Looking for a research topic on public diplomacy and strategic communication?

Are you a graduate student looking for a research topic? Then I’ve got two topics for you. Actually I have a dozen topics, but here’s two, one I’ve shared several times over the last couple of months and another. I haven’t spent a lot of time refining these so don’t bang on me too hard on the wording but a discussion is encouraged.

For the first one, the title isn’t catchy but direct: A Comparison of Domestic and Foreign Discourse. Of course you could use your own. I’m just tossing out the idea not filing a copyright. The subject is study the contrasts between the laws and practices of domestic information operations, otherwise known as propaganda or campaigning, and foreign information operations, otherwise known as international broadcasting, public diplomacy, or strategic communication. The domestic example is fresh: the healthcare debates before and during the summer 2009 Congressional recess and America’s global engagement. The foreign example is whatever you want to pick, but perhaps start with the Fallujah mosque bombing in 2004 initially reported by the AP. 

This focus is on the communicators and not the consumers (with the media aligned with communicators in this when in fact they are communicators as well). This includes the principals and the media. This is not a qualitative analysis of effectiveness but a analysis of the messaging, platforms, tactics, and barriers.

In the domestic scheme, I’d suggest Fox News, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and the White House. For the foreign scheme, go ahead and use Fox but add Voice of America, also add Taliban (or similar) spokesmen and the US military (and State public diplomacy if you want, but that’ll probably not amount to anything more than a footnote at that time).

The analysis would look at the discussions during this period as an active struggle for the minds of people to affect their will to act. It would examine and compare the rules of engagement: the permissible use of misinformation and disinformation, the role of the Government in the conversation (members of Congress speaking on talk shows, press conferences, and town halls), and the use of proxies.

I think that could yield some interesting conclusions on the flexibility of domestic discourse that is not permitted – for a variety of reasons – in the international sphere.

My second suggested topic – which I haven’t taken the time to title – is very related to the first. I’d like to see such a study get into the aspects of the Smith-Mundt Act that supposedly – but does not despite repeated statements by many that it does – prohibits the US Government from propagandizing US citizens (nor does the Act define propaganda). The analytical approach to the Smith-Mundt Act is easy: if USG was responding to an IO campaign of a foreign government or foreign non-state actor, little to nothing USG said or did beyond America’s borders would be visible or transparent to the American public while everything the adversary said would be potentially seen by Americans and reported by US media (directly or by reflecting foreign media broadcasts) or foreign media, directly through foreign broadcasters (e.g. CCTV, Russia Today, BBC, France 24, Press TV, etc) or the web. However, if the adversary is a US domestic political opponent or the US Government, there are seemingly no rules (see above case on the health care debate and reconsider your thought on truth and transparency). A hearty analysis would likely show there is actually less accountability in the domestic discourse than in the global discourse.

You could take an organizational approach to this question. If the information opponent was outside the US, the responsibility to counter generally rests outside of public affairs and in another bureaucracy, perhaps public diplomacy or psychological operations or something else “dirty” that should not be seen, heard, or tasted by people within Americas borders. But if the information gets within the US, which isn’t a leap considering the global information environment, the public affairs bureaucracy takes over, which is notorious for being reactive in all things except domestic political issues.

Both topics will cross the “new” and “old” media divide. The original AP story on the Fallujah mosque bombing was widely available to global consumers – including media – through the web. Does that make it new media or because some might have accessed the AP wire service (which is also internet based) are they old media? 

Both topics will rely on timelines for information dissemination and the information’s impact. Both will be able to leverage phrasing from point of dissemination to the proxy (e.g. Fox News to town hall participant).

These research questions may be a bit loaded, so I’ll rely on serious academics like Craig, Steve, or Nick to tone these down.

Your comments – and other topics – are appreciated. 

5 thoughts on “Looking for a research topic on public diplomacy and strategic communication?

  1. Hello, Matt and all.It’s a great idea to toss out some stimulating research ideas. I just wanted to mention that my doctoral dissertation research is on a topic that is somewhat related to the second idea you mention, on the rapidly diminishing difference between “foreign” and “domestic” publics and prohibitions in Smith-Mundt against PD and BBG programming toward the latter. As you point out, the globalized, 24/7 media basically breaks down the “firewall” between public diplomacy directed to foreign publics and public affairs directed to the US public. My study explores U.S. PD toward Lebanon as a case of transnational civil society relations, recognizing that there are plenty of Lebanese and Arab American transnationals (aka diasporans) with their feet in both countries who follow PD and PA (public affairs) emanating from State and Embassy Beirut, not to mention all the competitor broadcasters available via satellite and the worldwide web.
    Debbie Trent

  2. Matt – I’m curious why you limit your suggestion of US media outlets to Fox News. One could argue, with very little difficulty, that ABC, NBC, CBS, The New York Times, Washington Post (to name just a few) are just as much or even more actively involved in trying to shape and influence public opinion as Fox is often accused of. Fox just happens to be contrary to the rest.

  3. Spartacus, I explicitly referenced Fox because of their activities related to the Tea Party events (see here for more). I agree, the other major broadcast networks and other major media could be included. Fox is, to me, the low hanging fruit in this. Certainly the dissertation would be richer with additional analysis.

  4. Matt and company,Timing is everything and I am writing a paper on Smith-Mundt at the National Defense University (ICAF). It is a short paper, so not at the thesis level. But my intended focus is to look at Smith-Mundt and later amendments, assess whether it still applies in today’s environment, and if it was repealed or modified, what could our government do with more lattitude on the Public Diplomacy front.
    As I said, it is short (6-8 pages) and I have about 3 weeks to get it done. So I doubt it will astound anyone that regularly studies this topic. But I am interested in opinions about recommendations or strategies IF the Act was repealed. Would we establish a VOA for the CONUS? Or simply buy airtime and print space in existing media outlets? Insert short movies (like previews) at the theater? Pay Google to insert our ads in searches?
    What kind of content would be appropriate? Given that we will always strive to be the first with the truth, how should we approach Public Diplomacy if we had the full lattitude? Always being truthful is a basic assumption for this paper to keep the content and size in scope, so I am not looking to debate whether we can trust the government to “propagandize” US citizens.

  5. Alan,First, I recommend reading my three-pager written at the request of Congress: http://mountainrunner.us/files/smithmundt_facts_myths_recommendations.pdf.
    Second, repeal is a bad, very bad idea. The Smith-Mundt Act remains the authorization legislation for much of USG global engagement (some argue the Fulbright-Hayes Act of 1961 became the authorizing legislation for Cultural and Educational Exchanges, but that is debatable). Repeal the Act and the DOS Public Diplomacy goes away.
    Third, Smith-Mundt does not cover DOD, which is your focus. Technically, Smith-Mundt doesn’t cover all of DOS either.
    Fourth, look back at the evolution of the Act and you’ll find a) the dissemination prohibition was put in place to protect USG from DOS and b) it was expanded in 1972 & 1985 in response to a world of bipolar politics very unlike either 1949 or 2009.
    Some things to consider…

    [Note: my statement above that “a) the dissemination prohibition was put in place to protect USG from DOS” is, I subsequently learned, incorrect. And, “b) it was expanded in 1972 & 1985 in response to a world of bipolar politics very unlike either 1949 or 2009” is also incorrect. The term “public diplomacy” was adopted for the reason stated in (a) and the prohibition created by Fulbright in 1972 was part of the Senator’s effort to shutter USIA, RFE, RL, and VOA and if shuttering failed, to marginalize them. The 1985 amendment by Sen Zorinsky, to “close the loophole” of Fulbright’s amendment, was a reaction to USIA’s activities, including non-informational activities, at the time. MCA 9 June 2020]

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