Friday, June 6, 2014

#SavePsaki -- 'Public Diplomacy' Gets Personal

Jen Psaki, the State Department Spokeswoman, is probably a little-known name in the US outside of Washington and the foreign policy circles. Her position, however, plays a key role for the US public diplomacy, as she is the person who usually takes on the international press corps - often single-handedly - serving as a mouthpiece of and representing the US foreign policy establishment.

This establishment is not always coherent or consistent, of course (Are there any in the world that are coherent and consistent? After all, we're talking about foreign policy interests that vary from issue to issue, from time to time, and from place to place...), and the Russian and pro-Russian media have made it their goal to expose the "hypocrisy" of the US foreign policy, embodied by Psaki herself.

Yesterday, after missing the State Department daily briefings for three days in a row (she was replaced by Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf), the RuNet exploded with speculations as to what happened to Psaki. A rumor quickly spread on Twitter, suggesting that she "was fired", which prompted her Russian "fans" to start the "#SavePsaki" hashtag, suggesting that at least she provided some entertainment, if nothing else.

The image reads: "New job: New press secretary of Kiev's new mayor."

Some of the memes coming out were absolutely hilarious:

While speaking on channel "Russia 24", Russia's Representative at the UN Vitaly Churkin was asked if he knew anything about Psaki's disappearance. "I don't know [what happened to her]", he said, but he reportedly expressed hope that "she will reappear". "It is always interesting to listen to her," he said. One of the Russian websites reported the news under the headline "Churkin has lost Jen Psaki". Quite some affection in there, somewhere... Clearly.

After a long day of discussion and ridicule, Psaki finally denied the rumors with a tweet:

Her hashtag "#dontbelieveRT", also elicited a response from RT's Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan:
The tweet reads: "Psaki imagines RT scheming everywhere. Dear Jen, we never reported you were fired! Had you been fired, we wouldn't have been able to report -- we'd be sobbing!"

Funny, how petty important things can get on Twitter.

For Russians, Psaki has been an object of fascination and ridicule since the early days of the Ukraine crisis. It became especially bad, after the State Department's botched attempt at "hashtag diplomacy", with its "#UnitedForUkraine" campaign. She kicked it off with a bang:

She made it all worse with her other tweet, demonstrating her misguided and overenthusiastic belief in the power of the hashtag:

Over the past week, however, the interest in her as a person has increased on Russian TV as well. RT's Peter Lavelle devoted an entire "CrossTalk" episode - titled "Orwellian Jen Psaki" - discussing everything that is bad and wrong with US foreign policy, represented and embodied by Her:

While the notorious Kiselyov coined a new term, based on the performance of "the star of US diplomacy [...] beloved by reporters around the world" - "Psaking" (although he claimed that he borrowed it from the Internet, BuzzFeed's Max Seddon suggests that the term seemed to have been created and disseminated by the pro-Kremlin crowd). The term, according to Kiselyov, refers to "someone, who without understanding the issue, makes dogmatic statements, confuses facts, and offers no apologies in the end."

See starting 35:20.

Yes, in the midst of the information war that is taking place at the moment, it might be easier to shoot the messenger than to disprove the message itself. This is true of both sides. Yet, if the US wants to gain an upper hand in - at the very least - this regard, the State Department should give a little more thought to who they put out on the front lines of this war. Psaki, as devoted as she might be to the cause, is clearly a bad diplomat, and might not have a very good understanding of and/or background on all the issues at hand.

After all, making uninformed statements and creating hashtags will not achieve US foreign policy objectives. High time to slow down the revolving doors of US diplomacy?

Final note: I hope that Jen Psaki takes the time to watch this famous episode from the West Wing. Quite a few lessons to learn, eh?


  1. Lena -- Thank you for this great (and wonderfully witty) piece. A must-read for the inside-the-beltway "pundits," esp. in light of the recent, overly solemn (in my modest opinion), Public Diplomacy Council session on "Russian Propaganda."

  2. Many thanks, John! Was very sorry to miss the PDC session, but on the other hand, seems like it saved me quite some frustration and anger.. It's funny how one has "the truth", while the other is only promoting "lies".

  3. Lena - Psaki is a political appointee. She is far from a diplomat.

    I have been appalled at the USG and the Europeans approach/response to the Kremlin's information warfare games which I see as crude but effective with the Russian population. BTW: I too missed the PDC session.

    If you read the comments to Michael Weiss's article in FA on The Estonian Spymasters it's pretty obvious who does not have the truth. Pat Kushlis

  4. You can find the story and the video of her almost resignation here on youtube under the titles
    '#dontbelieveRT - Soviet Propagana Machine feat Jen Psaki'

    and 'I Quit Almost - The Jen Psaki Resignation Video'

    I heard that she was thinking of defecting to Russia to join her lover Edward Snowden

  5. Dear Pat,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, she is a political appointee, but she's on the frontline, and she has to be adequately prepared, which she clearly isn't. As for the "truth", I simply don't think we can have it under these circumstances. All we get is an interpretation of events, and in each case it is highly biased (yes, including the Estonian, Polish, and Kyiv sources).