Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My "State of Public Diplomacy" Address

As we approach the end of the semester (and unfortunately the end of our class), I really like this week’s overarching blog question - What are the main challenges and opportunities for practitioners of public diplomacy?

Here are a few of the challenges I see for PD practitioners in the field today:
  • Definition of Public Diplomacy – There is still no unified definition of public diplomacy. This means that practitioners or their supervisors must infer the meaning that fits best for them. Furthermore, the term “public diplomacy” is a paradox in and of itself. Conceptually, diplomacy has an air of secrecy and discretion and conjures up an image of diplomats meeting behind closed doors. So if diplomacy is meant to be public and openly address any audience, then can we still call it diplomacy? It is misconceptions like these that necessitate the creation and adoption of a common definition among the practitioner community.
  •  Smith Mundt Act – The Smith-Mundt Act is an outdated artifact from the Cold War era. American audiences have grown much more discerning over the information they receive and are more equipped to assess whether something is propagandistic or not. The idea that we need to “shield” our citizens from the messaging we are sending abroad makes it seem like the U.S. government has something to hide. It taints the message’s credibility and contributes to the image that the government is closed off from its constituency. How can you expect to rally support for public diplomacy initiatives if you cannot generate support for these programs at home? The American public is denied access to all the great PD things our government is doing abroad.
  • Training and Professional Development – While specific training for PD has begun to take root at the Foreign Service Institute, there are still very few chances for practitioners to gain applicable knowledge and skills outside of their pre-departure training. Most of their learning occurs “on the job.” The State Department encourages practitioners to share best practices, but situations and cultural contexts vary so significantly that a “one-size-fits-all” solution would be fairly impractical. Therefore, periodic, skills-based professional development would be a great way to encourage practitioners to devise innovative solutions tailored to their specific circumstances and needs.

Despite these challenges, there are still a number of opportunities out there from which PD practitioners can benefit:
  • Public-Private Partnerships – The impending fiscal cliff and across-the-board budget cuts may seem like it would incite a mild panic in the PD world. However, when government support is inadequate for PD programming, private corporations can step in to fill in the gaps – whether they are knowledge gaps, resource gaps, or funding gaps. Corporate entities with a good reputation and a wide global reach can provide a gateway for the U.S. government to reach foreign publics in countries where diplomatic relations have originally failed. In a sense, the collaborative efforts by both public and private actors legitimizes each of their actions and can ensure the U.S. messaging is clear and consistent across the board.
  • Social Media – Social media provides a great platform to reach global audiences directly. While there is still some bureaucracy involved (abiding by clearance processes and adhering to talking points), in general, e-diplomacy offers a more “humanized” version of the federal government. Ambassadors can showcase their personalities through tweets or Facebook posts and are available to answer questions directly from their constituencies (and not just from the host country’s official representatives). Social media is also particularly appealing to a younger generation, and the State Department’s online presence is a major revitalization effort to be hip and cool in the eyes of that audience.
  • Cultural Diplomacy – People-to-people connections through culture are a vital piece to the PD puzzle. This can take the form of food, art, theater, or music. Gastrodiplomacy is just now hitting its stride with the addition of food trucks with foreign cuisines in almost every major city in the United States. The art and theater camps sponsored by either the State Department or other nonprofits expose kids in other countries to American culture and have them draw comparisons to their own. In terms of music diplomacy, Act of Congress had a powerful story to tell about how their collaboration with musicians in Southeast Asia. The experience not only changed how Americans are perceived abroad but it also opened the door for further collaboration and the development of lasting relationships.

These are just some of my thoughts/ramblings about the “State of Public Diplomacy” today. I would love to hear your thoughts on what challenges PD practitioners face and where the opportunities lie for them to overcome these obstacles.

Where do we go from here?

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic overview of the challenges and opportunities, Amanda! The definition of public diplomacy is a problem for everyone involved in the process for sure. I feel like we come back to this issue, especially in this class, but I wonder who can be the force behind a new and solidified definition? The Undersecretary perhaps, or even the Secretary of State? The Smith-Mundt Act is a great inclusion in your list, and a very necessary one. This one at least seems to be on the right track to be modernized. In terms of training, there are definitely gaps. I wonder if the issue is more structural, in the fact that once a practitioner gets the “swing of things” so to speak in their post, they are moved to another. Obviously this is not a practice that can be changed easily, if at all, but it is a thought.

    In terms of the opportunities, I agree again with the three fields you bring up. The government realistically do it all, especially in this financial era as you stated. Why not take advantage of other organizations that have similar missions or missions that can be built upon and add a PD touch. Great analysis overall!