Friday, May 13, 2011

Meeting of U.S. Advisory Commission on PD: "Things are getting better"

On May 12 the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy held a public meeting at the State Department. It featured presentations and remarks by Betsy Whitaker, Strategic Communications Officer at the Office of the Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Jeff Trimble, the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and Coordinator for International Information Programs (IIP) Dawn McCall.

The meeting also marked the debut of the recently appointed Executive Director of the Commission: Public Diplomacy guru Matt Armstrong. Official transcripts and reviews will be published soon, but here are some brief thoughts/observations from a member of the passive audience.

- Very glad to see Matt Armstrong there. He has been a prominent voice in the PD community and now, with such an important appointment, many have quite high expectations of him. In his opening remarks, he talked of the planned gradual reformatting of the Commission’s work, promised a host of publications and reports, as well as much closer engagement of all various PD-related communities, organizations and bodies.

- He reiterated that the Commission recognizes the challenges and issues faced by American public diplomacy and will do its best to “harness the horsepower of the broad thinking community” to address them. I just hope the bureaucratic/institutional realities do not hinder his momentum. It all remains to be seen.

- Whitaker provided a general and brief “progress report” on the PD achievements since the release of Undersecretary McHale’s strategic framework – “Public Diplomacy: Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World” – last year. The picture was pretty rosy and things are, apparently, moving in the right direction. All she asked for was support from the PD community and “time to cement all the changes and transformations.” (A real “act of faith” then, eh?)

- Another thing she kept emphasizing throughout the meeting was the increasing involvement of public diplomacy officials in U.S. foreign policy-making and priority-setting, claiming that all on-the-ground and D.C.-based resources are tapped into in that process. She also mentioned “consultative staffing” of key posts, with the consideration of local public diplomacy operation needs. Whatever the actual case in that regard, things are said to be getting better, at least.

- BBG's Trimble was the last to present. The first part of his presentation focused largely on AlHurra, the American-funded Arabic-language network, and its “prominence” in the recent events in the MENA region. Going back to the much-cited (and much-criticized) February survey commissioned by BBG itself, Trimble suggested that AlHurra had achieved wide viewership (and influence) in the region, and even claimed that during the period when the Egyptian government was attempting to block the information flow within the country, AlHurra was “the only international satellite network to broadcast live from the Tahrir Square”. Something just doesn’t sound right to me… but I suggest you read Kim Elliott’s post for a great discussion of the above-mentioned survey.

- The BBG Director also showed the following video:

"... At AlHurra it's not just a broadcast. It's a mission..."

An awesome commercial, and while I was watching it, my first thoughts were whether it is available online, whether it was meant for general public use, and whether I'll have the chance to put it next to a RussiaToday promo clip [for comparison]. Apparently it is, so here's my RT equivalent:

Not bad, and yet relying on self-commissioned surveys to give oneself a pat on their own back is surely not the best strategy for further improvement. This would hopefully work well as PR; yet, important and more credible reports – such as the one released by Senator Lugar last summer – seem to be much more ambivalent (at the very least) about AlHurra’s impact (or that of American international broadcasting, in general) and yet, will certainly have a much greater influence over the funding and support that these programs receive. In short, it is very important to stay realistic.

Oh, and almost forgot to mention that as of last night, the number of views of this masterpiece had reached a grand total of a full dozen [since April 27, when it was uploaded]! Quite telling...

- Trimble also talked about several macro trends in the field:

    o A move away from short-wave radio towards TV (including satellite), mobile and Internet-based information sources (with the exception of a handful countries and “specific markets)
   o An “incredible adoption” of mobile communications, which has also enabled the technological leapfrogging of certain countries and regions

   o An uneven adoption of new media in target countries (here, he mentioned a “new media index” developed by the BBG to categorize the countries. Would be curious to take a closer look at it some time)

   o Extremely young demographic beakdowns, which call into question the previous definitions of the “elites” as agents of change. (No comment.)

Perhaps the other great highlight of the meeting was the near-discussion of the “interagency”. The speakers generally seemed to agree that there has been a lot of progress in that regard over the past year, including greater collaboration through the National Security Council. According to Whitaker, cooperation with other agencies, particularly with the Department of Defense, works pretty well in the field, where there is little interference from Washington. Curious to see where that discussion goes in the future…

Also, quite interestingly, when asked about the difference between “public diplomacy” and “strategic communication”, Whitaker said she sees these discussions as largely “theological”. Then came the major statement: “Public Diplomacy is a subset of Strategic Communication”. I wonder if she had the institutional definitions of the difference in mind…

[See post on last year's meeting: "Meeting on Interagency "Collaboration" in PD: No Questions Answered, No Questions Asked"]


  1. Fabulous recap, Yelena! I'm nitpicking here, but regarding that last quote, I have it in my notes as "Public Diplomacy is a subset of Communication." No Strategic. So I interpreted her comment as meaning that PD is one aspect of communication--one which is inherently strategic, which suggests that she was thinking of strategic communication with lowercase letters. And as Christopher Paul has pointed out, "Strategic Communication is Vague." Of course, my notes may be incorrect. It's entirely possible that I missed the word as I was writing.

    I'd have been curious to hear Dawn McCall's full understanding of the term, since defining strategic communication was one of the questions I was asked in my interview with IIP a few weeks ago.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Laura. Indeed, might be my mistake, but I am pretty sure Whitaker said "strategic communication". At the time, she was also talking specifically of the difference between strategic communication and PD, so I think my notes make sense. Also, as I was discussing some of the issues with other attendees after the meeting, this was one of the points we talked about, so it seemed like they agreed with me. Yet, you might just as well be right, and we might have to wait for another occasion to clarify the wording with Ms. Whitaker. :)

    I hope the interview went well? :)