Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

Tara Sonenshine

I have been following developments in public diplomacy for close to twelve years now.  Lately I have noticed something new: Messages in my inbox from Tara Sonenshine, the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (whose department, for arcane reasons, is known as “R”). She was appointed earlier this year as successor to Judith McHale.  I cannot remember ever receiving regular email messages from this office before.  Wondering what was behind them, I requested and was granted an interview last week with Aviva Rosenthal, the Under Secretary’s Chief of Staff.  The upshot is that this is part of an effort  at R to be more engaged with domestic constituencies.

A screenshot of the newsletter

Entitled A Snapshot of Public Diplomacy, the mailing gives reports on public diplomacy (PD) activities underway around the world.  The most recent issue I’ve received, covering the last two weeks of July, reports on support by the Bureau of African Affairs of an NGO called the Idea Builders Initiative. Their program supports education for women and girls, as well as women-owned businesses.  There are additional reports on activities of the BBG/VOA, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Educational and Cultural Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, International Information Programs, International Organizations, Mission Iraq Public Diplomacy, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Public Affairs, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

I asked Ms. Rosenthal what was going on with the new mailings.  She explained that is was part of an effort to share knowledge about PD to a larger audience, and open more of a two-way dialog with people in and outside the organization about what they are doing around the world.  In particular, she said, PD is becoming more recognized as  a professional field so there is a priority to reach out to academics studying the subject, as well as bloggers and think-tanks. Likewise, Members of Congress and their staff need to know more about what is happening with PD.  The newsletter also has an internal audience, according to Ms. Rosenthal, as there is a recognized need for more knowledge sharing among field officers.

Noting that the newsletter is, after all, primarily one-way communication, I asked what parts of the initiative would create more two-way dialog.  She noted that the newsletter has generated a significant amount of feedback to which  they regularly respond. She also said they have already begun outreach to Capitol Hill staffers and have had conversations with congresspersons and their staffers about PD.  They have more things in planning that they are not ready to talk about just yet, but she said we could expect coming events that create more dialog with academics.  For example, Under Secretary Sonenshine will be visiting the USC Center on Public Diplomacy this fall.

I was also curious if they had concerns about the new mailings running afoul of the Smith-Mundt Act, which (arguably) precludes PD communications from being shared with a domestic audience.  Ms. Rosenthal said they were tracking that issue closely and worked with the lawyers to follow the restrictions while still allowing greater engagement for R.  “You need to  follow the law, but at the same time you don’t want to constrain public diplomacy unnecessarily,” she said. The solution they found is that the Department can disseminate information about its PD activities, but not all products of those activities. For example readers may learn that a certain video was developed, but they will not be provided a link to see the video itself.

Asked if there were any related initiatives underway, Ms. Rosenthal said there was a strong push to advance the public diplomacy profession for Civil Service and Foreign Service practitioners at the Department of State. Senior Foreign Service Officer Liza Davis is leading an initiative from the policy division to focus exclusively on this issue.  They are also continuing an innovation fund begun under Under Secretary McHale that incubates and seeds good ideas by field officers to start or improve PD programs.  As an example, Ms. Rosenthal cited current interest in economic statecraft.  This year they received 99 detailed proposals from posts around the world on that topic.

My assessment of these changes is positive for three reasons.  First, as we at the CSC have argued for quite some time now, PD should forego the old transmission model of communication so entrenched throughout the government and move toward one based more on dialog.  Our argument was more about international PD efforts, but it is as true for domestic ones. Though the dialog aspect of this new initiative is somewhat a work in progress, it is encouraging that they are thinking in these terms.

Second, it is wise to build more support for PD in the United States.  Congress, in particular, seems to view the function as a ripe target for budget cutting, with the dissolution of the USIA  in the 90s and the recent elimination of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy as examples. Regular reporting of R’s extensive activities helps establish “bang for the buck.”

Third, the efforts described by Ms. Rosenthal indicate that R is taking seriously recommendations for improving its operations.  In 2009 I did an analysis of 18 then-recent reports on improving PD from academics, think tanks, and government agencies. The top five recommendations across those reports were:

  1. Improve internal coordination, cooperation, business processes
  2. Increase funding
  3. Improve staffing/human resources
  4. Create PD specialty tracks/Careers or improve PD training for FSOs
  5. More integration of academic and/or private sector and/or NGOs

Though Ms. Rosenthal did not indicate any direct efforts to increase funding, congressional outreach certainly serves that goal.  The other four items were directly addressed in what she described. We academics often wonder whether anyone is listening to what we are saying. Here is at least one case where it appears that they are.

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