PD Opportunity: Arab Spring

In times of existing conflict or political unrest, public diplomacy can be leveraged to support the changing perspective countries may have about other countries like the United States. For example – during the Arab Spring when the United States remained closely tied to Mubarak, the Egyptian people verbalized their disappointment and disagreement with the United States  (posters with Ant-US messages along with Twitter and Facebook messages directed at the United States). For a country that preaches free elections and freedom of speech and the right to protest for what you believe in – the Egyptian people immediately questioned prior public diplomacy efforts of the United States where the country had tried to educate the Egyptian people on these values. When the United States rushed to Mubarak’s side in the waking of the Arab Spring; U.S. popularity remained low and the disagreement was clearly seen through social media and international news stories. The United States had been working at this point throughout the Middle East to normalize relations with Arab communities.

However, when an Islamist party came to rule; the United States needed a new strategy; as the domino effect only continued. Once accepting the new reality – that throughout countries in MENA more and more Islamist parties would be ruling; the United States shifted its approach with public diplomacy and identified new opportunities to support the transitioning countries that recently completed free elections. Through various public diplomacy means – a country like the United States can support transitioning countries by providing resources to build the infrastructure necessary to promote free elections, provide technical support and financial support to civil society organizations and journalists to support a free country; and provide necessary assistance to help the people.

As Jillian York  points out in her article “The Arab Digital Vanguard” – many journalists and bloggers in the Arab Spring countries were arrested if not physically attacked for what they wanted to publish. A public diplomacy initiative around supporting these bloggers and journalists; as well as supporting the government with better understanding the value and importance of the principles of free speech would be a great public diplomacy initiative for a country like the United States to take on.  

Impact of Social Media on PD

In recent times with the boom of social media, PD practitioners have taken the leap on their smartphones and Ipads to launch Twitter and Facebook pages for their perspectives offices and / or leaders. Research suggests that in certain cases – the use of social media may have a positive influence on communicating with foreign publics and may help with encouraging dialogue about the United States. This in turn, creates an opportunity (a new venue) to support public diplomacy strategic objectives in specific areas of the world where social media is a popular vehicle for communicating. However, research also suggests that many times communicating over social media for US public diplomacy may be extremely ineffective.

For example, in his article “The Challenges of the Internet and Social Media in Public Diplomacy” Matthew Wallin points out how dialogue over social media requires constant interaction but also requires receiving approval…which if it has to come from Washington it may take a long time. Social media is about instant gratification and consistent dialogue – so the lack thereof possesses a problem for PD practitioners to interact effectively with target audiences. However, even when certain State Department employees have the autonomy to go off and respond on their own they position themselves this may cause a new level of issues on its own. Tweeting one perspective – may result in this perspective defining the strategy itself as the author points out which can cause more challenges than anticipated.  

In his article, “State’s Digital Outreach Team May Do More Harm Than Good”, Cameron Bean points out that even when State Department to avoid this at times employees don’t respond. But this approach may be more ineffective and damaging than people realize. Bean used the example of a Twitter post about by a follower indicated that America’s mission in Afghanistan is to “kill Muslims”; with no response to this Tweet, we are unsure of the type of message this may have sent to the audience. As the saying goes…”sometimes not saying anything at all..says it all” and people may speculate more than you that it may be an admission of guilt – which is the totally opposite direction of what the DoS employer was trying to do with his educational campaign.

Finally, Bean points out in his article how we can’t control the level of responses and the type of responses to social media posts that come up – at many times we see that the negative posts can outnumber the positive points and in this way, the PD goals are being obstructed because readers may be more influenced by the level of the negative and the type of negative messages that exist about the US that the DoS messages get completely lost in the mix.

With all this in mind – social media has its pros and cons. What’s the most important is to be aware of the local context and ensuring the messaging is appropriate for the local population; tracking the messaging and the responses and working to ensure that all replies to responses stay in line with the strategy outlined for the given PD office.

Why is big data so BIG?

Since the launch of Facebook, Twitter and of course the boom of internet search engine sites like Google, our world as we know it has been constantly changing and persistently becoming more interconnected. As Ali Fisher points out in her article, “Everybody’s Getting Hooked Up: Building Innovative Strategies in the era of big data” the of social media platforms to hit millions of users across the world. Because of this, social media platforms play a critical role in public diplomacy and as a result so does big data. In her article, Dr. Fisher quotes the definition from a UN white paper defining big data as “an umbrella term for the explosion in the quantity and diversity of high frequency digital data”. The reason why big data is important to a public diplomacy practitioner is threefold, social media is an ever growing popular phenomenon and social media platforms can be used to reach millions of people all over the world – and by tracking and evaluating the progress on these platforms, decision makers are able to track success of campaigns, better understand the needs of future strategies and develop gaps in programs that may currently not exist and possess traction. As Dr. Fisher discusses in her article, measuring and evaluating big data is key for public diplomacy efforts when trying to develop strategies that bridge the last three feet and provide platforms for different stakeholders based on their preferences and their needs. Big data is key in not only identifying audiences but helping public diplomacy organizations develop more innovative and actually strategic communications.

Cultural Diplomacy v Public Diplomacy – or not?

In the Fall of 2005, the State Department released a report titled “Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy”. The title of the report itself positions the conversation of the role of cultural diplomacy in overall US public diplomacy efforts. By definition – a linchpin is a pin that keeps a wheel from slipping off – or something that essentially keeps a complex structure in place. In the report, the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy make the case of the strong importance that cultural diplomacy plays in helping the United States influence public abroad. In his article, Jamming for Uncle Sam, Nicholas Cull supports the case that cultural diplomacy is one form of public diplomacy used to engage the foreign public and a method critical to helping a country conduct foreign policy.  

As the members of the Advisory Committee indicated, “Cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of a nation”, it can help create a foundation of trust between peoples, which helps our policy makers develop political, economic and military agreements, demonstrates our values, creates a relationship with people (which can be carried out beyond changes in US government), and creates a more neutral platform to develop a platform for person to person dialogues. But, as Dr. Cynsthia Schneider pointed out in her article “It’s the Culture Stupid”, cultural diplomacy is actually considered the “stepchild” of the State Department.

 Dr. Schneider argues for cultural diplomacy’s critical role in supporting exchanges and influencing foreign audiences abroad utilizing music like jazz and rock and roll to US films that portray positive values and perceptions of the US. Through our strongest exports like movies and music, we are able to spread the message of freedom. As Andras Simonyi (former Hungarian ambassador to the United States) put it, “Rock and roll was the internet of the ’60s and early ’70s. It was the carrier of the message of freedom”, it was part of the cultural diplomacy used by the US and other countries to help communist countries reach their freedom.

Countless examples exist of the positive influences of cultural diplomacy in healing relationships, building relationships and establishing a neutral platform separate from all government agendas to bring peoples together. But the debate will go on as to the role that cultural diplomacy will play – or at least the degree it will play in public diplomacy agendas in the future of the United States. As the report to the Department of State indicated, the US should use cultural diplomacy more heavily. But as Dr. Schneider points out, the cultural diplomacy team at DoS receives the least amount of resources (funding and personnel). Cultural diplomacy has its advantages, but it cannot be the be all end all driver of foreign policy. According to Robert Albro’s blog post “Aspiring to an Interest-Free Cultural Diplomacy”, cultural diplomacy tends to be “ineffective” or even fails when it is trying to push a policy agenda making the case for where cultural diplomacy fits a continued conversation.

“Putting a Human Face on Social Networking” – Key Lesson Learned from The Last Three Feet

In the book, The Last Three Feet, various public diplomacy professionals came together to write short chapters about their experience working in some of the key U.S. countries – including Pakistan, Iraq and China.  No one story in the book is the same, and no one lesson learned is the same for all writers based on their experiences working overseas. What is important about this book though is that through various perspectives and experiences, we as scholars of public diplomacy and hopeful professionals in the field can read the accounts of our predecessors to learn best practices- identify what works and what doesn’t work. For a student of international communication and intercultural relations I was extremely interested by the chapter Aaron Snipe who captures 1. The importance of social media but 2. The need to communicate with a human face for more high context cultures. Mr. Snipe and his fellow colleagues at the US Embassy in Iraq recognized that communication vehicles like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were popular means of communication with youth – especially following the Arab Spring. An important key lesson for all communications campaigns is to know your understand – and understand the way they want to be communicated with. Defining the appropriate communications strategy can be conducted through focus groups, surveys, random interviewing to determine the appropriate vehicles a given population will respond to effectively. Just building a strategy is not enough though – as can be seen by the Facebook Page that the US embassy launched in Iraq (which took a hit from 4,000 friends to 1,000 friends in less than 4 months). To respond to this dilemma the Embassy took on a few measures including:

  1. Increasing the frequency of the posts on Facebook page as well as ensuring the content was relevant to users
  2. Developing more messages in Arab to appeal to local population; but also including a English option
  3. Giving a name and face to the Facebook Page “Administrator”

In particular – I am impressed by the decision to humanize the Facebook Page. Many times we can all find ourselves frustrated when posted on a given company’s Facebook page but we don’t get a respond to our request or sometimes complaintJ The use of personnel names and photos on the US Embassy Facebook page helped the Iraqi population see the Embassy in a new light and made people feel that they can actually connect with someone who works at the Embassy.

 Based on the analysis conducted by the Facebook Team, as a result of the measures that the Embassy took, the Facebook page generated nearly 100 new viewers a week, encouraged greater two-way communication between locals and the Facebook Team, and provided a platform to promote USG objectives through activities like the “The Question of the Day” initiative which increased insight into Iraqi society for the USG. In addition, according to Spine, after greater followers joined the Facebook page, the US Embassy also noticed an increase of applications for US Exchange programs; which were as a direct result from promotion by team members on the Facebook page.