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.