Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

Last week, while I was recovering from a long stretch of foreign travel, GAO released its latest report on public diplomacy.  Matt thinks it is “interesting and worth reading,”  while Kim says not so much. My own view is that the report is interesting (in a disturbing way) because it clings to a failed model of strategic communication effectiveness.  Like past GAO reports, it insists that if we only apply that model more diligently, then everything will be alright.

The main conclusion of the report is that the State Department has not been paying enough attention to earlier GAO reports and that it has failed to clearly enough define its purposes/goals, assess and manage risks, measure outcomes, and coordinate activities.

GAO Campaign Style Approach

GAO Campaign Style Approach

In particular it faults State for lacking country-level plans that implement best practices from the “campaign-style approach” to strategic communication.  The ideal process as diagrammed in their report is shown in the figure at right.  Among the  assumptions underlying the diagram are:

  • It presumes you can define your core messages independent of the people you will be communicating with, then launch the messages at them, like so many artillery shells.
  • It assumes you can target particular audiences and deliver messages narrowly to them, without those messages leaking to other audiences.
  • It assumes you can pre-plan your communication efforts and that if you do a good job things will probably go more or less according to plan.
  • It assumes you can unambiguously assess the results of communication efforts in a short time frame and use this information to make minor adjustments that “fine tune” your communication efforts.

However, as we have argued, repeatedly, the diagram and its assumptions are derived from an outdated model of communication, and following it better will only make matters worse.  Communication is not a process of transmission of messages but of dialogue with an audience.  Modern media systems make exclusively targeting narrow audiences difficult or impossible.  Communication systems are so complex that planning is of limited use.  You can’t straightforwardly assess results and tweak your tactics, as if you were a strategic communication version of a forward artillery spotter.

The fourth section of the report says our problem is that U.S. strategic communication efforts are not coordinated enough.  This is a theme that has been repeated ad nauseum in reports over the last eight or nine years, and was the subject of multiple abortive attempts by the Bush administration to create coordinating offices at the executive level.

There is little doubt that presenting incoherent and contradictory messages is a bad idea. But on the other hand having everyone hammering on a few talking points in a “campaign style” effort is a bad idea too, and this is what I think the GAO has in mind.  The problem with that approach is that it presumes you already have the right messages and you can predict how your audience is going to react.  In other words, it presumes a simple strategic communication landscape.

In reality, the United States operates on a rugged landscape where things extremely complex and unpredictable.  In that situation we a more evolutionary approach, based on variation, selection, and retention.  Trying too hard to coordinate things only works against that goal by inhibiting variation.

The GAO also faults the State Department for not engaging the private sector more effectively.  This is another recurring theme in their reports (as they themselves note).  The presumption is that we have the best marketing and advertising minds in the world, and if we can only get them involved in public diplomacy things will improve.

But there is reason to question whether the knowledge of our admittedly first-rate marketing and advertising minds maps straightforwardly to public diplomacy.  Charlotte Beers was regarded as one of the brightest stars in the advertising business, but failed in applying her ideas to public diplomacy.  Karen Hughes made use of Disney’s production savvy in developing a video to be shown in embassies, customs control points, etc., but it’s not clear this had any impact on views of the U.S.  While the private sector has ideas to contribute, it is possible to take the analogy between business and public diplomacy too far.

There are some things to agree with in the report:  State is underfunded and understaffed with respect to its responsibilities, security concerns at its outposts has limited engagement with foreign publics, and efforts have begun to engage new media.  But on the whole, if you took the dates and references to the Obama admininstration out of this report, it would be pretty hard to distinguish from those from 2003 and 2005.

This leads me to suggest that maybe the GAO should reconsider its own communication strategy in preparing these reports.  The recommendations they are making are not sticking; they document this themselves.  Maybe this is because they are not really offering anything fresh or compelling in terms of perspective and recommendations.

The GAO would have more interesting things to say if they abandoned the old “command and control” framework for criticism that they have been applying all these years, and made recommendations that are better suited to the complex systems in which public diplomacy actually operates.