Public Diplomacy’s Reality Check

One of the most severe problems with “public diplomacy” is the failure by even its proponents to agree on a definition. Sadly, this past week we saw more of the same.

Last week I wrote on the release of a new public diplomacy strategy that reflects nearly two years of leadership by Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes. Released without fanfare, it was gently slipped into the wild with nary a comment by the Administration, Karen Hughes, any supporter of either. Her strategy focuses on television and radio viewers and listeners, at strategy at odds with the counter-terrorist and intelligence community’s emphasis on Internet chat rooms and websites where some of the recruiting, proselytizing, and hate happens and grows. The strategy not only prioritizes the wrong medium, but virtually ignores the grass-roots nature of many of terrorist cells that take seed and grow outside of the strategy’s narrow geographic focus. While Hughes’ strategy would have you believe otherwise, a lot happens outside the Middle East.

Interestingly, at the University of Southern California’s “Center” on Public Diplomacy the focus is on an entirely different target audience.

In order to explore some of the possibilities for public diplomacy in virtual worlds, project researchers immerse themselves in Linden Labs’ Second Life, a virtual world that imitates the real world in which we all live. Through the Center’s various Second Life initiatives, the Virtual Worlds Project is working to encourage residents to engage in these intercultural dialogues and exchanges in ways conducive to fostering a better understanding between people.

On the heels of the release of the strategy was another announcement, the Center on Public Diplomacy received $550,000 to support this mission. The Center apparently thinks the target audience has ample bandwidth and computer power to enter the virtual worlds. Who does the Center think they’re talking to?

There seems to be three positions on public diplomacy these days, and I’ll let you decide which one seems to be right.

First, you have Karen Hughes suggesting technology is low priority and “traditional” media like TV and radio is the way to go. Her audiences are key decision makers, women and children, and then “mass audiences.” She completely ignores competitors, instead focusing on the tired old, and useless, tactic of getting people to understand us.

Second, you have the Center on Public Diplomacy focusing on virtual worlds, by definition self-selective. (Heck, I know decision makers and casual readers who don’t even use RSS…) Possibly, the Center is really looking forward to try out new strategies to be deployed in the real world on a parallel Planet Earth like the DoD, but somehow I doubt it. Don’t forget the infrastructure necessary to access this realm. This is lacking in the “Gap” but not in Europe. 

Or third, the Defense, Intelligence, and Counterterrorism communities monitoring and penetrating chat rooms and websites, and connecting with local communities at the grass roots level around the world, including Europe and Africa (and the United States). By the way, it’s this community that’s getting the face time in Congress, that’s now writing books on public diplomacy, and establishing the definition as the “soft power” folks stand by fiddling.

While none are perfect, which of the three do you think might reach out the right audience to create awareness and impress upon the listeners a different tactic and strategy is best? Which one is better suited for reality?