by Steven R. Corman
Just over two weeks ago, a new report from the State Department entitled â€œU.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communicationâ€ surfaced. The plan includes prescriptions for messages, methods, and organizational changes to improve the performance of the
This professor has given the strategy a quick read, and would grade it a gentleman’s â€œCâ€ (In graduate school, anything below a B- is failure, so the strategy isn’t really ready for prime time. I’m trying to be charitable.)
In my view the plan contains many worthwhile elements, but it is also fraught with contradictions, remains too focused on the traditional tools of public relations, and views the strategic communication environment as less complex than it really is.
One important principle in evaluating the strategy is that of credibility. Any effort to deliver persuasive messages depends on the credibility of the source. The key dimensions of credibility are trustworthiness, competence, and goodwill. These are perceptions that must be cultivated, and it is widely recognized that in recent years the
Other important principles flow from our pragmatic complexity perspective. It holds that
In contrast, the pragmatic complexity perspective views strategic communication as an activity of a complex system, which is not subject to any one communicatorâ€™s control. Meaning emerges in a complicated dialog with audiences, and this means messages will probably not have their envisioned effects. In such an environment control and repetition must be replaced with strategic experimentation.
In some ways the new
Unfortunately, the plan contains no explicit recognition of the compromised credibility of the
The report also draws heavily on ideas from the old message influence model of communication. This is especially evident in its reliance on traditional mass media channels. It calls for â€œproactive media bookingâ€ in order for â€œsenior USG officials abroad to project American viewpoints.â€ Incredibly, the section entitled â€œmodernizing communicationsâ€ focuses diligently on un-modern media appearances, while stating as an afterthought that â€œall agencies and embassies must also increase use of new technologies.â€
It does not say so outright, but the report implicitly assumes that the planned communication is going to work. Yet contradictions evident in some of the selected messages make this seem unlikely right out of the gate. For instance the report emphasizes the practice of a â€œdiplomacy of deedsâ€ that seeks to â€œunderscore our commitment to freedom, human rights and the dignity and equality of every human being.â€ Yet as former State Department official Price Floyd points out,
I don’t know how you come out and talk about all the stuff you do, for human rights, to support democracy. . . . When people hear that, they stop and say, â€œWhat about Abu Ghraib? What about
The promotion of democracy is a pillar of the strategy, yet messages about democratic ideals will circulate in an environment in which competitors like Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi will seize on them to preach that â€œdemocracy is a religion of heresy.â€
This is perhaps the most serious shortcoming of the strategy: It assumes that transmitting messages is enough, and that if we deliver them often enough and skillfully enough, they will stick. This posture is dangerous because it prevents us from believing that the messages could fail and/or be perversely interpreted. What will we do when that happens? The strategy is silent on that question. There must be more emphasis on contingency planning and experimental variation of messages to find the ones that work.
To be fair, the plan contains many good ideas, especially those dealing with engaging strategic audiences like women, children, and non-extremists in the Muslim world. Many of its messages, like â€œpeople of all faiths do not want to live in the type of society the violent extremists seek,â€ are excellent places to start. But to be effective as an overall strategy, the plan needs to better recognize and adjust for the limitations imposed by our degraded credibility and be more realistic about the complicated environment in which we communicate.