Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

I checked out the webpage of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi just after Secretary of State John Kerry had completed his two-day visit to India’s capital.  Scrolling down the home page, I found  a gallery of predictable VIP visitor photos: lots of namastes with folded hands; a few handshakes; podium shots; conference table shots; many pictures with photogenic “young Indian leaders,” the disproportionate quantity of which leads me to ask how much time was spent with people in power and how much on  PR meant to showcase how this administration digs youth.  I also got access to critical texts equally available on State’s website.  Remarks.  Dialogues.  Joint statements.  The works. 

But on the Embassy site I found nothing to guide Indians to portions of text that might resonate more strongly from this or that point of view.  PD people at post may have chosen to do it this way.  Or it may be that the Embassy isn’t allowed to be more than a passive pass-through for official texts, which would be a shame.  Eyes glaze over quickly when exposed to oral material that’s been printed, even the most sympathetic America watchers may need a little guidance and bashers can sometimes be softened by intelligent spin. A “Letter” from Ambassador Powell might have been a nice touch.

Floods and Other Distractions

John Kerry’s days seem to have been packed with events, and cameras obviously were always at work.  Embassy visit schedulers are probably feeling pretty good.  But the visit has received little local coverage: some inconsequential clips on Indian newscasts,  but not much in Delhi’s all-important print press.  There may be an unrelated reason for the relative invisibility.  Other matters were competing for attention.

First of all, the weather in the mountains all but buried the Kerry visit.  A once-in-a- century rainfall aggravated by poorly-planned development and deforestation generated horrendous floods and devastating  avalanches in the pilgrimage centers of Uttarakhand.  Next, the picaresque adventures of traitor-or-savior NSA document-leaker Edward Snowden continued to capture the world’s imagination, Delhi’s included.  And, finally, Indian foreign policy buffs have been deeply worried about what the U.S. is up to vis-à-vis the Doha talks with the Taliban.  Kerry’s “Strategic Partnership” address was mined mainly for references to this.

Although the Kerry agenda included useful discussions on critical issues pertaining to business and trade, no exciting reports have turned up yet, and the response to some interesting agreements on the education front has been startling by its paucity.  I found a mere six inches buried well inside today’s (6/27) Times of India.  Put this trifle in the context of Indian dailies’ (and news magazines’) frequent multi-page education supplements catering to the anxieties of Indian parents eager to get their kids into the right institute, university or college.  Did the press receive any Embassy-generated releases highlighting the education aspects of the visit?  I don’t know.  I was unsuccessful when I tried, on WhirledView‘s behalf, to get on the recipient list for any such releases.  (See below.) 

It’s hard not to conclude that the Indian press was underwhelmed by the Kerry visit.  Was that purely because of rotten luck on timing?  Or could the public diplomacy people here in Delhi have done a better job of designing and carrying out a PD campaign for this visit? This blogger’s experience may be instructive.

WV Gets Short Srift

Assuming that the Embassy’s  PD section would be doing what I always did when dealing with a high level visit, not only circulating those official texts, but also issuing releases highlighting issues in a way that would be sure to grab local journalists’ attention, I decided to visit the American Center in central Delhi.  I wanted to be put on the recipient list for any locally-generated emailed releases re the Kerry visit.  It was a gamble.  I didn’t and don’t know exactly how Delhi’s PD staff are distributed between the Embassy itself and the marginally more accessible American Center, but this is the 21st century. Email exists.  Mama and daughter are in constant touch with one another.  The PAO didn’t need to handle my simple request in person.

Eventually, because I am stubborn, and after dealing with half a dozen English-impaired, locally-hired Indian security officers, I got  to talk with (but not meet face-to-face) an American at the American Center. I will not publish initials or use gender-identified pronouns because this person is clearly a victim of a system that hasn’t worked well since U.S.I.S was folded into the State Department. 

All in all, it was a very odd conversation.  He/she had no interest in my claim that people who matter read WhirledView.  Nor did he/she get any friendlier when I mentioned that I was an old PD hand and thus, really, a well-informed colleague.  When, reluctantly, he/she checked out WV, to see if it was for real, he/she still wasn’t put on alert by Pat K’s recent piece on John Kerry or my own a few days ago about the implications for America of an India-Japan nexus.  His/her tone throughout was grudging.  It was sneering.  It was snippy. Probably only to get rid of me, he/she requested my email address, but I never received any material about the Kerry visit.    Whether supplementary PD material was not available or whether it was just not available to the likes of me I never learned.  Even so, I might have been ever so slightly mollified had I opened my email and found a brief polite acknowledgment of the conversation.  

Brush Offs: a Primer on When and How

The sad thing about my unnecessarily unpleasant experience at the American Center is this: the owner of the very offputting voice lacked the presence of mind (or the good PD training) to make me happy in less than five painless minutes.  He/she could have reassured me, oh so sweetly, that everything would be on the Embassy web page and at as well.  He/she might even have thanked me, equally sweetly, for introducing him/her to a blog he/she had no intention of looking at again. And then he/she could have wished me a pleasant stay in Delhi.  There are good and bad ways to brush off someone who may be a non-entity but is also a citizen and a blogger.   

Now, I’ve been a foreign service officer.  I know that you can’t give a red carpet reception to every American who walks in the door.  On the other hand, courtesy never hurts, especially if an unfamiliar writer or artist comes waltzing in.  During my own years as a PD officer, I found that  investing a few minutes with a promising stranger could yield dance performances that wowed local audiences and cost me practically nothing to put on.  As for the word people, I milked them for information I might not have gleaned on my own.  And those were the days when USIA officers were free to go most anywhere anytime.  Now, with mobility constrained and access to informal aspects of culture less easy to come by, I can’t help thinking that a few minutes with an old India hand might be even more valuable, even though security regs in India might not be as onerous as those in Pakistan next door.  In any event, courtesy is the bottom line.  Amercan citizens have a habit of complaining to Senators and Representatives. 

So Why the Poor Coverage?

A recent report reveals that the State Department’s romance with social media has yielded little benefit of a substantive nature.  My own experience in Delhi this week suggests that State has even less savvy when it comes to dealing with electronic journalists, which is not a good sign.  And then there’s this: would local coverage of the Kerry visit have been more expansive had it been packaged so as to appeal more explicitly to assorted local interests? I can’t tell you.  But if there were some such efforts, shouldn’t they have been highlighted on the Embassy web page?  Finally, I can’t help wondering if Indian bloggers interested in the Kerry visit were treated as rudely as I was.