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The President’s National Framework for Strategic Communication (and Public Diplomacy) for 2012

It should be common knowledge that the “information consequences of policy ought always be taken into account, and the information man ought always to be consulted. This statement, from 1951, is reflected in Eisenhower’s dictum of the next year that “everything we say, everything we do, and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” It was understood then that words and deeds needed more than just synchronization: public opinion could be leveraged to support and further the execution of foreign policy.

What was true then is more so in a modern communication environment of empowerment. The interconnected systems of Now Media, spanning offline and online mediums, democratizes influence, and undermines traditional models of identity and allegiance as demands on assimilation fade as “hyphens” become commas. What emerges is a new marketplace for loyalty that bypasses traditional barriers of time, geography, authority, hierarchy, culture, and language. Information flows much faster; at times it is instantaneous, decreasing the time allowed to digest and comprehend the information, let alone respond to it. Further, information is now persistent, allowing for time-shifted consumption and reuse, for ill or for good. People too can travel the globe with greater ease and increased speed.

It is in this evolving environment that the President issued an updated “National Framework for Strategic Communication” for 2012 (3.8mb PDF, note: the PDF has been fixed and should be once again visible to all). This report updates the 2010 report issued last March that was little more than a narrative on how the Government was organized for strategic communication. The report is required under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

Some highlights from the 2012 Framework:

  • The two-part definition of strategic communication from 2010 – one part practice, the other bureaucracy – lives on.
  • A difference between communication and communications is absent.
  • The Administration seeks to establish a “culture of communication” for better policy planning, and implicitly execution.
  • State is to have “primacy” over Defense outside of “combat zones.”
  • Building capacity at State includes “augmenting personnel at critical posts and developing more flexible models for rapid deployment of civilian officers.” (Are these Foreign Service Officers?)
  • The Administration is solidifying a “closer working relationship between State and DOD in the deployment of Military Information Support Teams.”
  • The framework suggests continuing enamor with technology over people.
  • A tenth of the framework is devoted to the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (CSCC) as an example of the interagency “collaboration we envision moving forward.” (Later this month, Amb. Alberto Fernandez takes the helm of CSCC.)
  • Another tenth of the framework cites changes promulgated by the 2010 State Department Framework on Public Diplomacy, created under former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs) Judith McHale.

The uninformed will read the report and think all is peachy under the sun. Of course one would not expect the airing of dirty laundry in this framework but there was room to acknowledge challenges in the interest of transparency and to build support from the Congress. These issues include ongoing challenges at Foggy Bottom to meet modern requirements, including the need to update the State Department’s Framework (which McHale intended), the lack of training and support for public diplomacy officers, the lack of public diplomacy staffing and resources, and turf battles more concerned with protecting bureaucracies than supporting the mission and policy.

To be sure, Secretary Clinton has made great strides at Foggy Bottom and much has changed for the better, but the framework was an opportunity to engage and build support rather than brush off the Congress.

While the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs) is clearly positioned as a key figure in the Government framework for strategic communication, neither the framework report nor the accompanying letter of introduction asks the Congress to support the framework, and U.S. foreign policy, by confirming Tara Sonenshine, the nominee for Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs). As it is, the Under Secretary office has been unencumbered (i.e., without a confirmed Under Secretary) for one out of three days since the office was established in 1999. Perhaps the Department felt this issue should remain under the rug and dealt with “internally,” as I was told (whatever that means). One would think the White House would want action on the Under Secretary position, not to mention the numerous Ambassadorships, including India, that await Senate confirmation to support the framework.

The framework highlights the increased attention on research and analysis to understand the “communication landscape” and publics programs are trying to engage, empower and influence. The framework notes that State established the “Office of Audience Analysis to provide rigorous information on media environments, demographic information, and analysis on breaking trends to inform communications at our Embassies.” However, there is no Office of Audience Analysis in State, as far as I can find. The framework likely meant the Office of Audience Research and Evaluation inside the Bureau of International Information Programs. (It is worth noting here that State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research has itself become marginalized and locked in time.)

The framework suggests the “consultative staffing” process implemented by McHale — a process where the Under Secretary has a say, albeit limited, in the staffing decisions at key posts — is critical, but it declines to suggest this must continue or be improved. The money is one thing — the framework does laud McHale’s efforts to bring budgets and programs in line with contemporary realities — but people are another.

Further, this 2012 framework accepts State’s 2010 framework for public diplomacy lock & stock. While McHale was looking to update the State framework, the White House, and by extension the State Department who signed off on the document, clearly do not see additional change as necessary.

Nowhere does the framework indicate that there is a challenge in attracting and keeping qualified personnel or the need to improve, or provide as is usually the case, training and support for those folks, which was a key issue in the 2010 framework on strategic communication.

The framework’s mention of Military Information Support Teams, or MISTs, is noteworthy. MIST can and do provide substantial additional capacity in areas, topical and methodological, that the Embassies, and State, cannot or should not do. However, there needs to be an examination of the dramatic rise in MIST deployment, as well as resistance in certain cases, and to see, or disconfirm, that MIST is the easy alternative to requesting to expand civilian capacity (e.g., State’s public diplomacy staff, capabilities and support).

The framework does have an interesting reference on closer coordination and collaboration between State and Defense: “where DOD runs public-facing websites, we have developed closer coordination with State on editorial oversight and content selection.” This may mean that State, likely the regional bureaus to be specific, has input to Defense-run sites such as Magharebia.com and SETimes.com.

For the most part, this report could have been written in 2010.  With regard to State, with the exception of the references to the CSCC,  which was mostly operational but under the radar until the long awaited signing of Executive Order 13584 in September 2011, and the reference to IIP’s Office of Audience Research and Evaluation (whose chief started in March 2011), there is little in the framework that is unique 2011, let alone the first quarter of 2012.

The framework reflects the past emphasis on the Middle East and North Africa while ignoring the shift toward other regions, long neglected, particularly Southeast Asia.  The rhetoric from the White House, State, and Defense started to move months ago and there was adequate time to update the framework through the necessary approvals.

The framework, as an opportunity to lay out the areas requiring investment, lacks substance.  Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • The 2010 State Department framework for public diplomacy, released in early 2010, was a work in progress and yet the State Department and the White House treat it as solid.
  • The silence on the unconfirmed Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs) is deafening and excused only if insider information indicates imminent confirmation.
  • The increased role of the Under Secretary of Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights is absent from the document despite a increasing role in understanding, informing, empowering, and influencing global publics. (The Bureaus of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, Counterterrorism and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, among others, are in the office of this Under Secretary.)
  • The absence of other Government actors involved in engaging and influencing foreign publics, such as the BBG, National Security Council and Staff (likely the framework’s primary authors), and USAID, is unfortunate.
  • The BBG’s request at a strategic shift is ignored even though it was in development for a year and made public in time to be included in the framework.
  • The need and direction to better train, equip, educate, encourage, and support public diplomacy officers, and others as all are communicators, is largely absent from the framework.  (Understandably absent are internal State struggles to centralize, rather than decentralize, engagement and empowerment.)

The framework does show good insights and intentions.  The admission of the “importance of aligning our actions with our rhetoric has never been greater” is significant and certainly the Administration is attempting to better support these requirements.  The framework closes with an absolutely true statement: “If we are to compete effectively in this global marketplace of ideas, we will need to invest wisely in the years ahead.”

Download the 2012 National Framework for Strategic Communication here and submit your comments below, through email, or even offer a guest post to further the discussion. Certainly a full response to the framework can extend longer than the framework itself.

(This post is cross-posted in Turkish at Yeni Diplomasi.)

  • Michael W says:

    I’m not sure why the NSC felt compelled to send this up to the Hill. The ‘we promised to send an update 2 years ago’ pledge has been broken a thousand times over with previous reports so what was the impetus for this one to be written?
    The essential issue of lack of support for PD on the hill remains, and while State is working better with DoD there is an implication that somehow the issues that caused such tension between the two agencies a couple of years ago have receded. They haven’t.
    Perhaps this was a self pat on the back for doing away with the SC office in the NSC while still showing ‘progress?’

    March 20, 2012 at 7:27 am
    • Matt Armstrong says:

      Michael,
      It does appear the 2012 report was timed to follow the 2010 report, coming twenty-four months after. It should be noted that the 2010 report was several months late and was due by the end of 2009. Thus this report is late as well.

      March 20, 2012 at 7:33 am

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