Friday, 31 August 2012

The Last Three Feet (ed. William Kiehl)

The Last Three Feet (Public Diplomacy Council, 2012), edited by William Kiehl, is a significant contribution to the ever expanding literature on public diplomacy. The book uses the case-sudy approach to understand how American 'public diplomacy actually works on the ground, the challenges public diplomacy officers and specialists face in conducting ther duties, and the tools they employ to achieve their goals'. This is achieved by allowing the public diplomacy field officers to speak for themselves and describe their work in a range of environments, including China, Bahrain, Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq. The dominant theme of the book is engagement: each of the officers provides a candid assessment of their work and how well they were able to bridge Ed Murrow's famous 'Last Three Feet' using traditional and modern methods of communication. Hence most of the chapters describe how the officers have embraced the social media to create new dialogues with the people they are trying to reach, bringing them into the conversations that may be started at the embassy, and using these tools to reinforce the more traditional methods of engagement: In Brazil Facebook works alongside the Youth Ambassador Programme and the creation of new-style "American Centres" (@America) in Indonesia. In Bahrain, the social media have become a major source of intelligence for American diplomats, which means interpretation and verification of open-source information becomes a responsibility of the diplomat that is more important than ever before. In June 2011, Under Secretary McHale asked, 'How do we stand out and respond in ... a crowded and complex environment? Our answer is simple: By taking our public diplomacy into the market place of ideas.' As this book highlights, this answer is far from simple despite what McHale thinks, and engaging in the new, crowded 'market place of ideas' is fraught with potential problems.

Most valuable are the discussions of 'lessons learned' by each of the contributing authors; but equally these are the most disturbing parts of the book. Time and again I read of an "innovation" in pd practice and found myself howling aloud: 'Don't they already do that?' Maintaining websites and a presence in the social media has little strategic value useless unless you are able to first determine how they will further your ambitions and help you achieve your objectives; while understanding how these platforms work and how the audience uses them is absolutely crucial. Having a mere presence in the virtual public sphere is no longer sufficient; the dialogue and discussion will continue without you. Hence in Turkey, the US Embassy 'learned to approach the design of our programs with the audience's needs in mind - rather than merely our own.'

The public diplomacy officers at the American embassy in Pakistan discovered something that had apparently eluded their predecessors: 'an English-language newspaper with a circulation of a few thousand readers was not a significant part of the Pakistani media, and only when a story appeared in the Urdu media would it be noteworthy.' Thus more effort was devoted to monitoring, analysing and reporting on the Urdu-language media, with round-the-clock TV watching as an important supplementary activity (Pakistan has a high illiteracy rate so TV plays a big part in the lives of most Pakistanis). The Public Affairs Section in the Embassy writes a Pakistan Media Analysis which is despatched to Washington DC:

                    'At first, we were surprised by its popularity. Officers from the Pakistan desk in the State Department started to mention it. Then we heard that the Pakistan team at the National Security Staff in the White House read it every morning. Congressional staffers began to hear about it, and we put them on the distribution list. New officers arriving at the post mentioned its popularity in official Washington.'  
Wait a moment ... does this mean that DC did not receive any brief from its embassy in Pakistan   about the content of local media before? Had no-one dealing with Pakistan in the State Department or White House even asked for such an assessment? DON'T THEY DO THIS ALREADY? Surely monitoring the local media is not just Public Diplomacy 101, but has always been a crucial component of diplomatic activity? Didn't I "discover" this twenty years ago in my PhD research on American and British public diplomacy in the 1950s and early 1960s?
More frustrating revelations follow: 'The next generation of successful PDOs will make PD programs such a natural and integral part of an embassy's exercise of smart power that we will stop thinking about public diplomacy as a separate diplomatic function.' These debates are still going on in the Foreign Service?
'American and locally employed staff members at US embassies and consulates live and work in the local environment and should know best what the host nation is thinking. Why not let the field post drive the process rather than leave it to the massive bureacuracy in Washington that may have the financial resources but not the knowledge of how best to apply them. ... The cookie-cutter, one size fits all prescriptions from headquarters rarely hit the mark.'  This is good advice, and would certainly help to overcome the identified problem in Pakistan where 'the least amount of attention' was given to understanding 'what people are saying and thinking'.
The Last Three Feet is an important description and analysis of American public diplomacy by field officers, but I do feel a sense of disappointment and even anger that, in 2012 members of the American Foreign service are writing about having such 'Road to Damascus' moments. Half a century on from Ed Murrow's tenure as Director of the USIA, conquering the Last Three Feet may remain the most important, but perhaps most challenging work of the public diplomacy officer; but it seems that convincing your colleagues of the value of your work is still a priority.       

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

An Alternative Exploration of China

In my last posting I discussed how the BBC is inadvertently helping China accumulate and exercise soft power. Its television programme, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure finished its run on Sunday 26 August with visits to Guangzhou and Taiwan. I noted the programme's apolitical content and the way the crew had apparently been able to film without any official hindrance.

Last night I watched Never Say Sorry, a stunning documentary film about the Chinese artist Ai Wewei. The contrast with Exploring China could not be more obvious, and anyone seeking a more rounded perspective of life in new China should see this film. Ai Weiwei's bravery is inspiring, and the brutality of the Chinese system is quite frightening. Two issues concerning communications emerge from this film:

First, the documentary undermines the soft power advantage that China may have accumulated in other areas. It documents the lack of transparency, especially around the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the Big Brother tactics that the police use in following, monitoring and beating Ai and his friends (the most vivid scenes in the film are those of the cameraman filming the policeman filming the cameraman). There is nothing unexpected here, and all of us who follow Chinese politics are fully aware of the problems of living under an authoritarian state. Hence there is a startling inconsistency between how China wishes to project itself and the reality of life there. This credibility gap is a serious problem for the Chinese authorities, and no amount of public diplomacy activities, international broadcasting or Confucius Institutes is going to change that. If China wonders why the international community is so critical of it, the Chinese authorities need to look at their behavour towards their own people first. This film will damage the credibility of China's official soft power work.

However, the most compelling theme to emerge from this film is the strength of an autonomous sphere within artistic circles and even within civil society. Contrary to popular portraits of the Chinese people as passive recipients of centrally directed information and instructions, Never Say Sorry is a remarkable testimony to the growing soft power of a civil society that is challenging the state in more open and innovative ways than at any time in the past. In 2005, Michel Hockx and Julia Strauss edited a volume of essays called Culture in the Contemporary PRC (Cambridge University Press). These brilliant essays made uncomfortable reading as they discussed the lack of creativity in many areas of China's cultural landscape. I am delighted that the perspective offered in this book are now out of date, and Never Say Sorry demonstrates not just the level of artistic creativity thriving in modern China, but also the inventive methods used to challenge the Chinese state. Ai Weiwei is an obsessive tweeter, photographing everyone and everything around him as a permanent record of his experiences. His role in mobilising civil society to support the causes he cares about is not only dramatic proof of the power of modern social media in China, but also the determination of Chinese people - his followers - to stand up and be counted, often at great personal risk. This is Chinese soft power, but it is the soft power of civil society, not the state or the nation, and the film addresses issues that will resonate with and appeal to audiences.

I always impress upon my students, especially those who are not Chinese and therefore may not be aware of the intensity of public debate in social media such as Weibo, that they should analyse the creativity of young Chinese in highlighting and commenting on political issues. Here I include some examples that take as their starting point an obviously photo-shopped picture of three local officials inspecting a road.

In the meantime, if you have enjoyed Exploring China as much as I have, try to watch Never Say Sorry and explore an alternative view of the modern PRC. It might make for more uncomfortable viewing than the Culinary Adventure, but it may be equally inspiring. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

China's Gastrodiplomacy on BBC2

I am enjoying a new series on BBC 2 called Exploring China:A Culinary Adventure, presented by Ken Hom (from Hong Kong living in the US) and Ching-He Huang (from Taiwan living in the UK). Ken and Ching-He are travelling through China to experience the regional cuisines and to find out whether the economic transformation of the country has changed the dietry habits of the Chinese and their style of cooking. On the way, they discuss their own backgrounds and talk about rediscovering their Chinese roots.

Gastrodiplomacy is becoming a defined field of international communications and engagement in its own right, and my friend Paul Rockower has written a lot about this on his own blog (the links are on the left hand side of this page). Exploring China is not only a contribution to China's gastrodiplomacy, but also demonstrates Chinese soft power in action.

First, both presenters never tire of explaining how China has changed since they last visited (Ken Hom in the politically-turbulent year of 1989, but so far he has not mentioned that this was the year when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred) and pointing out the new additions to the landscape as evidence of China's transformation. In each episode they also venture outside the cities to provide a nice juxtaposition of modern and traditional: Clearly the message is 'The more things change, the more they stay the same ... ' They have so far encountered no obstacles in their journey, no-one trying to prevent their filming or denying them access to anywhere, and their own cooking has been greeted with a unanimous 'hao che' - delicious.

So the programme is apolitical, which is not unexpected in a programme about food. The presenters' enthusiasm and excitement is infectious, while tempting viewers to not only eat Chinese cuisine, but to try cooking it at home (the BBC website where the recipies are published is advertised regularly during the programme). This is an aromatic, tasty, spicy, and above all good-natured portrait of China. The culinary diversity is a gateway into understanding the cultural and social diversity of modern China, which is welcome in an information and news environment which tends to over-concentrate on Beijing (for political news) and Shanghai (for economic stories). The Chinese government could not have asked for a better introduction to its country, especially when its own soft power strategy was designed as a reaction to the alleged demonization of China by the western media. Here the BBC, one of the most internationally powerful, influential and trusted media organisations, is helping China realise its own ambitions; and that is not meant as a criticism. It is a side-product, an unintended consequence of an excellent television programme. 
Moreover, the fact that both presenters are culturally Chinese, but that neither is from the PRC, adds an interesting dimension. We are not exactly seeing China through the eyes of outsiders, but both Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang are nevertheless sufficiently removed from China to see the country in a refreshing light that does challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions that so aggravate the Chinese . In other words, through Exploring China the country is accumulating an incredible amount of soft power capital without having to do anything except allow two chefs and their film crews wander around markets and into kitchens to cook. It is an authentic non-Chinese (and therefore a most credible) induction into China that is likely to match, if not surpass the efforts of the Confucius Institutes, CCTV 9 and CNC.