By Sherry Mueller
At a recent Washington, DC symposium on public diplomacy entitled “Public Affairs in a Global Information Environment,” I joked to a Swedish colleague: “Success in public diplomacy will be getting Susan Boyle to sing your national anthem.” That is not as far-fetched as one might think. What are the lessons all of us involved in practicing or studying public diplomacy can learn from the Susan Boyle phenomenon?
1. Lack of artifice and spin has tremendous appeal — genuineness can trump glitz. Edward R. Murrow’s comment decades ago about truth being at the heart of our efforts to communicate with foreign audiences is still the most important principle we can embrace. Truth begets credibility. Truth builds trust. As Murrow phrased it, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”
2. To make good things happen — to change perceptions– we have to risk face to face communication. It must have taken tremendous courage to take the stage knowing the judges of Britain’s Got Talent would not be sympathetic. Sometimes the only way to fundamentally alter someone’s perception is through firsthand encounters — which is why exchange programs must be at the heart of public diplomacy.
3. One person can make an enormous difference. This is why citizen diplomacy is crucial to a government’s efforts to reach out to foreign audiences. Citizen diplomacy is the idea that an individual citizen has the right — even the responsibility — to help shape foreign relations “one handshake at a time.”
In our media-saturated world where we are constantly buffeted by messages of all types, our government needs its citizens to be conscious of the messages they send and the role they can play as they interact with foreign nationals. Certainly we view exchange program guests and hosts as citizen diplomats as they participate in programs such as the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program or Experiment in International Living or Friendship Force International. But just as important, we must all be aware of our responsibility to put our country’s best foot forward in random daily encounters with foreign nationals in classrooms, offices, and other venues.
In the United States, pundits have been waiting to see who President Obama would tap to be his Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Now that Judith McHale has been nominated, all kinds of advice and admonishments are directed her way. Perhaps the most important reminder she can receive is that she has a unique opportunity, with the President’s stress on national service, to help us all understand that citizen diplomacy and public diplomacy go hand in hand. Each of us has a role to play — and the potential to make an extraordinary difference.
Sherry Mueller, Ph.D., is the President of the National Council for International Visitors, in Washington, DC. She is also the coauthor of the book, Working World: Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development (and related blog).
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