Center for Strategic Communication

Yesterday the Public Diplomacy Council and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy put on a forum in Washington DC highlighting the recent release of the US Advisory Commission’s 2014 Comprehensive Annual Report. The Advisory Commission’s Executive Director Katherine Brown (@_KatherineBrown) and Senior Advisor Chris Hensman offered highlights and key recommendations from the report. For those just hearing about this report, it reflects the labors of a newly revitalized Commission with a rather daunting task of providing both oversight and promotion of US public diplomacy. I’m sure it is not easy being both cheerleader and critic to a practice that is not often visible to the US public, the subject of episodic congressional critique, and is uneasily coupled with more traditional instruments of diplomacy. The report is a step towards demystifying the sheer scope of public diplomacy to the public, to practitioners, and to scholars, as well as provides a platform to voice common grievances and recommendations for improvement.

As I have indicated earlier, I think the report is important– a rather unprecedented attempt to document the range and costs associated with public diplomacy programs offered by the US Department of State and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). To be fair, I’m a bit biased, since the report also contains recommendations I provided to the Commission’s previous report on Research Methods. But I do think it highlights both the diversity and scale of the US public diplomacy effort – even if it does not ultimately provide a deeply critical intervention or indictment. Aside from some recommendations about specific US public diplomacy programs (e.g. the planned closing of the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico, for example) – much of the criticism is by implication. I think the report is on-balance laudatory rather than incisive, but nevertheless unprecedented in scope.

The report also does much to make clear just what the US is doing under the auspices of “public diplomacy” and how it is supposedly servicing the needs of US foreign policy. The report is crammed with information on the Washington-based organizations charged with managing US public diplomacy, the BBG’s various journalistic outlets, the State Department’s regional bureaus, country-level contextual data about demographics and programing and, the costs associated with such programs. The report was mandated under the Advisory Commission’s reauthorization in January of 2013 by the US Congress, and draws on data based on 2013 budget information. It also contains insights derived from the Commission’s interviews with practitioners, official documents, and the cooperation of the numerous bureaus and organizations charged with doing US public diplomacy. Perhaps these organizations – often faced with considerable criticism – saw this as an opportunity to communicate to a broader constituency about what they do on a daily basis, rather than see their work get publicized during the periodic exposes of the Office of Inspector General.

The report was intended to survey the scope of US public diplomacy, gain insight from practitioners and leaders to figure out what is working, to identify for congressional leaders the potential areas of duplication and highlight opportunities for reform or improvement. The report leads with a series of recommendations based on the findings of the report. I won’t belabor them here, but I want to address some findings as they are worth mentioning:

One of the recommendations that stood out for me is the need for more research and evaluation. This is not a controversial claim, and it echoes much of the previous Commission report findings. But it pervades nearly all aspects of the Commission’s evaluations of US public diplomacy in this document. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that practitioners and policy-makers recognize much of the limitations currently facing research and analytical efforts. As one official noted, we are “stripping the copper” just to find enough money to do this evaluation. But it’s nevertheless important that the Commission makes this claim directly on behalf of the various arms of US public diplomacy, outside of parochial budgetary interests.

Of course, research informed by trained methodologies and practices of evaluation derived from benchmarks in academia and commercial campaigns are not by themselves a corrective for any country’s public diplomacy. As James Pamment has argued, the imperatives of measurement can in fact limit the scope of what public diplomacy means – where engagement is reduced to what metrics can demonstrate. More importantly, I think the practice of research – including formative, contemporaneous, and post-hoc analysis – really necessitates consideration of what should be measured and why. Put another way, as public diplomacy practitioners and policy-makers consider how to best demonstrate their impact and provide opportunities for course-correction – they also must inevitably confront the strategic question of purpose. For example, it’s one thing to measure opinion, but it’s another to provide demonstrable evidence that opinion, attitude, or behaviors link up in meaningful ways to short and long term policy objectives. What do “engagement actions” (e.g. retweets) signify? It’s not that such measurable things don’t mean anything, but it’s imperative to frame their significance. Even the best methodologists are limited by the questions they must answer. Of course the question of strategic ambiguity is not new in public diplomacy (e.g. how should, if at all, PD serve strategic purposes), but I think it resurfaces here again in the desire for research analytics to provide a corrective. What remains to be seen, by implication from this report, is a reconsideration of how research can both improve the practice of public diplomacy as much as expand the imagination of how it can and should contribute to policy. But I digress.

The report rightly represents the age-old criticism that public diplomacy should be more sensitive to the realities of the post, rather than be directed from Washington. It also notes the resilience and cost-effectiveness of “traditional” public diplomacy programing, such as the venerable Fulbright and IVLP exchange programs.

What’s also interesting (for me at least) about this report is how it cobbles together all that is being done in the name of US public diplomacy. US public diplomacy can be a somewhat arcane subject at times, burdened with competing strategic mandates (build relations, inform, persuade, education, etc.), multiple responsible agencies, and a host of acronyms for programs that range from digital media outreach to traditional exchange and educational programs. This report pulls off accounting for nearly all these programs. It also provides some helpful maps and graphics.

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I would argue this report is a must-read for anyone who wants to know about how the United States conducts its public diplomacy. It’s less helpful as a guide to strategy, but one can infer such things from how the report illustrates the linkages between US policy aims and country- and region-specific public diplomacy objectives. Optimistically, this report is also a goldmine for future case studies. And, it provides a necessary glossary of terms and acronyms.

The report is arguably refreshing because it is not another rehash of broad-stroke strategic recommendations: about the necessity of digital platforms, “engagement” broadly conceived, or similar abstractions about the importance of “soft power.” It illustrates for the outside observer how profoundly local public diplomacy in practice really is. It suggests the work on the ground, the granular, messy, and ultimately immediate labor of public diplomacy officers reconciling budget limitations, Washington-based policy-directives, and the local fabric of culture and communication media. Unlike the countless opinion-pieces and normative academic writings on the subject, this report provides a snap-shot of what public diplomacy offers are doing on the ground with resources available. It also reveals how these programs are not entirely Washington-driven or path-dependent, but are more organically related to the developing embassy and regional strategies of engagement. As Senior Advisor Chris Hensman offered at the PDC/USC briefing, the report can be a helpful guide to new PD officers seeking to understand how other posts deal with financial or demographic constraints.

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The report is not without its flaws. Much of its analysis is either incomplete or just plain thin. There are some interesting “snapshots” of US efforts in countries around the world that provide some more in-depth coverage of the practical and strategic issues facing the PD missions abroad. However, most of the country-level descriptions are more fact-sheet than in-depth coverage. This is due to the trade off of making the report comprehensive rather than a 1000 page tome of richly detailed case studies. The writing style is also a bit uneven, and there are probably more typos than would normally be expected in a government report. The findings are not likely to be considered trenchant or deeply probing, but the report is also not a back-slapping advertisement for US public diplomacy. Rather, it pulls together rather straightforward critical observations about organization and strategy in a venue that is purposively less political or bureaucratically motivated. It’s not perfect, but it’s a much-needed start.

I fully expect that the structure and presentation of this report will change in years to come. Ideally, this report represents a down-payment on future reporting on the nature and scale of US public diplomacy. It is an institutional investment that has long been necessary. It should prompt a broader conversation among scholars, commentators, and practitioners. It should cultivate demand for more informed discussion and consideration of practice, and, spark ideas for studies of international broadcasting, education, and cultural programs among a nascent field of interdisciplinary public diplomacy scholarship. More to the point – it should create demand for reliable and informed treatment of US communication to foreign publics that avoids caricature while providing the basis for comprehensive oversight.

As a total aside, I’d like to acknowledge the efforts of two graduate students from my program at the American University School of International Service, Kayli Westling (@KayliWestling) and John Pope (@PopeJohnW), for their work in helping the Commission put this report together. I understand it was a monumental effort at corralling all the information into one unruly document.