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.       

1 comment:

  1. You make a very good point:
    "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."
    I too was struck by the "reinvention of the wheel" in the post-USIA era. Indeed much of what passes as "innovation" was standard practice in earlier public diplomacy. What accounts for this seeming "forgetfulness?" My best guess is that in the 12 years since the "acquisition" of the U.S. Information Agency by the State Department, the last of the highly experienced and skilled PD officers have retired from the Foreign Service or moved into non-PD positions at State (Ambassador or Deputy Chief of Mission most likely) and thus they and their collective memory have disappeared. Another possible reason is that PD officers in State (unlike USIA) are functioning in PD positions from time to time. Unfortunately, many PD officers have their first PD tour as their third or even fourth overseas assignment and many Public Affairs Officers are from outside the PD cone (or specialization within State) and thus have little or no familiarity with the tactics, techniques and procedures of public diplomacy. This is not a criticism of these officers who try their best to "innovate" but if there had not been such a dedication to erasing the memory of USIA after the merger into State, much of the collective knowledge might have been retained.