetorical construction as they are applications, infrastructures, and programs. They are packed with enthymemes about a technology’s purpose, values, and effectiveness – unspoken conclusions we have accrued over time about how important these platforms are. Social media technology in public diplomacy, to borrow from Alexander Wendt’s over-used constructivist catch-phrase, is what you make of it. Ok. Back to the question. Does technology persuade? Technology matters, regardless of whether you believe in the hype that surrounds its use for public diplomacy. In service of critique, it may help to start questioning how technology’s anticipated powers get in refracted through the lens of those who would seek to extract benefit. One way to answer the question would be to follow Gillespie’s advice. Facebook, for example, is not prima facie “persuasive” so much as it is actively built up by a variety of vocal actors as central, pervasive, and otherwise important to public life. It may also be persuasive, because network or audience analysis reveal some form of impact on the flow of influence between people or groups. What I suggest is to probe a little more into the assumptions about how a technology “persuades” – in order to think more clearly about how platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, etc.) carry inherent capacities to persuade as much as the expectations we place onto ... Read more »

Another perspective on IIP social media strategy

After taking in quite a few posts from major news outlets and commentators, I think it’s time to weigh in on the OIG report again. Specifically, I think we need to re-evaluate conclusions drawn about IIP buying “likes” on Facebook. Put simply, we need to cut IIP some slack on this. The OIG report was roundly critical of IIP’s leadership style, and reflected a lot of axe-grinding. Like I noted previously, I’m not sure if I can add anything useful to comments about internecine politics of IIP. Nor can I say that another management review is going to solve the problem. However, I do not think we should be overly critical of the campaign to buy “likes” on Facebook. Diplopundit and John Hudson’s The Cable post on Foreign both seem to indict IIP for the buying strategy, and a host of other blunders. But let’s deal with the “likes” issue first. Let me just say it: Buying “Likes” is not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds. It’s basic corporate marketing practice. Why? Because it establishes touch-points to people that the institution might not otherwise reach. Does that mean these connections are prima facie meangingful relations? Obviously not. But consider the case of the US Embassy in Islamabad. In a country where public opinion about the United States is abysmal, the US has over 1 million likes – a pretty significant statistic given Pakistan has an internet penetration rate of about 15% and 8 million Facebook users. What’s interesting about many of the critiques is a sense that attention to what’s “popular” or entertaining is somehow money not well-spent. That there is a disconnect between the strategy goals of promoting “innovation, democracy, conservation, and the USA” (former Undersecretary Sonenshines’s words) and the kind of “soft” communication deployed to develop connections. These may eventually lead to the kind of affective investment that can sustain credibility. Yes, even a “Gangnam style” video. If the US is serious about developing relations via social media, it has to be attentive to the cultural practices and idioms that reflect how people already use social media. Good social media-based public diplomacy should not lead with the “serious” stuff, because it’s not only culturally inappropriate for the medium, it’s bad persuasion theory. Anecdotally, embassies have found better traction (i.e. attention from their audiences) when they reach out to people in this way). As former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs PJ Crowley and former Undersecretary James Glassman noted at a symposium on US public diplomacy last November, in many crucial publics who are less than keen to hear our policy arguments, relying on any rational-deliberative ideal to engage these publics is probably not going to work. This does not mean that measures of effectiveness no longer apply, but they have to take into account the staged nature of engagement (we can’t assume digital media engagement is a one-off intervention that is directly attributable to a strategic outcome or measure), and, that the measures are asking the right questions. I think the critiques of measurement and evaluation are important – but I think they need to be balanced by a more coherent articulation of what we strategically want digital media interventions to accomplish. Even the OIG report’s call for more strategically articulated justifications for social media programming (quoted at length by Diplopundit) is carefully worded in a way that excludes specifics. Basically, it’s not clear the OIG had a clear sense of what a social media strategy should be other than it should be used strategically, and not for its own sake. The solution? We don’t need more’s or Kindle give-aways. We also don’t need rudderless social media strategy or redundant efforts online. We do need a more comprehensive institution-wide understanding of how media platforms work as a social and cultural practice to build social capital. This lays the groundwork for more directed information campaigns, and for the latent attitudes and dispositions some might call “soft power.” The US is not going to use Facebook by itself to reach policy ends, but it can be a crucial component in a strategy of building connections. It’s easy to throw stones at IIP’s digital media strategy. As Forbes published, State should “concentrate their minds upon the things that must be done, the things that must be done that only government can do.” Easy to say when you don’t articulate what those things should be. Rather these arguments come laced with a kind of barely-concealed suspicion about the value of public diplomacy. So “Focusing on goals, not fans” sounds lie straightfoward advice – but this critique assumes two things: (a) that IIP is operating under the assumption that just getting fans is a goal by itself (probably not), and (b) that we know what the goals are. I am more concerned that there is not a clear indication of how strategic goals are understood as composed of staged, interdependent practices, interventions, and programs across both regular and public diplomacy bureaus. Until that kind of institutional culture integration takes place, it’s still open season on critiquing public diplomacy. Read more »

The Eye of OIG is upon IIP

The Office of Inspector General for the US Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors just released a report on the State Department’s International Information Programs Bureau (IIP). The report was remarkable in the range of criticism it aimed at one of the pivotal organizations in the US government dedicated to public diplomacy. The report was revealing on a number of levels, and I believe raises some important questions about the relationship between public diplomacy strategy and implementation. There’s a lot to digest in this report. Much of the criticism is leveled at management, so I really can’t speak to such issues. Suffice to say that the report depicts IIP as a less than pleasant place to work. This is a shame, as I believe IIP can and should have a significant role to play in the conduct of public diplomacy. And buried in the report are lots of good bits about what IIP actually does, especially regarding the use of technology. Outside of managerial concerns – what’s the problem? Here are a few that stand out for me. First and foremost is the question of strategy. The report highlights a pretty stark disconnect between the practice of public diplomacy and its connection to a broader strategic framework (for both public diplomacy and indeed, diplomacy). The “unresolved” questions about strategy posed by the OIG report are telling. “What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders?” “Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values?” “How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should be directed to a global audience?“ “What kinds of materials should IIP translate and into which languages?” These are fundamental questions, that have been addressed repeatedly in the deluge of reports, white-papers, and studies on US public diplomacy for over a decade. And yet here we find evidence that public diplomacy is lacking a strong strategic compass. Still, I don’t think the burden of this issue can laid solely on the leadership of IIP (and certainly not on staff). I think the problems facing IIP may also be institutional in nature. This is yet another aspect of the ongoing hangover from the merger of the USIA and State – where there seems to be a noted lack of awareness of IIP activity among other bureaus, and indeed, an implied irrelevance to the larger work of diplomacy. Sure, the IIP operates under a “strategic framework”, but as the report states: “A strategic framework established concepts and terms, but the Department has not translated the framework into a plan that links resources to priorities.” The report also takes some pretty big swipes at IIP’s efforts to collect and measure data about its effectiveness. Obviously, the difficulties of measurement and evaluation for public diplomacy are considerable – especially given the often indeterminate time horizons in which to measure effect, and, how ambiguous strategic expectations make it difficult to measure. It’s hard to do research when you don’t know what you research question is. But they did offer an important recommendation. That IIP’s in-house Audience Research and Measurement outfit should formalize its relationship with other analysis units at State. What struck me, nevertheless, was that I didn’t really come away with a sense of what they are actually measuring, evaluating etc. outside of the way the State Department tracks public diplomacy outputs (the Mission Activity Tracker). Curious. On IIP’s social media activity, the report shared some valuable insights. It rightly questioned the so-called “20/100” strategy to improve Embassy social media profile through essentially buying “likes,” rather than other possible routes to using social media as a public diplomacy tool. While there may be latent benefits to a large network of “likes,” these are not necessarily obvious given the strategic imperatives of public diplomacy to build relations or drive attention to particular subjects, information, or events. OIG’s advice here is worth note: The bureau could reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific PD goals. This approach would entail tying any general page advertising to the promotion of special information content on high-priority issues as well as manually selecting key items as sponsored stories and advertising them only to relevant countries and audiences The report also weighs in on the qualitative dimension of interaction through social media. It raises questions about the nature of comments or discussions found in social media. While I think this is a valid question, I also think it deserves more critical and indeed scholarly attention. There may be something about the casual and conversational nature of interactions that are important to the relational ambitions of PD that are important – and reflect the cultural dimensions of the medium itself. Facebook or Twitter may not be necessary to engage in rational-deliberative discourse over US foreign policy, but IIP might do something important in the incremental cultivation of attention and social capital that comes from the interactions through these platforms. It’s certainly not a good way to push a press release. Again, it’s still not clear based on this OIG report how these platforms are integrated into an over-arching strategy for public diplomacy. But what about the good news? The report states: With effective use of technology, IIP has made a significant contribution to the Department of State’s (Department) digital diplomacy outreach effort, increased the reach of its publications, and expanded the use of video in public diplomacy (PD) work Also, Regularizing support for American Spaces overseas has strengthened these platforms for engagement with foreign publics, a cornerstone of the Department’s 21st century PD effort. In other words, IIP is doing some things right. And importantly, it has the potential to become a more high-profile and strategically integrated aspect of the nexus between more traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy. It needs good people ... Read more »

ISA 2013 Thoughts

I realize it’s been a few months since this year’s ISA in San Francisco. We’ve all been busy; I just wanted to share my thoughts before I forget about them. At ISA this year, I was struck by two new developments. First, ISA has attracted a lot of new and important voices on public diplomacy. I was very pleased to spend time with Emily Metzgar, Sarah Ellen Graham and James Pamment – three scholars who are doing great work on issues related to public diplomacy and I’m glad they are getting more exposure at ISA. I was also happy to participate in a panel pairing more established public diplomacy scholars with doctoral students on the front lines of public diplomacy research questions. It was very encouraging. Second, it struck me that we’re reached a turning point in the “field” of public diplomacy studies. For years, PD scholarship has been characterized in part by a need to articulate its importance and the (at times) frustrating exercise of definitional debate. Basically, PD scholars have been trying to “get the word out” and to cultivate interest across the ISA divisions. I think the PD community at ISA is starting to move past this. At a two-part panel on the new edited volume edited by RS Zaharna, Ali Fisher, and Amelia Arsenault Relational, Networking, and Collaborative Approaches to Public Diplomacy: The Connective Mindshift I noticed differing positions being articulated, on the question of strategy, ethics, and indeed, theory. In other words, it was a sign of real debate. I found this very encouraging for the field as well. Disagreement is a good thing, because it forces us to articulate reasoned arguments. Where to go from here? Based on many discussions, here are a few thoughts. The PD field needs to make a better case for how its interdisciplinary subject-matter is relevant to other fields represented at ISA. There are clearly gains to be made in social scientific empirical work (especially theory-testing that can inform questions of measurement and impact). I also think that it is time for more critical attention to public diplomacy, including but not limited to perspectives that draw from gender, political, sociological, aesthetics, media, and critical/cultural theory. It’s a good time for the field, and I look forward to exciting new projects and papers at ISAs to come. Read more »