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Looking Back, Moving Forward: Public Diplomacy at 20

by Wes Jeffers and Katherine Tarr

The views expressed in this paper are the views of the authors’ only and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Department of State.

October 1, 2019, marks the 20th anniversary of the consolidation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) into the U.S. Department of State. USIA, formerly known as the United States Information Service (USIS) overseas, previously oversaw all public diplomacy functions for the U.S. Government from 1953 to 1999. We all know the story after that: USIA was folded into the U.S. Department of State, creating the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R) and making public diplomacy one of the five cones of the Foreign Service. Opinions remain divided about this decision, but the core objective of U.S. public diplomacy has remained the same: Public diplomacy “seeks to promote the national interest and national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.”

However, in the Foreign Service of today, we are still facing some significant challenges to the landscape of public diplomacy—some old and some new. There’s been no full-time R for 17 months and counting, and educational and cultural programming budgets are annually at risk. The Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R/PPR) is undertaking a massive effort to overhaul public diplomacy portfolios around the world and, thus, to overhaul the very structure of Public Affairs Sections overseas. The new Bureau of Global Public Affairs combines the skills of the former Bureau of International Information Programs and Bureau of Public Affairs to modernize the way we communicate to domestic and foreign audiences.

Despite all of this change, one fact remains constant: if we want foreign policy to be effective, we (the U.S. Department of State) must effectively communicate with a variety of audiences through programs and media, as well as continue to invest in future global leaders. This means public diplomacy must be seamlessly integrated into foreign policy formation and implementation. All Foreign Service officers must have the same basic understanding of public diplomacy as they have of writing cables. This also means that public diplomacy must be both championed and defended by a strong leader who can easily communicate with colleagues in the Department of State, the Secretary of State, Congress and the White House. After 20 years, we have indeed come a long way. Where are we now? Where do we want to be in the next 20 years?

Every Officer Is a PD Officer—Train Them Accordingly

Training for PD (public diplomacy) officers has blossomed from a mere three-week tradecraft course in 1998, to a robust catalogue of over 45 classes on everything from grants training to marketing and message development. Nevertheless, basic PD training for other Foreign Service officers is slack. Today’s “A-100” training for new Foreign Service officers includes some brief interactions with public diplomacy, as it does for other fields as part of basic training. New officers practice giving a speech, listen to a public diplomacy officer talk about their experiences … and that’s about it. Of course, the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI’s) public diplomacy courses are vast, in-depth and constantly evolving. Whether one wants to know about the latest social media techniques, practice speaking skills in front of a camera or do a mock Fulbright panel, FSI takes care of its PD officers. As is the case with other four Foreign Service cones, PD officers typically only have the time to experience PD courses.

However, in a world where policy is made and remade by a tweet and “messaging” moves at the push of a button, our diplomats need to be savvy not only about the basic tools of the trade, but also about why and how public diplomacy is inseparable from policy. Can your general, well-rounded officer explain the intent behind the International Visitor Leadership Program, know how to craft an effective messaging plan to influence a specific audience or know by heart the public talking points of the latest issues as well as they can write a cable? Likely not. Would they ever be asked to do one of those tasks if they are not in a PD position? Likely not. Would a PD-coned officer be expected to be able to write a clear, concise and persuasive cable if asked? Yes. Would they need to draft an information memo or be a part of the clearance process? Also yes.

Yet, every Foreign Service officer (in actuality, everyone in a U.S. Embassy or Consulate overseas) is a practitioner of PD. Every Foreign Service officer interacts with and gains insight from foreign publics, the media and both established thought leaders and emerging voices outside of government interlocutors. Every Foreign Service officer thinks about how U.S. foreign policy is received and perceived. This can’t necessarily be said about all cones. Although it clearly touches the work they do, not every officer in a U.S. Embassy or Consulate is doing, for example, consular work or economic reporting. Some degree of hands-on PD training must be a required part of the professional development of every Foreign Service officer, just as PD must be tied to all elements of policy overseas. There are several ways to make this happen.

First, introduce a mandatory basic unit on communications strategic planning and concepts of program monitoring and evaluation training for every Foreign Service officer. What do we mean by basic policy communications? A primer on how to communicate policy to a foreign public (i.e., not a government official) and how to interact with a Public Affairs Section. This could include basic concepts such as the “A-F Strategic Messaging Framework,” the basic duties of a Public Affairs Section, including how it approaches strategic planning and the Public Diplomacy Implementation Plan, program monitoring and evaluation. Monitoring and evaluation training is increasingly important, and there is no cone that would not benefit from doing this. More often political officers run democracy and human rights programs, management officers oversee a variety of initiatives, consular officers need to do various studies on pools of visa applicants and economic officers have economic programs to manage. A few hours on how one needs to think about the intended effect a program aims to achieve, create audience-centered planning and understand the difference between outcomes and outputs would be enormously beneficial to all officers.

At the same time, inspire Ambassadors, Deputy Chiefs of Mission and other leaders to encourage more PD front-channel reporting. It’s a familiar line to us, but it remains true: we need more PD front-channel reporting. Cables are the established currency of reporting; yet there are comparatively few authored or co-authored by PD officers. Sometimes this is because Public Affairs Sections have other priorities, and sometimes it is because decision makers don’t consider PD programs worthy of front channel reporting. However, PD cables have great value in showing trends and making predictions about youth populations, discussing challenges in the media and education environments, demonstrating how U.S. taxpayer money is spent successfully and describing how national security policy is furthered through PD programs. Leadership at home and overseas must encourage more of this reporting.

Additionally, require that every outgoing officer to a post schedule a consultation with a relevant PD practitioner. This could be with the PD Desk Officer, a specific bureau within R or with the PD leadership, depending on who would be most appropriate. Everyone from an ambassador to an entry-level officer can benefit from hearing about the PD context in the country where they are going. What are the main obstacles that young people face in country? What audiences do the Embassy or Consulate social media properties cater to? What is the media environment and how do we successfully convey U.S. policy in country? A PD consultation can answer important questions like these, which would make any officer more prepared to start his or her assignment.

R is Essential

When USIA merged into the Department of State, it was not just an incorporation of offices. It was a strategic decision to embed PD into policy formation and a doubling-down on long-term investment in foreign publics. Some breaks between policy and public diplomacy are by design, such as the separation of the R Bureau from the regional bureau public diplomacy offices and PD offices in the field. Others, such as the more recent creation of the Bureau of Global Public Affairs (GPA) from the breakup of the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), continue to be addressed in an iterative process, as public diplomacy is woven more tightly with policy. However, the greatest and quickest leaps forward into marrying policy and PD come from strong, consistent PD leadership that can both advocate for PD integration at the policy formation level, and develop PD further as a specialization on par with the four other cones.

A politically connected R with a significant tenure can make great strides in furthering the mission of PD. The longest-serving R, Richard Stengel (at 1,029 days in office), pioneered aspects of the PD world that remain integral in the current administration. Widely credited with bringing PD into the 21st century by ensuring that every embassy was on social media, Stengel put PD on the front lines of the interagency fight to counter misinformation and disinformation with the founding of the Center for Strategic Counter Terrorism Communications, which became the Global Engagement Center (GEC) via executive order. The second longest-serving R (at 868 days in office), Karen Hughes, vociferously fought for public diplomacy funding on the Hill. To that end, she emphasized a culture of program measurement and evaluation that persists today with the creation of the Mission Activity Tracker (MAT) to better inform and defend PD resources. Her desire to coordinate U.S. government messaging resulted in the implementation of Infocentral and the Rapid Response Unit (RRU), both essential tools to all Foreign Service officers to this day. Hughes leveraged her connections to the administration to tie together PD in the interagency. During her time as R, members of R staff served on ten sub-Policy Coordination Committees (PCCs) and 12 other interagency groups covering everything from counterterrorism to the avian flu.

Lamentably, Rs have a historically short tenure. Since its establishment in 1999, the position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has been vacant 36% of the time, “unencumbered” with a confirmed Under Secretary for 35.8% percent of days, with an average gap of 289 days (over nine months). As of the writing of this article, the position has been vacant for 563 days and counting, well over double the historical average of periods without a confirmed incumbent. This is not to say that progress to refine and define PD is not possible without an R—the creation of GPA mentioned previously, for example, was successfully spearheaded by Assistant Secretary Michelle Giuda in May of 2019. However, without an Under Secretary, public diplomacy at best stymies its development, and at worst risks losing credibility as an essential function of foreign policy.

While the nomination of an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is out of the hands of the Department of State, more can be done to inform Congress of the importance of strong R leadership. R is as integral as P, M or D to coordinated foreign policy formation and successful execution. For every day that goes by without empowered and well-connected PD leadership, we lose ground in the mission to inform and influence foreign publics.

More Work to Do

The work of PD continues to be an iterative process. The term public diplomacy itself only entered its modern form at the latter half of the 20th century, and scholars are only beginning to define it and study it. Likewise, PD was a late arrival to the State Department and to the halls of the 7th floor. However, during these relatively short 20 years, as information (and disinformation) becomes ubiquitous, effective communication with publics as groups and individuals can quickly empower or disable policy. The Department needs every officer to be a PD officer, as much as we need every officer to be a good writer. The Department needs an R to guide and shape public diplomacy, as much as we need the Secretary to guide and shape foreign policy. We only hope it will not take another 20 years to make this into reality.


WES JEFFERS AND KATHERINE TARR are the Council of American Ambassadors’ 2018–2019 Katherine W. Davis Public Diplomacy Fellows. Wes completed his assignment as Public Diplomacy Desk Officer for Western Europe in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and is currently in training for his follow-on position as PAO in Reykjavik in 2020. Katherine serves as Coordinator for Japan and Korea for the Office of Public Diplomacy in the East Asia Pacific Bureau.


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