Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Medvedev's Annual Address

Today President Medvedev delivered his key annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. The speech is more than an hour long, and in between my slightly prolonged Thanksgiving weekend, final papers and projects, and the application deadlines, unfortunately I cannot get into a detailed discussion of his major points.

However, I wanted to point out that although he focused primarily on domestic issues, he also made several major points concerning foreign policy and diplomacy in particular (those come toward the end). Of course, the highlight has been his "threat of a new Arms Race" comment, and yet he talked about modernization, also touching upon the need to enhance Russia's Economic Diplomacy and improve the ties with the governments as well as the publics of Russia's Eastern neighbors. Russia's public diplomacy is turning to the East, now?

Here's his full address:


Funny to watch Putin's expression from time to time. Priceless!

And certainly, the full translation provided by Russia Today TV:

And for those who can't listen through it all, here's a quick overview:

Geez, Hibbert really does need to work on her accent...


Friday, November 19, 2010

Speaking of "framing" III - Outrageous!

Aha. As promised, here's the last part from Russia Today TV's "investigative report" on the super-secret "democracy promotion around the world" conspiracy devised by the American government.

The report:

The interview:

I don't think there is much more to add to what I already put out here, in the previous two posts.

Just two thoughts:

- USAID and NED... Really?! They "repeatedly refused" interview requests and declined to comment on these stories? Might be unpleasant and uncomfortable, and yet there is a case to be made. Otherwise, RT - and not only - frames the issue the way they want to. Unfortunately, the altruistic and disinterested mission of "democracy promotion" is not self-evident to everyone around the world, and therefore, a strong argument is indispensable. What were their communication representatives thinking? I'm afraid they both lost this public diplomacy challenge "test case" for the U.S. in this instance...

- Russia Today: please, please, stop being so obviously conspiratorial and bluntly insensitive. Seriously now. Who is the target audience? I'm sure the executive team there - even if not the reporters themselves - has heard of notions such as propaganda or selective perception. If not, I suggest you read up on it. Unless you stop undermining your own credibility in the eyes of your own intended audience, you will never get rid of the "propagandist" label. Sorry to be the one breaking the news to you.

Speaking of "framing" II

Remember my post from two days ago on Russia Today's counter-PD campaign about America's "democracy promotion"? As promised, here are the next "episodes" of the series. Please note the open reference to Ukraine (vs. the NPR piece from Wednesday).

It's all about interests, perspectives, and framing. Since the major issue of concern (the "right" frame of choice) for the American public at the moment is the economic well-being of the country, here's a look at democracy-building from the financial perspective:

And then, here is a point often made by Kremlin:

Of course, the size (and the characteristics) of the RT audience - especially within the U.S. - is very questionable. And yet, they are out there raising what seem to be pretty legitimate questions. Most importantly, they're not the only ones to do so. After all, it's all about perspective, framing, and perception.

So how does the U.S. overcome what is sure to be selective perception of such issues in many parts of the world? How do USAID and NED (and many others) respond to such arguments? Discarding them as unreasonable or ignoring them altogether will only undermine American credibility abroad. This is a major public diplomacy challenge, especially in this case, where framing and preconceptions matter and the American formulation is far from being the only one "out there".

More to come - just as promised.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Speaking of "framing"...

Unfortunately I don't have the time to blog extensively. Again. Just wanted to highlight two news stories I came across today: both indicative of "framing wars"; both, obvious "counter-public diplomacy" efforts by each of the sides. Interestingly enough, both of these pieces provide context for each other... and perhaps both should be viewed with the "Bout extradition issue" in mind.

The first one is from NPR's Morning Edition, and discusses the state of "democracy" in Ukraine: "Ukraine's President Blamed For Derailing Democracy." You can listen to the podcast on their webpage. Here are some excerpts from the transcript:


It seemed that a former Soviet Republic had chosen its own future when the Orange Revolution swept through Ukraine six years ago. U.S. and European leaders applauded when Ukrainians poured into the streets demanded democracy. Now, as NPR's David Greene reports, that nation's story has swung back the other way.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

DAVID GREENE: These were thought to be the sounds of a country writing the final chapter of a painful history. From Soviet rule to open democracy and integration with Europe. The Orange Revolution brought leaders who spoke of freedom and hope. That storyline has been derailed.

This past February, Ukrainians elected a president named Viktor Yanukovich. Join NATO? No way, he said. The Orange Revolution - he called that a failure. And these days, journalists complain of pressure to drop stories the government doesn't like. Yanukovich has also brought Ukraine into a new friendship with its eastern neighbor, Russia. Where's that revolutionary spirit?

Mr. RICHARD WIKE (Pew Research Center): You've seen a waning in confidence in democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region.

GREENE: Richard Wike is associate director of the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project. And just before Yanukovich was elected, Wike polled people in former Soviet and Eastern bloc countries. The results were dramatic. In places like Poland and former East Germany, people celebrated democracy and capitalism - not in Ukraine, where only one in 10 said political changes in the post-Soviet era have benefited ordinary people. Some of Wike's questions had also been asked just after the 1991 Soviet collapse, such as: What do you prefer, a strong leader or a democratic system?

Mr. WIKE: And the number of people saying a strong leader has gone up notably in Ukraine over the last two decades. So people still want democratic freedoms and institutions. But I think they've lost some of their confidence about the ability of democracy to solve their problems.

GREENE: If the 2004 Orange Revolution was supposed to begin the era of democracy, the political chaos and the economic woes that followed only gave Ukrainians fresh doubts about a more open political system.


Gilenko is 53 years old, a grizzled unemployed factory worker. He's no fan of his president. Still, he said, give Yanukovich some time, to see if deeper economic ties with Russia might start helping ordinary people. Gilenko remembers those cold nights in Kiev, calling out for democracy.

Mr. GILENKO: (Through Translator) People were united for the first time, and probably the last time. I took part in that revolution, and it let us down. People expected after the Orange Revolution, that milk and honey would flow over the land.

GREENE: The drive for democracy, overwhelmed by disappointment with the most recent experiment. It's not unlike what you hear from Russians, who recall chaos under Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet collapse. Many Russians say they never want to try that again.


Ms. SARAMAKA: (Through Translator) People today are just indifferent towards those in power. There's so much disappointment here. And nobody is sure where we're headed. But I believe one of those moments will come again.

GREENE: If another democratic revolution comes, those leading it will have their chance to win over a skeptical audience."

And as if in response, today evening Russia Today TV started what it called a series of reports on American policy of "democracy promotion" around the world:

And an interview that followed...:

Very funny to watch. But also worrisome. Long live the Cold War...?!


Cartoons' PD Potential: Can Cheburashka Help?

Over the past year, I've had many discussions and debates over the "function" of pop culture in public diplomacy, and whether it can provide a viable solution to overcoming the massive volume of noise in the current communication and technological environment. Various theoretical frameworks suggest that it can. Actual observations suggest it works in some cases (after all, some audiences can surely be turned off by some of the more sexually or violently explicit, or extremely Western-centric "pop cultural" products coming from abroad).

But then, just like any other "tool" in cultural diplomacy, cartoons (which clearly fall into the "pop" category) can establish the grounds for goodwill. They can even help overcome long-held preconceptions and stereotypes about the other, thus creating the space for further openness to meaningful communication and information processing. Many communication and cognitive processing theories would support this argument, suggesting that "narrative transportation" and cognitive focus on the humorous/engaging aspect of the information can bring down the resistance to communication that would normally be induced by previous perceptions, attitudes, or beliefs.

Certainly, a good lesson to learn for Russians. I - just like everyone else in the post-Soviet/Socialist region - grew up watching the Soviet/Russian cartoons, most of which were far from having anything to do with ideological indoctrination: insofar as "indoctrination" is different from "socialization," that is. (Yet, "Tom and Jerry," "Looney Toons," and even "Popeye The Sailor" were among my favorites, too; though, I've got to admit, there might have been a degree of parental influence involved here.)

And although it might be unrealistic to "ask" Cheburashka, Postman Pechkin, or Karlson (who lived on the roof) to perform Russian public diplomacy (with all their time- and culturally-specific references), modern and well-produced animations with typical Russian or generally neutral themes could certainly help enhance it. Not only can they tell a typical Russian folk/fairy tale (thus conveying a lot about Russian culture, traditions, and history), but they can also deal with generally interesting and exciting subjects, thus appealing to young and adult audiences alike.

Here is a great example of a recent cartoon about the Russian legendary knight Alyosha Popovich (2004) [unfortunately, I was unable to find any English translations/subtitles].

Nevertheless, seems like the government has started to notice the potential: the Ministry of Culture has apparently been a significant supporter of and contributor to the creation of a recent cartoon "Belka and Strelka: The Star Dogs" (2009) about the pioneer dogs that made it to space and back (alive) in 1960. The cartoon was even released in 3D (in 2010) and the fact that the official website has an English section (plus many English-dubbed trailers available online) suggests that there was a special effort made to reach out to foreign audiences, too.

That is true of several "private" productions, as well. Yet, at the current rate, they obviously can't beat the American animated blockbusters. Not in marketing at least. Perhaps the great number of the Russian Cultural Centers abroad could be more helpful in facilitating various local screenings or - even better - organize local "cinema releases", even if in smaller, non-mainstream theaters?

After all, these cartoons are so cute (!). They speak to the younger audiences, who are much less susceptible to the pervasive attitudes or stereotypes about Russia (within their respective societies). And most importantly: they don't feature bears, fur hats, vodka, or Siberian winters...


P.S. - Completely forgot to share "Well, You Just Wait!" (really, can't get a better translation for Nu Pogodi!): probably my favorite. Enjoy!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Framing and Public Diplomacy: More Thoughts...

Spent my Sunday reading about... frames and framing effects. Yes, I know I missed out on a gorgeous day outside, but I did learn more about another piece of a greater puzzle - effective public diplomacy. Here's a chaotic response (I hope it makes at least some sense) to some of this material.

Framing, as defined by Entman, involves the selection of “some aspects of a perceived reality and [making] them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation." Thus, in many ways, the frame is the determining factor of any imparted information in whether most people notice it in the first place, and if so, how they understand, remember, evaluate, and act upon it.

 Here's an example of an interesting "frame". [Image courtesy of Kikolani.com]

Hallahan further points out that “framing works by biasing the cognitive processing of information” by selectively influencing which sets of memory traces organized as schemata are activated to interpret a particular message. That, then, supports the proposition that frames cannot have universal effect on all. Yet, as noted by Chong and Druckman, it is the “selective acceptance and rejection of competing frames” that brings about public opinion formation – facilitated through constant public deliberation and discussion – thus making effective framing a major issue of interest for public affairs/relations managers.

Entman suggests that there are four major locations in the communication process: communicators, the text, the receiver, and the culture. The latter is of particular importance, as not only does it define the stock of commonly invoked frames used when the information is processed by an individual, but it also plays a significant role in the construction of frames in the first place.

Thus, when trying to construct any form of effective communication strategy and framing, it is very important to consider the context – the socially created symbolic reality – within which that communication is framed and interpreted. That is why framing is an even greater challenge for those dealing with foreign cultures and publics – as in the case of public diplomacy – since it necessitates a thorough knowledge of the culture and the themes/frames that would resonate most to bring about the desired outcome. (And here is it absolutely important to note that framing is not concerned with persuasion, but rather with the management of the "salience" of issues and their interpretation.)

Chong and Druckman say that knowledge can enhance the framing effect by increasing the likelihood that the considerations emphasized in a frame will be available, accessible, and comprehensible. Yet, very often, communication in public diplomacy involves information and frames that are not only unfamiliar, but may clash – directly – with the knowledge, and the normative/belief systems already held by the foreign public, essentially leading to cognitive dissonance.

Often, frames are defined by what they omit, as much as by what they include. [Cartoon from Speed of Thought.]

Although the authors suggest that when exposed to opposing considerations individuals have greater motivation to engage in conscious evaluation of the new information, they also point out that when possessing strong attitudes, individuals will resort to selective perception and “Motivated Reasoning”: evaluation of incoming information in a such a way so as to support existing preconceptions and devalue contrary evidence.

To address this problem, Entman suggests that communication in public diplomacy should focus – first and foremost – on ensuring the cultural congruence of the message and frames employed. Here, he also refers to the utility of activating “cascading networks”, which can help to diffuse – through the existing networks – certain frames from the administration of one country to foreign elites. These elites, then – as major media sources themselves – would be able to frame the issue(s) within their own societies, accordingly.

Cultural congruence, however, can be very difficult to achieve (even if just considering the elites), and as Entman suggests, active engagement and empathy with audiences, as well as mutual understanding, might be key to creating room for “frame promotion.” This requires, however, a true devotion to the principle of symmetric communication and openness to listening to the “other,” too. Without it, simple one-way feeding of information might not only fail to invoke the desired frames among the audience, but can bring about the rejection of information altogether, due to cognitive resistance and counter-arguing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aid, Security, and Public Diplomacy

Providing development and humanitarian aid has become an integral part of the Western "Counterinsurgency" as well as public diplomacy work in volatile areas and war zones (such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa). There have been many questions about the viability of the approach - involving ethical as well as practical issues - especially when dealing with hostile populations. "Winning over hearts and minds" certainly does not come with outright pouring of dollars, and very often externally designed programs have proven to be either ineffective, or - what is worse - counterproductive.

The situation gets even worse when the military takes on an active role in the process, whether performing the work itself, or providing security for the development/humanitarian workers. To a large extent, this principle lies at the core of the Counterinsurgency strategy; and yet, despite their actual role, the military personnel still do wear a uniform and thus, still represent certain actors, interests, and issues. Thus, even if just providing security for non-government-affiliated groups and individuals, they might face the problem of distrust and security threats.

This was a topic of discussion for one of Riz Khan's shows on Al Jazeera this week, where he brought in Michiel Hofman - the representative of Medicins Sans Frontiers in Afghanistan - and Philip Seib, the Director of the Public Diplomacy Institute at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. An interesting and a very controversial subject, and surely one that will be revisited many times again.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Žižek: Living in the End Times

Not directly relevant to public diplomacy or international communication, per se. And yet, a very interesting discussion with Slavoj Žižek about his book - Living in the End Times - discussing the current state of humanity and where we go from here.

Apparently, post-Postmodernism does allow room for interesting and engaging philosophers. I particularly liked his discussion of the "Decaffienated Other"!


Some thoughts on PD and "Listening"

Finally, pressure has eased. A bit.

One of the things that kept me very busy over the past weeks was helping to put together the SIS Conference on Cultural Diplomacy on Monday, November 8, which I think went very well. Updates and videos are promised to come soon (all participants will surely be notified), so those interested who could not attend - for whatever reason - will be able to get a taste of it too.

The conference focused on "Cultural Diplomacy as a Listening Project" - what's the role of listening in public diplomacy? Is it merely a way to formulate better targeted and more effective PD/communication strategies, or is it actually a factor in making more informed policies? None of the speakers seemed to be giving a definitive opinion on this fundamental issue, although almost all of them touched upon it in one way or another.

Of course, it might be easy to suggest that governments should be more responsive to foreign public opinion when making foreign policy decisions; but then, that would mean completely ignoring all domestic and foreign constraints that these decision-makers usually face. It also raises the issue of national interest and priorities: after all, any policy-maker represents, first and foremost, the interests of their own "constituency." And yet, in a networked world where all are increasingly interdependent, selfish "blindness" might not only limit the effectiveness of a policy (public diplomacy among others), but might actually be detrimental to the country's security and prosperity, cutting it off from the vital global networks.

Although there was some discussion of the significance of citizen diplomacy - particularly surrounding the talk by Sherry Mueller, President of NCIV - most of the conversation centered on government efforts involving public diplomacy. Even within the discussion of "Public Diplomacy 2.0" and the general suggestion to empower the American public so as to enhance its ability to engage with the world, the talk was mostly of providing software and tools to facilitate this engagement.

Prominently missing from the discussion was the actual need to cultivate the Americans' interest about the world - about those foreign countries and people they are supposed to be interacting with - in the first place. After all, as demonstrated by the most recent election, the outside world seems to be far from being a priority issue for most Americans, whose major concern is their country's well-being (well, in fact, that is arguably the case everywhere else), even if/when it comes at an expense of foreign "partnerships" and relations (just look at all the talk surrounding China). After all, why should the general public concern itself with people and events in faraway lands that lie beyond the ocean or South of "The Border"?

But then, how can someone expect them to engage with the world when not only cultural knowledge, but actual interest is absent?

Image courtesy of Alpha Designer. (Click to enlarge)

It would be very unfair, of course, to blame it all on the society or individuals - after all, there are certain historical, cultural, and even geographic explanations for such a culture of "ignorance". And yet, since everyone is talking about the role that the American government can play in enhancing Americans' interaction with the world, perhaps there should also be more serious talk of the government engaging and educating an interest among its own public first?

Balanced international news, world history, and even basic geography are mostly absent from the "usual" information intake of an average American; unless, of course, any of that directly involves American interests, (still resulting in a very American-centric view). Disasters, conflicts, or extremely moving negative events abroad also attract media attention; but they only contribute - further - to the formulation of a negative image of the world that is full of chaos and security threats to the U.S.

When so many resources are spent on cultural and educational exchanges, perhaps a fraction should also go to promoting awareness among the local population itself, with the very objective of cultivating the demand for foreign interaction? (A first step here could be allowing VOA, RFE/RL and the like to broadcast in the U.S.)

Listening, then, is very much about the public's attitude and outlook, too. During the conference, a very interesting comment in this regard was made by Prof. Nick Cull of USC, who said that according to him Americans cannot be "taught" to listen. Instead, there should be a concerted effort to teach foreigners to "shout" louder, with the hope that they can get at least some of their points across.

Here is another quote - from Entman - which I came across as I was doing some research for one of the papers I'm currently working on:

Foreign elites and citizens often see the United States as a self-interested superpower, a perspective greatly at odds with Americans’ self-images as altruistic supporters of universal human values such as democracy, freedom, and peace. In fact, because of the conflict between the U.S.’s self-image and its common images abroad, the very conditions amenable to favorable habitual framing in the American media may yield more unfavorable habitual framing in foreign countries.

A point that certainly needs to be considered more seriously when putting together any American PD initiative: tune down the arrogance and work on getting stronger "cultural intelligence" skills.

More later.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Rap News vs News World Order

It's been AGES since I last blogged: too busy with work, school, and applications. Hope to get back on track soon, though!

With so much work, I feel like I deserve occasional tiny breaks. Here's what I came across just a while ago. Obviously, there's no need for commentary.