Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

I ran across this astonishing post by William Triplett at Variety analyzing American’s problem with Public Diplomacy. After citing recent research about our decline in world public opinion, Triplett concludes:

the U.S. government continues to make the same mistake when it comes to reaching disgruntled populations abroad: It’s talking without listening.

He extensively quotes Jeffrey Sonnenfeld from the Yale School of Management, who knows why our public diplomacy is so bad: Charlotte Beers ran dumb commercials.

Beers launched the “Shared Values” campaign, TV ads aired throughout the Mideast showing the happy and fulfilling lives of American Muslims. …The spots were “mind-numbing and stupid,” adds Sonnenfeld, who also reviewed the ads. “It was the equivalent of speaking slower while shouting louder.”

Karen Hughes was no better, says Triplett, as her “much-hyped trip to the Middle East in 2005 was a bust of epic proportions.”

The solution is to let Hollywood handle this stuff. Specifically

“Mark Burnett should have produced those TV ads,” Sonnenfeld says, referring to the reality TV heavyweight.

Let me get this straight: The problem is not enough listening, and the solution is playing better commercials. Let’s review, shall we? Listening involves receiving messages and taking in the information they contain. Commercials involve putting messages out, so they are not listening. They are more like the opposite of listening.

This might seem like pretty elementary stuff, but apparently it is not well understood. Karen Hughes’s “Listening Tour” back in 2005 mainly involved her going around the Middle East making speeches. Making speeches is not listening, either.

Another flaw in the Tripleet/Sonnenfeld analysis is that it doesn’t matter how good your ads are if you don’t have credibility. The credibility of the U.S. may never have been lower than it is now. R.S. Zaharma of American University sums it up this way:

What U.S. officials don’t seem to register is that no amount of information pumped out by U.S. public diplomacy will be enough to improve the U.S. image. The problem, ultimately, is not lack of information but lack of credibility.

On The Apprentice, Mark Burnett had The Donald to work with, who has at least enough credibility to convincingly fire sycophantic interns. In the case of U.S. public diplomacy there is no comparable spokesman. And when you behave as if you can persuade people when you obviously have no credibility it makes you look clueless, which further undermines your credibility.

Finally, it doesn’t matter what you say or how much you listen if you behave in ways in ways that contradict the image you’re trying to project. The root cause of U.S. public diplomacy problems is a huge disconnect between what is said and what is done. I am hardly the first person to point this out, and the examples are legion. We can’t extol democracy and then support undemocratic regimes because it is expedient, or discount the results of elections that don’t come out to our liking. We can’t champion freedom, fairness, and human rights, then torture people and run prisons that operate outside the law. Actions speak louder than words, and this is another elementary fact that seems not to be very well understood in official circles.

With due respect to Mr. Triplett and Dr. Sonnenfeld, the solution to U.S. public diplomacy is not putting Hollywood in charge. It is, first, understanding the difference between speaking and listening, second, recognizing that we have very little credibility at present and thus little ability to push any message, and third, realizing that we need to align our actions with our words.