Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale gave her first major speech outlining priorities in her new job.  My reaction to her remarks is mixed.  On the one hand there were some confusing definitions a key missing element.  On the other hand it contained some very promising themes, which on balance leave me optimistic about her tenure.

One thing that really puzzled me was a definitional exercise near the beginning of the address.  McHale said public diplomacy operates on two levels:

First, communication.  This is the air game, the radio and TV broadcasts, the websites and media outreach that seek to explain and provide context for U.S. policies and actions; and

Second, engagement, the ground game of direct people-to-people exchanges, speakers, and embassy-sponsored culture events that build personal relationships. (emphasis original)

This is an odd distinction for two reasons.  First, person-to-person engagement is just as much communication as is the “air game.”  In fact it is even more so, if we adopt a modern view that communication is not just the transmission of messages but a process of dialogue.

Second, it implies that person-to-person relationships cannot be developed through electronic media.  That may be true for mass media like radio and television, though what is said through those channels does impact the ability to establish personal relationships.  But it is surely not true for web-based interactive media like mobile messaging, web-based fora, and mobile messaging.  These can be used for engagement too, as examples later in the speech show.

I would not make so much of this were it not for the fact that it was emphasized so much in the speech.  It was flagged as a main organizing principle, with the two elements set off in boldface in the transcript (the only things that got such treatment).  This signals that it is a major conceptual distinction in the speech, that McHale sees these two aspects of public diplomacy as having different functions and calling for different strategies. On the contrary New Media are breaking down these kinds of distinctions.  And indeed in the remainder of the speech McHale seems to abandon the distinction, using communication and engagement interchangeably.

Another conceptual head-scratcher was McHale’s statement that

The national security implications of engagement have not been lost on our colleagues at the Department of Defense, which has become heavily involved in what we call public diplomacy and they call strategic communications. (emphasis mine)

That’s not exactly right.  What the DoD calls strategic communication is not just public diplomacy.  It also includes public affairs and (most importantly) information operations.  It is important to recognize this because information operations can involve deception operations–so called black propaganda.  If discovered these operations can have negative impacts on person-to-person relationship building, as can normal overt actions of military operations.  They can also cause domestic public affairs problems, as they did in the Lincoln Group scandal of  a few years back.  Speaking of public affairs, McHale did not take this opportunity to unpack apparent recent changes in that function at State.

The missing element in the speech was the emphasis that McHale’s predecessor Jim Glassman placed on communicating about the Bad Guys.  Glassman declared that–in contrast to previous Under Secretaries–he was going to make public diplomacy less about selling brand America and more about de-branding our extremist opponents.  If anything McHale’s speech moves back in the other direction, placing emphasis on winning friends and influencing people.  This is undoubtedly important, but so is capitalizing on the growing ill sentiment toward extremists in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It would have been nice to have this affirmed.

All that said, there were a lot of things to like in McHale’s speech, and for me they outweigh the shortcomings just discussed.  She echoed a large number of themes we here at CSC have been advocating in recent years.  Among them:

  • “We need to listen more and lecture less.  We have to learn how people listen to us, how are words and deeds are actually heard and seen.”  Hooray!  Our Under Secretary thinks of communication as dialogue, not transmission.
  • “We need to explain our position and policies upfront and not after the fact when opinions have already been formed.”  This is further evidence of a move away from spin-meistering and toward dialogue.
  • Throughout the speech McHale emphasized the importance of communicating in the languages of our PD audiences.  As anyone who has traveled abroad knows, speaking someone else’s language can open doors,  even it’s just a few words pronounced improperly.  Moving to fluent foreign language engagement in PD will have important benefits.
  • She repeatedly emphasized the importance of New Media in public diplomacy efforts.  Though just using different channels will not change things, using them properly and in combination with the dialogic approach McHale is advocating is critical.
  • She also discussed the importance of creating a culture of risk-taking and innovation.  This is of the utmost importance because public diplomacy operates on a rugged landscape.

Finally, for my money the most important thing McHale said in her speech is this:

At the top of my list is integrating public diplomacy into the policy process at every level, from formulation and implementation.  Our policy decisions must be informed upfront by sound research and perspectives on possible impacts.

Amen!  What a great thing to have on the top of the list.  If McHale can really accomplish this goal, it alone will be enough to secure her legacy (in my humble opinion).  She will have solved the number one problem of U.S. public diplomacy in this decade, that it has been treated as an after-the-fact effort to put lipstick on pigs.  Given institutional inertia that will work against this change, she has her work cut out for her.