US Public Diplomacy 2.0: Strategy and Challenges

The State Department’s newly confirmed Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale and its new Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs PJ Crowley have made their introductory posts in the official blog, DipNote. Ms. McHale, former Foreign Service brat, writes about Renewing America’s Engagement With the People of the World: “the United States must continue to move beyond traditional government-to-government diplomacy and seek innovative ways to communicate and engage directly with foreign publics.”

Mr. Crowley writes about the role of PA: Public Affairs Must Inform Foreign Policy and his goals going forward:

“One of my goals is to have the State Department communicate its message more strategically. In order to do this, we must be dynamic and use all available means both old and new media – traditional methods such as the Daily Press Briefings as well as experimenting with new media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and video through the Internet. The culmination of this effort will be a virtual presence that is engaged in a global dialogue, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in all corners of the world.”

There is no perfect time to talk about strategy than the present. The GAO report last month on US Public Diplomacy (GAO-09-679SP) faulted the agency’s lack of a plan to support common communication objectives. To give a quick summary:

The overall goal of U.S. strategic communication efforts is to understand, engage, inform, and influence the attitudes and behaviors of global audiences in support of U.S. strategic interests. U.S. strategic communication efforts are distributed across several entities, including State, BBG, USAID, and DOD, and function under the broad guidance of the White House and National Security Council. Within the U.S. government, State’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has the lead for U.S. strategic communication efforts.

Beginning in 2003, GAO recommended that State develop an agency-level plan to integrate its diverse public diplomacy activities and direct them towards common objectives. We noted that the absence of a strategy may hinder the department’s ability to guide its programs towards the achievement of concrete and measurable results. State responded to this recommendation with improvements to its strategic planning process; however, the department still lacks an agency-level plan that specifically supports the current national strategy.

In the absence of supporting agency plans, no clear link can be established between national communication objectives, agency programs, and results, raising doubts about whether agency programs have been strategically designed to support a common purpose in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Given the agency’s initial foray into Web 2.0, the GAO also pointed out some challenges and practical considerations associated with the new social media:

First, there is a general lack of adequate research and understanding of how government entities can and should operate in a social network environment.

, agencies will generally lose control over content since participants in a dialogue or collaborative project are free to voice their own opinions and distribute information as they choose. As noted by one senior State official, however, a difference in opinions is one of the core strengths of the approach and the underlying basis for its effectiveness.

, views expressed by U.S. officials on, for example, social networking sites or blogs, become part of the permanent discussion record, which raises practical questions about how best to mitigate potential instances of miscommunication.

, the level of available resources is small compared to the magnitude of the global communications environment. For example, State’s Digital Outreach team consists of eight individuals seeking to provide a U.S. point of view into a communication environment consisting of millions of personal blogs and discussion forums on thousands of Web sites.

, this approach is likely to pose technical challenges, as agency efforts to plan, coordinate, fund, implement, and evaluate their Public Diplomacy 2.0 efforts could strain systems and capabilities that have had difficulty operating smoothly in the less complex environment of traditional public diplomacy efforts.

The GAO crafted the following oversight questions:

1. To what extent will the Public Diplomacy 2.0 approach be included in the President’s December 2009 national communication strategy?

2. What criteria should be used to guide strategic investment decisions regarding this new approach to public diplomacy?

3. How do agencies intend to address the challenges identified by GAO such as the lack of in-depth research on social networking and resource constraint issues?

4. Are there other challenges and practical considerations that should be considered in adopting this new approach?

* * *

Later, we’ll try to review the current digital footprint of US embassies employing the new media approach.

But just quickly I’d like to note what GAO says on public diplomacy lead: “Within the U.S. government, State’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has the lead for U.S. strategic communication efforts.”

Remember that report earlier this year about the Pentagon’s plan to employ 27,000 people just for recruitment, advertising and public relations? We were talking about $547 million that goes into DOD’s public affairs operation alone, a drop in the bucket in its humongous budget. State’s FY10 budget request calls for $520 million “for public diplomacy to engage foreign audiences and win support for U.S. foreign policy goals.” That’s money that will fund public diplomacy operations in 309 US missions and other presence overseas. The entire State Department has about 30,000 people with only about a thousand working in public diplomacy.

So it does give you pause — how that computes in the real world where the “lead” has less money and less people? Also there is that new entity called the Global Engagement Directive, that’s supposed to coordinate public diplomacy, foreign assistance and international communications at a single White House desk (h/t to Spencer Ackerman).

One could argue that a true leader can lead from any chair, big or small, in front or at the back. Let’s hope that’s the case here.

Related Items:

  • GAO: U.S. Public Diplomacy: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight
    May 27, 2009 (GAO-09-679SP)

  • 27,000 for the Pentagon (AP report is no longer available online; but you can read it here)