November 23, 2013

Conference in Bogotá

Bogota streetI didn’t get much time in Bogotá but from what I saw it was a nice city and people were friendly.  It is very clean and looks a lot like some places in the Eastern U.S.  You can see pictures interspersed in the text. I was there for a PAO conference.  It is useful to learn about my colleagues’ challenges, since our jobs are mostly similar.

Budget cuts and sequester will increasingly constrain our work.  I could adapt to the cuts in money, but the threat is staff.  The 2 for 1 is still in place.  That means that we can fill only one position for every two that fall open.  It ratchets down our staffs, but that is not the most immediate problem. The conditions we face are changing.  It would make sense to reconfigure my staff to adapt to the changes. But if I change the job descriptions sufficiently, they become “new” positions, subject to the 2 for 1 rule. I will leave Brazil next July.  The rule will last longer than I will. This means that I will be unable to do any real restructuring.  I don’t want to use this as an excuse, but it is a reason.

Bogota beer

On the plus side, I can live with limits on travel.Fortunately, the travel ceiling is based on 2010.When I arrived in 2011, I reformed the way we travel.It was not rocket science.We simply shop a little for better fares and never change our plans.Fares vary depending on the day and even the time of travel.A little flexibility in scheduling saves thousands of dollars.On the other hand, changing tickets once issued is expensive.A little more rigidity here also saves thousands of dollars.The bottom line is that we are travelling more, which is necessary for our expanded jobs, and paying less.We could save even more if we didn’t need to use the government booking system, but that is another story.

Night street in Bogota 

Brazil is the big dog in South America.  More than half the population in South America lives in Brazil and we are our own region with three, soon to be five consulates in addition to the Embassy.  Our situation is a different.  Our neighbors do a lot more “international” cooperation than we do.  It is a lot like our consulates cooperating, however.  They speak that same language externally, as we do internally, and a combination of countries often have smaller populations than a combination of our consular districts.  Anyway, putting Brazil into a mix changes the dynamic.  Portuguese is similar to Spanish but not the same and people cannot easily communicate.

July 10, 2013


We are experiencing a wonderful time in Brazilian-American relations. Our priority to link American and Brazilian education networks coincides with those of Brazilians. Brazilian leaders have resources to fund their aspirations in ways previously impossible. Changing Brazilian demography and a burgeoning middle class are creating new demands for quality education and related PD items like English.  Building on work of earlier colleagues, we enjoy spectacular relations with Brazilian leaders.  In this auspicious time for public diplomacy, Mission Brazil is expanding, with two new consulates set to open within the next two years.  We have taken and extended opportunities and will continue on this path that will influence Brazilian-American relationships for generations.  

Landscape for Public Diplomacy 

Brazilians are confident in their country and its growing importance. This colors their view of the U.S.  Some anti-Americanism persists, particularly among older elites, but it is diminishing with generational change and most Brazilians have a positive view of the Americans, seeing the U.S. as Brazil’s most important partner. Millions of Brazilians entered the middle class because of the most sustained economic progress in the country’s history and innovative social programs designed to lessen inequality.  This provides insulation from boom-bust cycles that have too often affected Brazil. For the first time, a middle class makes up the majority of the Brazilians and they are demanding better government, better schools and luxuries like international travel. The population is still young, but Brazil is experiencing a rapid demographic transition, with fertility now below replacement level, providing space to improve education and social standards.  It also creates urgency, since Brazilian leaders know that they must develop the skills of the Brazilian people during a brief “demographic sweet spot,” when fewer dependent children have yet to be balanced by more dependent senior citizens. Internet is creating new channels of communications and fostering a boom in distance education.  Adult literacy is improving, expanding the universe of readers and making Brazil an exception to the rule that print is losing ground.  Brazil has become a major venue for international mega-events; it will host the Confederations Cup and the World Youth Day in 2013, FIFA World CUP in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016.  The number of official visits has increased exponentially in recent years, especially in resurgent Rio de Janeiro.  

To this generally positive picture must be added the caveat that Brazil stiff faces infrastructure deficiencies, physical, human and institutional.  An overactive political system has sometimes impeded Brazil’s economic and social development and government has been perceived as distant from the needs of civil society. The judiciary and law enforcement is not seen as meeting the demands of citizens.  This will be both a challenge and an opportunity and PD programs have addressed these issues, especially through the VV and IVLP programs.  

Mission’s Strategic Objectives 

The Mission’s top priority is creating sustainable partnerships with Brazil and other things follow from that.  The most impressive opening is in education.   The Mission is encouraging Brazilians to study in the U.S. and supporting President Obama’s 100,000 strong for Americans studying in Brazil as well as fostering institutional linkages for the long term.  This is not limited to educational linkages.   The Smithsonian Institution, for example, signed long-term cooperation agreements with Brazilian counterparts that will facilitate a myriad of partnerships.  Post is creating similar partnerships in English language and distance learning.  Within the partnership theme, the Mission is actively seeking to meet the changing Brazilian demography by engaging Brazilians where they live and in their areas of interest.  This involves outreach to new populations and geographic regions. 

Public Diplomacy Tactics in Support of Objectives 

Mission Brazil consists of the Embassy in Brasília and consulates in Rio, São Paulo and Recife, soon to be joined by Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte. Each has its particular emphasizes, but we are one Mission in priorities and programs. 

Education, English and youth outreach dominate our programming and we are making significant headway.   Our youth outreach programs include a robust Youth Ambassador program (last year nearly 17,000 applicants), a Youth Council with representatives from every Brazilian state and various specific programs, such as girls science camp and English immersion programs, as well as electronic and social media programs targeted to youth audiences. 

English competence is a big challenge for 21st Century Brazil and has been the major obstacle in the way of getting more Brazilian involvement in the U.S. and with U.S. programs.  Post is addressing this through our network of thirty–eight BNCs as well as Access programs that reach hundreds of students and boast a dropout rate of less than 4% over two years, as well as programs targeted to underserved communities, especially in Rio and Salvador.  In the last two years post went beyond this and in cooperation with the Ministry of Education (MEC) created partnerships to improve Brazilian English competency on a massive scale.  “English w/o Borders” rolled out this year.  The Mission helped inspire this strategy and works with Brazilian partners to guide.  We placed a senior English Language Fellow in the Ministry of Education to help with the implementation.  He has helped the GOB with plan to cooperate with us to bring 118 English teaching assistants to Brazil, with two going to each of the 56 Federal Universities in the country.   

In 2013, 1080 Brazilian secondary English teachers took six-week courses at U.S. universities in a cooperative Mission/MEC program and we recently signed an agreement for 1080 more in 2014.  This year MEC is testing 54,000 Brazilian students in English and provide support for them to improve sufficiently to take part in programs such as Science Mobility.  MEC expects to reach 7 million Brazilian students in the next four years, many through distance learning, another fertile area of Mission cooperation. 

U.S. Brazil education cooperation was transformed after the Brazilian President’s July 2011 announcement of the Science Mobility Program to send 101,000 Brazilian students overseas in the STEM fields. The U.S. got there first with the most, confounding our fears and perhaps expectations of competing countries that the decentralized nature of U.S. higher education would suffer in competition with ostensibly better organized centralized systems in Europe and elsewhere. The Mission’s goal in working with Brazilian partners was to make U.S. the easiest and most logical choice and quickly get qualified Brazilian students places in a broad array of U.S. schools.  More than 7000 Brazilians have gone to the U.S. on the Science Mobility Program; another roughly 5000 will go in the next months; more than 10,000 are already in process for 2014 and and tens of thousands more will go in coming years.  For comparison purposes, there were fewer than 9000 Brazilians studying in the U.S. on ALL programs and private support in 2011.   The amount of money direct deployed (not counting any multipliers) by GOB in the U.S. on the Science Mobility Program was US$ 418,715,000 as of July 10, 2013.  It is fantastic leverage for us.   

Post is now pivoting to sustainable institutional linkages by supporting visits by U.S. institutions as well as taking Brazilian education leaders to the U.S.  This is all on top of our already active educational advising and Fulbright exchange programs. 

Reaching underserved populations is a key priority that suffuses all PD programs, specifically through focus on JAPER and support for favela pacification and women’s empowerment.  As Brazil is and perceives itself to be a leader in sustainable development and clean energy, post remains active in this field. 

The Mission cannot expect to get the human resources adequately to reach the “new” Brazil while keeping relationships with the still most important parts of traditional Brazil, but leveraging the great resources of the American nation is expanding our impact by creating sustainable connections.  American institutions are eager partners who often need only advice and minimal support to create connections that will last for generations.  We also reach previously inaccessible audiences using new media and taking advantage burgeoning broadband in Brazil.  

PD Brazil’s enviable problem is too many excellent opportunities. We prioritize those that involve full partnerships with Brazilian institutions and government, use our local expertise and flexibility, and provide significant leverage to produce outstanding results.  These may not look like traditional programming, i.e. bringing a speaker or placing an article.  Building on the great networks constructed by our predecessors, we have been able to concentrate efforts where they are most effective. We think this is the bright future of PD in Brazil.  


June 22, 2013

Evolution of partnerships

Flower on tree in Vicosa, Minas Gerais Brazil 

Our most precious resource is not money; it is our people.  I don’t ask myself what I could do if I had more money; I ask what I could do with more high qualified people.   This leads to a different sort of paradigm, in my opinion a more evolved one.  Let me qualify what I am about to say by pointing out that none of these formulations are mutually exclusive.  One has evolved from the other as conditions have changed, but we still can find reasons to use all of them or combinations. 

The oldest paradigm, the one developed during the Cold War in a time of higher budgets and fewer able partners was for us to just do it.   We would bring a speaker or organize a cultural event and pay most of the cost.  At that time, it was important to be seen doing such things. We wanted to get our symbol, our logo, on events.   In many ways, it was analogous to sophisticated advertising. It was much like firms sponsoring programs in order to build their image.  Mobile Oil sponsored “Masterpiece Theater,” for example, and I still remember Mobile’s name and logo immediately followed by classy music and the erudite speech of announcer Alistair Cook. Mobile got what it wanted in convincing people like me that it was more than a greedy firm. The influence on me lasts to this day. 

We (the USG) can still do things like this, but much less frequently and with less effect than in the past for three big reasons.  First is simply money.  Sponsoring is expensive and beyond our budgets.  Second, it is less effective than it once was, since vehicles have proliferated and the market for them has segmented or maybe even shattered.  But the third reason is most important.  It has to do with the USG being a sponsor of anything.  In the years since the end of the Cold War, others have really grown up. They don’t need us to sponsor and my even resent us doing so with too much unilateral effort.  Another word for what we did was patronizing.  Patronizing can be great, but the word itself often carries a connotation that accurately conveys what it does.  Patronizing, no matter how generous, implies a difference in status.    

A newer paradigm tried to maintain the idea of patronizing (in the good sense) but using other people’s money.  This involved fund raising from private sources.   The idea is correct, that the American nation is greater than the American government alone and it is good to get other people involved in our endeavors.    This worked well about twenty years ago, when we had our program budgets cut but still had relatively large staffs of higher competent colleagues accustomed to running programs. Essentially, we provided management and got other people to provide money.  It was very much like the sponsorship of old except that there were more sponsors.  We were still clearly the lead in most cases.  It still could be patronizing (in a negative sense) however, in that it often carried the connotation that expert Americans had arrived to explain who things were, or should be. I did a lot of this in Poland in the 1990s.  Poles were eager to learn about the workings of the free market and a free press, and private firms were eager to co-sponsor to get their foot in what looked like a great market.    But even then, I could see the window closing, as Poles became savvier and thought that their experiences should be included more in discussions and we faced a problem with American presenters not understanding the quick improvements and lecturing our Polish friends about things they already knew.  

How we do public diplomacy now in Brazil reflect both our changed constraints and opportunities. We don’t need to “pitch” America to Brazil and the millions of Brazilians who visit the U.S each year and the exponentially rising numbers of academic and professional exchanging vastly overwhelm our small ability to add or detract from our overall image in this country of 200 million. There is nothing that we could bring to Brazil that Brazilians have not already seen or experienced, but this does not mean that we can do nothing.  We just need to work with the tides and currents and not fight them. 

Our paradigm is true partnerships based on the belief that you don’t make lasting friends face-to-face as much as shoulder-to-shoulder, working together toward common goals.  This works well within our constraints of budget and more importantly people, since it conserves both those resources and concentrated on what we have in most abundance – expertise and knowledge. Our task is not so much to do programs or give things to our friends, but to know how their systems work and understand their aspirations so that we can apply maximum leverage at key places and times.  This means giving up some control, since our partners will have some say, perhaps the dominant say in what is happening. We exercise our options in deciding who, where, what and when to engage. Then we work with our friends; put our shoulders to the wheel together in support of their aspirations and ours.  Since we are depending primarily on their resources and doing what they want to do, it is sustainable.  And for these same reasons produces gratitude and appreciation rather than dependency and resentment. 

We have done this on several occasions with spectacular success.  Science w/o Borders is a primary example.  Our Brazilian friends effuse about our help.  I recently attended an event about education at the Brazilian Senate.  On a panel of seven presenters, three specifically mentioned the U.S. as the example of what cooperation should look like.  I was only a guest sitting in the audience and was a little embarrassed by the attention, but gratified. It is much better, IMO, to be mentioned as great partners than as “generous benefactors,” no matter how beneficent.  It is part of the more mature paradigm. We are partners doing what we both want done.

When we patronize a program, no matter how grand, we can reach perhaps hundreds of people. We talk about ripple effects and word of mouth and I have no doubt they are effective.  But consider a leveraged program such as working with SwB or English w/o Borders, where we deeply and continually work with thousands of influential Brazilian and reach literally millions more directly.  Our Brazilian partners estimate that English w/o Borders will directly influence 7 million young Brazilians in the next four years.   The ripples from 7 million is bigger.

Our new paradigm requires that we be agile and opportunistic. It also requires that we have the courage and confidence to shift our resources quickly to places of maximum leverage.  This will mean that our programs are never well-balanced or well-rounded and some good programs will be neglected for a time, maybe forever.  

I liken SwB and the related English w/o Borders to the discovery of a gold mine.  The gold will not last forever, but while it serves we would be foolish to stay “balanced” by devoting equal attention to our tin mine.  In fact, the gold mine analogy breaks down and makes our activity even more urgent.  Gold, presumably, will stay in the ground until you are ready to go and get it.  SwB will have its season.  If we miss it, it will not come again.

April 05, 2013

... and the others don't matter

A successful public affairs program depends much more on understanding of the environment and having the capacity for flexibility than it does on any kind of actual step-by-step planning.  There is a process but not a plan.  I know that my colleagues and I can find and use opportunities and I am sure the opportunities will be out there, but I cannot tell you what they will be.  If I did, I would have to aim very low indeed and I would miss the big chances.

Hunting analogies are a little UN-PC, but humankind grew up as hunters-gatherers. It is what we are good at doing.  We work naturally well in small teams when the teams are empowered to choose tactics toward a bigger goal. So let me take a hunting analogy. We are out hunting rabbits when we find a moose.  Do we continue chasing that rabbit and would we be considered failures for bringing back a moose instead of a rabbit?  What if we don’t see any game animals at all but find a hive full of honey?  The reason we should be flexible is because the goal is not hunting rabbits or hunting at all.  The goal is to find food to allow our community to survive, thrive and prosper.

Our industrial society achieved great success but changing this paradigm.  In our machine age paradigm we did indeed insist on the industrial equivalents of rabbits, but we were so productive and so adapt at controlling the environment that it made sense in many situations.  To take my analogy maybe too far, the rabbit factory was not equipped to process a moose.  The unexpected opportunity was worse than useless; it actually caused trouble for the machines.  I had an interesting education about this in forestry. The mills are set up to take particular size trees, in Virginia it is often about the size of a 30-40 years old loblolly pine.  A bigger tree is of little significantly less value, since it just doesn’t fit in the machines.

Much of our human organizations are still machine-like.  This is sometimes stated as an indictment of modern society, but it should not be.  There is nothing more efficient than a machine bureaucracy in a controlled and predictable environment. My hypothetical rabbit processing operation will produce a lot more usable protein than one that is flexible enough to take a wider variety of inputs, providing you can assure the preferred inputs and you want to product.

Some parts of our public affairs operations can still effectively be treated as a machine bureaucracy.  These are the core functions. Processing visitors is a good example, as is producing editorials or fact sheets.  The visitors and facts are very different, but the process is very similar.

The part of public affairs that remains in the hunter-gatherer paradigm is mine.  Public affairs officers and their colleagues have the unstructured job of scanning the environment for opportunities and threats. The moose or the mammoth is still more important than the rabbits or the chickens in our world. But like our ancestors, we cannot guarantee finding them.  Our world is even more uncertain than the hunter’s.  The hunter knew the moose was good eating and understood some of the risks and rewards of taking it on.  The hunter also had no way of creating more moose and the moose was unlikely to cooperate with the hunters to achieve some kind of win-win outcome.

We don’t face the zero-sum relationship the hunters did.  Knowledge of the environment and the capacity to make friends and cooperate with allies means that smart decisions can vastly multiply our results.  We can sometimes achieve exponential results, where 2+2= 100 or more. 

But we still face the environmental constraints.  We need to take the opportunities when they are available.  This means we need to allow ourselves to become seriously “unbalanced” when the opportunities are there.  We must “neglect” important parts of our programs and sacrifice some good things in the pursuit of better things.  We must also be willing to cut and kill programs that are not working, recognizing that those programs on the chopping block may well have been our beloved stars of the recent past.

This is hard to do.  It requires judgment and the decision maker will always be second-guessed.  It is a curse of human perception that we really cannot see how things might have been.  A bold decision will create lots of change.  A great decision will create mostly positive results but there will always be some losses. Choosing one path involves not taking others. Those other paths have potential gains too.  After the decision is made and the one path taken, other will look down the paths not taken and often assume all the good things would have happened with none of the failures.  Imagination can always produce better results than reality.

Putting up with this kind of second-guessing is the price of making decisions. If you expect to be praised by everybody when you do things right, you are seriously mistaken and probably unsuited to leadership. I take some pride in annoying some people. If I think they are wrong, I hope that they dislike what I do.  Make sure the good people are with you and don’t worry about the ankle biters.

I am approaching my second year in Brazil and we have achieved great things.  But none of the biggest things, the things I think will do sustainable good, were part of my plans when I arrived in Brazil in June 2011.   My slow moving dreams were overtaken by much bigger, better and faster aspirations of our Brazilian friends. Our choice was to stick with our plans and be able to take full credit for small success or join with others and deploy our small powers to leverage a much larger one.  With our friends we can take down that wholly mammoth.  By ourselves, we can knock a rabbit on the head, maybe corner a chipmunk.

Looking back at my last two years in Brazil, I achieved almost none of my plans.  But WE did much better. Good people understand and the others don’t matter.

... and the others don't matter

A successful public affairs program depends much more on understanding of the environment and having the capacity for flexibility than it does on any kind of actual step-by-step planning.  There is a process but not a plan.  I know that my colleagues and I can find and use opportunities and I am sure the opportunities will be out there, but I cannot tell you what they will be.  If I did, I would have to aim very low indeed and I would miss the big chances.

Hunting analogies are a little UN-PC, but humankind grew up as hunters-gatherers. It is what we are good at doing.  We work naturally well in small teams when the teams are empowered to choose tactics toward a bigger goal. So let me take a hunting analogy. We are out hunting rabbits when we find a moose.  Do we continue chasing that rabbit and would we be considered failures for bringing back a moose instead of a rabbit?  What if we don’t see any game animals at all but find a hive full of honey?  The reason we should be flexible is because the goal is not hunting rabbits or hunting at all.  The goal is to find food to allow our community to survive, thrive and prosper.

Our industrial society achieved great success but changing this paradigm.  In our machine age paradigm we did indeed insist on the industrial equivalents of rabbits, but we were so productive and so adapt at controlling the environment that it made sense in many situations.  To take my analogy maybe too far, the rabbit factory was not equipped to process a moose.  The unexpected opportunity was worse than useless; it actually caused trouble for the machines.  I had an interesting education about this in forestry. The mills are set up to take particular size trees, in Virginia it is often about the size of a 30-40 years old loblolly pine.  A bigger tree is of little significantly less value, since it just doesn’t fit in the machines.

Much of our human organizations are still machine-like.  This is sometimes stated as an indictment of modern society, but it should not be.  There is nothing more efficient than a machine bureaucracy in a controlled and predictable environment. My hypothetical rabbit processing operation will produce a lot more usable protein than one that is flexible enough to take a wider variety of inputs, providing you can assure the preferred inputs and you want to product.

Some parts of our public affairs operations can still effectively be treated as a machine bureaucracy.  These are the core functions. Processing visitors is a good example, as is producing editorials or fact sheets.  The visitors and facts are very different, but the process is very similar.

The part of public affairs that remains in the hunter-gatherer paradigm is mine.  Public affairs officers and their colleagues have the unstructured job of scanning the environment for opportunities and threats. The moose or the mammoth is still more important than the rabbits or the chickens in our world. But like our ancestors, we cannot guarantee finding them.  Our world is even more uncertain than the hunter’s.  The hunter knew the moose was good eating and understood some of the risks and rewards of taking it on.  The hunter also had no way of creating more moose and the moose was unlikely to cooperate with the hunters to achieve some kind of win-win outcome.

We don’t face the zero-sum relationship the hunters did.  Knowledge of the environment and the capacity to make friends and cooperate with allies means that smart decisions can vastly multiply our results.  We can sometimes achieve exponential results, where 2+2= 100 or more. 

But we still face the environmental constraints.  We need to take the opportunities when they are available.  This means we need to allow ourselves to become seriously “unbalanced” when the opportunities are there.  We must “neglect” important parts of our programs and sacrifice some good things in the pursuit of better things.  We must also be willing to cut and kill programs that are not working, recognizing that those programs on the chopping block may well have been our beloved stars of the recent past.

This is hard to do.  It requires judgment and the decision maker will always be second-guessed.  It is a curse of human perception that we really cannot see how things might have been.  A bold decision will create lots of change.  A great decision will create mostly positive results but there will always be some losses. Choosing one path involves not taking others. Those other paths have potential gains too.  After the decision is made and the one path taken, other will look down the paths not taken and often assume all the good things would have happened with none of the failures.  Imagination can always produce better results than reality.

Putting up with this kind of second-guessing is the price of making decisions. If you expect to be praised by everybody when you do things right, you are seriously mistaken and probably unsuited to leadership. I take some pride in annoying some people. If I think they are wrong, I hope that they dislike what I do.  Make sure the good people are with you and don’t worry about the ankle biters.

I am approaching my second year in Brazil and we have achieved great things.  But none of the biggest things, the things I think will do sustainable good, were part of my plans when I arrived in Brazil in June 2011.   My slow moving dreams were overtaken by much bigger, better and faster aspirations of our Brazilian friends. Our choice was to stick with our plans and be able to take full credit for small success or join with others and deploy our small powers to leverage a much larger one.  With our friends we can take down that wholly mammoth.  By ourselves, we can knock a rabbit on the head, maybe corner a chipmunk.

Looking back at my last two years in Brazil, I achieved almost none of my plans.  But WE did much better. Good people understand and the others don’t matter.

February 13, 2013

Brazil public diplomacy overview

California beach  

We are experiencing a wonderful time in Brazilian-American relations. Our priority to link American and Brazilian education networks coincides with those of Brazilians. Brazilian leaders have resources to fund their aspirations in ways previously impossible. Changing Brazilian demography and a burgeoning middle class are creating new demands for quality education and related PD items like English. Building on work of earlier colleagues, we enjoy spectacular relations with Brazilian leaders.  In this auspicious time for public diplomacy, Mission Brazil is expanding, with two new consulates set to open within the next two years.  We have taken and extended opportunities and will continue on this path that will influence Brazilian-American relationships for generations.

Landscape for Public Diplomacy

Brazilians are confident in their country and its growing importance. This colors their view of the U.S.  Some anti-Americanism persists, particularly among older elites, but it is diminishing with generational change and most Brazilians have a positive view of the Americans, seeing the U.S. as Brazil’s most important partner. Millions of Brazilians entered the middle class because of the most sustained economic progress in the country’s history and innovative social programs designed to lessen inequality.  This provides insulation from boom-bust cycles that have too often affected Brazil. For the first time, a middle class makes up the majority of the Brazilians and they are demanding better government, better schools and luxuries like international travel. The population is still young, but Brazil is experiencing a rapid demographic transition, with fertility now below replacement level, providing space to improve education and social standards.  It also creates urgency, since Brazilian leaders know that they must develop the skills of the Brazilian people during a brief “demographic sweet spot,” when fewer dependent children have yet to be balanced by more dependent senior citizens. Internet is creating new channels of communications and fostering a boom in distance education.  Adult literacy is improving, expanding the universe of readers and making Brazil an exception to the rule that print is losing ground.  Brazil has become a major venue for international mega-events; it will host the Confederations Cup and the World Youth Day in 2013, FIFA World CUP in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016.  The number of official visits has increased exponentially in recent years, especially in resurgent Rio de Janeiro. 

To this generally positive picture must be added the caveat that Brazil stiff faces infrastructure deficiencies, physical, human and institutional.  This will be both a challenge and an opportunity and PD programs have addressed these issues, especially through the VV and IVLP programs. 

Mission’s Strategic Objectives

The Mission’s top priority is creating sustainable partnerships with Brazil and other things follow from that.  The most impressive opening is in education.  The Mission is encouraging Brazilians to study in the U.S. and supporting President Obama’s 100,000 strong for Americans studying in Brazil as well as fostering institutional linkages for the long term.  This is not limited to educational linkages. The Smithsonian Institution, for example, signed long-term cooperation agreements with Brazilian counterparts that will facilitate a myriad of partnerships.  Post is creating similar partnerships in English language and distance learning.  Within the partnership theme, the Mission is actively seeking to meet the changing Brazilian demography by engaging Brazilians where they live and in their areas of interest.  This involves outreach to new populations and geographic regions.

Public Diplomacy Tactics in Support of Objectives

Mission Brazil consists of the Embassy in Brasília and consulates in Rio, São Paulo and Recife, soon to be joined by Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte. Each has its particular emphasizes, but we are one Mission in priorities and programs.

Education, English and youth outreach dominate our programming and we are making significant headway. Our youth outreach programs include a robust Youth Ambassador program (last year nearly 17,000 applicants), a Youth Council with representatives from every Brazilian state and various specific programs, such as girls science camp and English immersion programs, as well as electronic and social media programs targeted to youth audiences.

English competence is a big challenge for 21st Century Brazil and has been the major obstacle in the way of getting more Brazilian involvement in the U.S. and with U.S. programs.  Post is addressing this through our network of thirty–eight BNCs as well as Access programs that reach hundreds of students and boast a dropout rate of less than 4% over two years, as well as programs targeted to underserved communities, especially in Rio and Salvador.  In the last two years post went beyond this and in cooperation with the Ministry of Education (MEC) created partnerships to improve Brazilian English competency on a massive scale.  “English w/o Borders” will be rolled out in 2013.  The Mission helped inspire this strategy and works with Brazilian partners to guide.  We are placing a senior English Language Fellow in the Ministry of Education to help with the implementation.   In 2013, 1080 Brazilian secondary English teachers will take six-week courses at U.S. universities in a cooperative Mission/MEC program. MEC will test 54,000 Brazilian students in English and provide support for them to improve sufficiently to take part in programs such as Science Mobility.  MEC expects to reach 7 million Brazilian students in the next four years, many through distance learning, another fertile area of Mission cooperation.

U.S. Brazil education cooperation was transformed after the Brazilian President’s July 2011 announcement of the Science Mobility Program to send 101,000 Brazilian students overseas in the STEM fields. The U.S. got there first with the most, confounding our fears and perhaps expectations of competing countries that the decentralized nature of U.S. higher education would suffer in competition with ostensibly better organized centralized systems in Europe and elsewhere. The Mission’s goal in working with Brazilian partners was to make U.S. the easiest and most logical choice and quickly get qualified Brazilian students places in a broad array of U.S. schools.  Nearly 4000 Brazilians have gone to the U.S. on the Science Mobility Program and tens of thousands more will go in coming years.  Post is now pivoting to sustainable institutional linkages by supporting visits by U.S. institutions as well as taking Brazilian education leaders to the U.S.  This is all on top of our already active educational advising and Fulbright exchange programs.

Reaching underserved populations is a key priority that suffuses all PD programs, specifically through focus on JAPER and support for favela pacification and women’s empowerment.  As Brazil is and perceives itself to be a leader in sustainable development and clean energy, post remains active in this field.

The Mission cannot expect to get the human resources adequately to reach the “new” Brazil while keeping relationships with the still most important parts of traditional Brazil, but leveraging the great resources of the American nation is expanding our impact by creating sustainable connections.  American institutions are eager partners who often need only advice and minimal support to create connections that will last for generations. We also reach previously inaccessible audiences using new media and taking advantage burgeoning broadband in Brazil.

PD Brazil’s enviable problem is too many excellent opportunities. We prioritize those that involve full partnerships with Brazilian institutions and government, use our local expertise and flexibility, and provide significant leverage to produce outstanding results.  These may not look like traditional programming, i.e. bringing a speaker or placing an article.  Building on the great networks constructed by our predecessors, we have been able to concentrate efforts where they are most effective. We think this is the bright future of PD in Brazil. 

My picture is unrelated to the text. It is a beach in California

January 29, 2013

Facebook envy

Envy is one of seven deadly sins for good reason.  It harms both the object of the envy and the person feeling it.  And there is no doubt about its power.  Veja reports on a study that shows that Facebook is accentuating envy and making connected people less happy.

It makes sense.  You can feel envious only if you know that others have something you want.  Facebook provides ample raw material for envy by providing outlet for another of the deadly sins – pride.  People write about their successes and their good luck, sometimes about the stuff they acquired.  Of course, envy can be provoked by the mere knowledge that someone seems happier than you are or are getting more attention. Most people think they deserve more than they have, so it is easy to cloak envy in the feelings of injustice.

According to the study, the thing that annoyed people the most by far were pictures of people having a good time while travelling or partying.  Of course, this is one of the most common things on Facebook.

Facebook teaches something that most people know but in the absence of direct evidence can ignore.  It shows us that our experiences are not special.  No matter where you go or what you do, somebody has been there and done that already.  We are not wired for this revelation.  In a small group, the kind we lived in for most of human history, each of us can be unique. Get enough people together, however, and we start to look like statistics.  It is unsettling.  

It is worse in Facebook because it is more personal than mass media. If you read about it in the paper, it is them; Facebook is us.  We feel it more personally when we think we know the people.

I recall an old advertisment that showed a professor telling his class that they could not all get published because of the tyranny of the publishers. A student stood up and explained the publishing potential of the Internet and that they could all be published. Social media - the Internet in general - let's everybody be published. We all have the freedom to talk and write. But the numbers of readers and lsiteners has not increased. Frustrated authors can now publish, but they remain frustrated because nobody reads.

I also recall a note written in a computer lab when they still had those big mainframes and card readers.  It said, “To err is human, but to really mess up you need computer support.”  Social media magnifies individual reach but also accentuates defects.

January 14, 2013

Youth Week

Student leaders1 

Last week was our youth and education week.  Our posts in Brasília, São Paulo, Rio and Recife processed almost 600 program participants (37 Youth Ambassadors, 20 Student Leaders, and 540 Public School English Teachers, CAPL).   This launch is a big step in a continuing success in connection the American and the Brazilian nations and an investment in the future.

The biggest group was the 540 teachers of English. Minister of Education Mercadante and Ambassador Shannon gave the high profile send off in Brasília as did teams in São Paulo, Rio, and Recife.  Our Brazilian friends recognize the need for English and they are encouraging progress with a six week capacity building programs at eighteen higher education institutions throughout the U.S.  The picture above is from that event.  We also signed an agreement to keep the program going with another 540 teachers going out in July.

Youth Ambassador 

Our part of the program is identifying programs in the U.S. as well has helping with visas and logistics.  Our Brazilian friends are doing the heavy lifting and supporting the teachers.  I love this program and I am proud of the input we had in helping shape it.  Participants are all public school teachers representing all twenty-six states in Brazil plus the Federal District.  We all think that spreading the benefits to all corners of the country is an important goal.  I got to meet a lot of the teachers.  For many, this was their first time travelling outside Brazil and many had not even travelled much within Brazil. This will be a life changing experience for them and I hope they will be able to change and improve the lives of countless students when they get back.  This is a big deal and being part of the aspirations of so many people is a fantastic privilege.

Youth Leaders

I have written about Youth Ambassadors before.  The Youth Ambassadors are also chosen from public schools with special care taken to make sure that every Brazilian state is represented.  This is “our” program in that we organize it, but it also has become a shared success with our Brazilian partners.  We had almost 17,000 applicants for the thirty-seven available slots.  Our partners throughout Brazil winnow this number down to a manageable number (about 200).  After that, my colleagues read through all applications and make the final choices.  It is a tough job. We could easily send 500 w/o diminishing quality, but I don’t have the staff or the cash to make it happen.  I am trying to think of ways to get somebody else to take up some of the slack. 


This year we are partnering with EMBRATUR for the first time. EMBRATUR is the Brazilian tourist agency.   One of the reasons why Youth Ambassadors is so well accepted here is that it truly is a partnership.  We are not just explaining America to Brazilians but also helping Americans understand Brazilians.  EMBRATUR helped with materials and information, helping our Youth Ambassadors know their own country.  Many of the Youth Ambassadors have not traveled much in Brazil and it is great to have a partner like EMBRATUR.

Casa Thomas Jefferson 

This week we also launched this year’s Student Leaders.  Twenty of them will go to University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  The Student Leaders are older than the Youth Ambassadors and different from the SwB students because they are studying subjects such as political science and history.

I think we generally do a good job with youth in Brazil because we have such great youth to work with.  I am inspired when I talk to them and glad that they want to learn about the U.S.

We held a big pizza party at Casa Thomas Jefferson to honor all the groups that were leaving from Brasília.  Similar events were held in Rio, São Paulo and Recife, but I can best describe ours.  141 “youth” showed up for the party.  I put youth in quotation marks because the teachers are youth in comparison to me but maybe not all are youth in comparison to … very young people.  One of our staff acted as MC and did a wonderful job.   Everyone seemed to have a good time, but it was a little loud for me. The Youth Ambassadors seemed to love Gangham style.  I didn’t know what that was until a few weeks ago and I can see why kids like it.  They all got up and danced frenetically when it came on.  I didn’t dance.

Pictures show some of the groups, plus the pizza makers and CTJ Southwest. 

January 13, 2013

Time enough for resting when the job is done

CAPL meeting with us in front row

One of my favorite movies is “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray.  It is an old movie now; maybe you could call it a classic.  The lead character – Phil Connors - relives the same day – February 2 Groundhog Day, over and over thousands of time.   No matter what he does during the day, he wakes up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania at 6:00 am on February 2 to a clock radio playing Sony and Cher “I got you babe” and nothing has changed.  Nobody except Phil has any memory of the past experience. He gets to move to the next day only after he gets the endlessly repeating Groundhog Day just right.  He starts making better connections among the people of the town fitting into their lives and helping them.  Finally he feels he has done the best he can and the next time he wakes up it is February 3.  I saw the movie dozens of times and probably read too much into it, but the reason I like it so much is that it made me think about pursuing excellence.

Way back in my classical education days, I was enamored with the Stoic philosophy.   I read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” in Greek class (although mostly on the English side of the Loeb Classic, I admit) and studied how Stoicism influenced Western thinking in general.  What I took away was that you accept your task, do your duty, not expecting necessarily to get credit or even to succeed.  You cannot control what happens to and around you, but you can control your response.  It is more complicated than this but IMO “Groundhog Day” tends to follow the outlines of Stoicism.

In the end, it is not so much about what Phil does as what he becomes.  He realizes that perhaps he cannot change the things that happen around him, but he can change and improve himself; control his own responses to the circumstances and in that way find his own place and control his own destiny.  When he achieves excellence, and lives the perfect day, he can move to the next step.   

Foreign Service life can be like “Groundhog Day.”  We go to assignments in different places but lots of things are the same.  I often had the feeling that I am reliving the same experience.  I do the same things and apply similar strategies and sometimes I feel like I have not really made any progress.  Things seem pretty much the same after I leave as they were before I arrived.  Each time, however, I hope that I can learn something and do better next time.  I always joke that it is better to be lucky than smart, but joke or not it is true that much depends on circumstances.  You have to adjust to the environment and its particular opportunities and threats. Sublime plans executed by superb teams can fail in an unfavorable environment and poorly planned and executed plans can succeed when things are just right.  You have some control in that you can sometimes choose the environment where you will act, but not always and things will change, often in unexpected ways.  Today’s royal road to success may be tomorrow’s path to perdition.

Brazil may be the last day in my “Groundhog Day” saga and I think this time it will be the perfect day, or at least as near perfect as possible in this imperfect world outside the world of movies. Circumstances are great. Our Brazilian friends want many of the same things we do in the key area of educational exchanges and they are willing to put resources behind their aspirations.  This opportunity arrived almost exactly the same time I did and it made education and related institution linkages the theme of my time here.  My team in Brazil is as good as I could get.  I am halfway through my time here and things have worked out much better than I expected or predicted.  My problem has been too many opportunities.  I have had the luxury of taking choosing from among them. This is harder than it seems, since I have to turn down good proposals, but it is better than the alternative.

In fact, sometimes I am tempted to look for a reason to flee Brazil early so that I can quit while I am ahead, before my Royal Road turns into perdition’s highway.   I am afraid my luck won’t hold.  But then I think again about the Stoicism.  My job is not done.  I need to persist until the end, take the sweet with the bitter. Besides, sneaking out early is not a realistic option and I am reasonably certain I can hold it together.   

Most other jobs I could get would be a letdown anyway.  I cannot think of a better place to work as a public affairs officer, no place I would rather work and no time I would rather be doing it. In public affairs, this is the chance of a generation in Brazil.   I always tell people that five years ago would have been too soon and five years from now might be too late and I believe it.  The connections we help create between the American and the Brazilian people shape relations between our countries for the rest of my lifetime and beyond.  It is too important to let it go before I have done everything that I can do.

My picture up top is a posed picture of us in front of a group of Brazilian English teachers who will go to a variety of U.S. universities to learn to teach English better. Two years ago, we sent twenty.  Last year we sent fifty.  This year we will send 1080. This is an example of the opportunities.  Our Brazilian friends want to send them and pay for their tuition.  U.S. institutions are happy to have them and we (the Mission) facilitate the connection.  All of us "suits" look alike, don't we?

January 04, 2013

Success in Public Diplomacy

If a survey tells me that more Brazilians have a favorable view of the U.S. on the day that I am done here than they did on the day I arrived, I don’t care. I won’t take credit for that. Conversely, if we find that opinions have declined, don’t blame me. In either case, my effort is like tossing a bucket of water into the Pacific Ocean and expecting to be credited or blamed with next year’s weather conditions. Let me say plainly that I don’t think that our public affairs efforts can have a substantial and sustained effect on which country is most popular or favorability ratings, the kinds of things measured by surveys. Furthermore, I think measuring such things is nothing more than an expensive game, with results that are often not statistically valid and usually not substantively valid either.  

So, what good are we and why don’t I just go home?  I think we are very effective at improving things that really matter. We do lots of useful things that build specific relationships and create long-term cooperation and – yes – in the long-term more favorable attitudes generally. But the road to this bright happy region is poorly blazed and full of curves. If I am honest, I can almost never be sure that our efforts produced the good result and the bigger the result, the more uncertain.  

This makes perfect sense if you think about it for more than a minute. Our success almost always stems from effective partnerships. We attract partners by identifying mutual interests, shared values and common goals.  If we are good at partnership building, we will attract lots of helpers, all pulling in our direction, but doing so autonomously, using their own imagination, innovation and intelligence to get the job done. And if we are doing our jobs right, we cannot closely control this process.  If we try, to micromanage things we will lose the benefits of our partners’ innovation and imagination, and we often lose the partners too. Nobody likes people who boss them around. 

How do you measure who did what when the favorable outcome results from the synergy of so many partners, some of whom are not working directly with us, not to mention the effects of good luck (which you really cannot control) or good timing (which is a kind of luck you can influence)?  The further permutation is that the effort itself is complex. 

I make a big deal about drawing the distinction between something that is complicated and something that is complex. An old fashioned watch is complicated.  It has lots of parts that need to fit together and work together.  If one part stops working, the whole system stops working, but as long as you keep things working according to the plan and in good repair, you can expect precise results. Complexity adds that variable that the components change, evolve and adapt in relationship to each other. An ecosystem is complex. Complex systems are both more robust than complicated ones and less predictable. If you remove a key part in a complicated system, it stops working and if you add a new part, it is probably simply redundant. If you remove a key part in a complex system, the other parts adapt to the change. It may weaken the system OR it may strengthen it.  Sometimes subtracting effort is better than adding it. In a complex system, a new component will be integrated in and will not long remain redundant, as it would in a complicated system. 

All human systems are complex. Public affairs is more complex than many because of the dominance of people and forces outside the direct control of the public affairs professionals. In easy conditions, we could say we help manage an “external staff;” in most cases we are dealing with the ambiguity of not knowing who we are “managing.”  Measuring complicated systems is simple in theory if not always easy in practice.  If you identify the parts, they either work as they should or not. Complexity is harder because you cannot properly identify all the parts and they are in states of constant change and adaptation. 

Figuring out where our influence starts and ends is hard. I don’t want us to brag like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, but I also don’t want to ignore our significant influence on events. 

In many things, our input is necessary but not sufficient. For example, I am morally certain that the 1080 secondary school teachers of English in the CAPL program would not be going had it not been for our active intervention.   But our Brazilian friends are paying for them, the State Secretaries of Education are choosing them, RELO identified schools,  Fulbright did much of the logistics, WHA did the paperwork for visas, our Consular sections actually did the visas quickly, IIE did the placements  and, of course, the teachers are going.  Speaking of complexity, all of us above have influenced each other and our program is very different - and better - than originally envisioned. 

Falling back on my habitual agricultural/forestry metaphors, who is responsible for the apple harvest?  Is it the person who picks the fruit, the one who sprays the flowers, the one who cares for the trees, the one who plants the trees, the one who identified the field for planting or maybe even the long gone beaver whose dam created the rich soil of the meadow?  Not all contributed equally, however, and some would be interchangeable, i.e. somebody else would or could have easily done it.  

Anyway, regarding credit taking and giving, I was thinking of a kind of reverse Bayesian approach, with conditional probabilities used for influence. For example, in the CAPL program, we (USG controlled people and resources) perhaps contributed 45% to the probability of success. As those teachers come back to Brazil and influence thousands or millions of Brazilians, our relative share of the credit will diminish as other factors play a bigger role, but as the total size of the influence is so much greater, ours will remain a growing contribution. We are in relation to the results what the guys who planted the apple trees are to the subsequent harvests. 

I am not really that fond of the Bayesian analysis in these cases, but it produces nice looking charts and graphs and it has numerical aspects that satisfy bean counters.  IMO,  we really are back to the ancient art of telling the story and making subjective judgments about our own role in success (or failure) and that of others.

October 21, 2012

New media: scouts v quants

Charles River from Cambridge Courtyard Inn 

A few years ago there was a big conflict in baseball between the scouts and the quants, or maybe you could call it the jocks v he nerds.  The dispute was whether the scouts, with their years of judgment and powers of observation could pick better players than the quants, who had developed complex programs based on statistics.  Baseball is probably the most statistical rich sport. Presumably, if you could harness all the power of the numbers, machines could better predict the trajectory of any player than could a human.  Somebody even wrote a book about that called “Moneyball” which extolled the virtues of the numbers. I didn’t read that book and I am not much of a sports fan, so I know only what I read in other places and I am interested in this only as an illustration of the larger issue of forecasting. Evidently the war between the scouts and the quants is over and both sides won.  

So what does this show?  The source I read about this concluded that both were useful and that numbers are made meaningful by human judgment while human judgment is improved by numbers.  While I think that is definitely true, I also think there is the element of time. The older generation of scouts had to adapt. Actually, many probably just died out. The conflict became meaningless as everybody started to use the quants as the tool it was.  Ironically, after digesting the quants, human judgment became even more important, informed as it was by the quants which took some of the randomness out and maybe a little of the insider game.  Information became available to all, or at least to most, and those who could best use it did better. This is the bigger story.  

I think we have gone through a similar evolution concerning new media at State.  I will be immodest to claim that I got there before many others. I paid for that, as I was seen as an apostate to the new media, or more likely just thought too old and staid to really understand. But when I was last in Washington to take part in a new media strategy session, I found the environment much more accommodating to my ancient ways.  

Our war between the scouts and the quants is also over and both sides have won. There still will be skirmishes, as the latest new technology will promise to change everything, but I think we have reached equilibrium.  The new media/social media is an essential tool of all public affairs, but it is just ONE tool and it is not the objective in itself.  The object is as it was and always will be: to reach human beings and help them change their minds. Some strategies will lean heavily on social media; others not so much.  

We just had an interesting situation with social media. Because of an extended strike at the Federal Universities in Brazil, summer vacation dwindled to a few weeks. Because of this, students who had planned to go to the U.S. to work at places like Disney were unable to go. The unhappy kids set up a Facebook page where they framed the issue as a visa denial problem.  Indeed, we could not issue summer work visas, since there was no summer vacation to work.  But the impediment was not our visas; it was the vacations, or lack thereof. The issue leaked into the newspapers and television.  It was very unpleasant.  

In the old days, we would have crafted a press strategy to get our narrative into the press. The problem was that our best narrative still looked bad.  The bottom line is that kids cannot go.  Their dreams are put on hold.   There is no scenario where we are better off.  If you cannot win, don’t play.  New media made this possible.  The number of aggrieved kids was small and most of them were on social media. We engaged them directly.  We could not offer them any solutions, but we could listen to their complaints and explain the situation, our narrative, yes, but precisely targeted. Our goal was to make the story as banal as possible, so that no media outlet would care to cover it.  Our strategy worked. The kids involved lost interest in making trouble, since they understood that the situation was what it was.  We told them that they could apply next year, which is true although not immediately useful.    

Social media allowed us to precisely address the people who really cared without irritating a much larger community. I would liken it to those new surgical techniques that can get at the problem with minimal invasiveness.

Of course, we could only do this because we had already developed and deployed our social media acumen, but I think we can call this a success story for social media and the principle of limited appropriate response.  

It is generally true in public affairs that any story that comes looking for you will be bad.  Good stories are the ones we have to go out and push.   If a story comes to you, it usually implies defense.  We used to have to take these lemons and try to make poor quality lemonade out of them. We sometimes could stop them by our own engagement with journalists, but usually not if they were interesting. Social media allows us to get at the source of the problem.  Our challenge remains identifying the true source but this is a step forward.  

Maybe I am not as much as an apostate as I let on.  

My picture is the Charles River from the Courtyard Inn in Cambridge. I am here to attend a Harvard seminar on getting more Brazilian students to the U.S. for advanced degree, one of the best public affairs programs possible. 

March 10, 2012

ACCESS to a Better Life in Taguatinga

English Access students in Taguatinga Brazil 

It is always an honor to meet kids that are so hard-working and a pleasure to share in their aspirations.  This is what I got to do yesterday at the Casa Thomas Jefferson branch in Taguatinga, a satellite city near Brasília, when I met this year’s English ACCESS students and presented them with their scholarship certificates. 

Fifty-four new students got ACCESS scholarships, which gives them two years of English study at our BNC (We cover the cost of fifty; CTJ adds in four more.) The kids are all low income and from disadvantaged backgrounds. English will give them a big boost and will help boost their communities.  Being involved is also good public diplomacy for us.  It helps build and maintain the web of relationships on which our good relations ultimately depend.

English student and me  

Relationships are why I think it is so important for us – for me – to be part of these things.  I was talking to my colleague Marcia about that on the way to Taguatinga. Since I just got back to Brazil the morning before, I had a lot of work to catch up, lots of paper to push.  I was really “too busy” to take the time out for this ceremony. But we work through Brazilian people. My job is relationships. Paper pushing is only a means to that goal. Our program CAN go by itself.  We can pay the money and forget about it. But that is like planting a garden and not taking advantage of the fruits and flowers.

Taguatinga Brazil street 

An American diplomat is sufficiently rare in the lives of these students that I believe that they will long remember that I shook their hands, called them by their names and gave them their certificates.  It gives their program an American face – literally.  Of course, I also had the chance to renew my acquaintance with school leaders from Brasília and our friend at the BNC. This is what public diplomacy is about.

Marcia wrote my comments, which I have included below for reference. I still don’t trust my Portuguese to completely.  Besides, at official events it is important to hit the main points but not to talk too long. W/o prepared remarks, I tend to ramble on too long.  I ad-libbed a few comments at the end. I thought it was important to tell them a little about their own importance for the future of their country. Talented people have the privilege and a duty to develop their skills for the good of their country and the world in general.  We need to remind ourselves and others of that. I find that most young people are receptive to that message.  They want to be part of something bigger than their daily lives. I also wanted to remind everybody about the Science w/o Borders initiative and the opportunities and responsibilities that it brings.

The CTJ in branch in Taguatinga teaches around 1,250 students. Among them are 250 who get their instruction at a local High School – Leonardo Da Vinci – after school. CTJ pays the school 10% of what they get in tuition. It is easier for students just to stay a little longer at school than it is to fight traffic to get to the CTJ facilities. This is a good partnership that benefits all around.

CTJ people tell me that there can be significant differences among the students they attract in different locations.  The Lago Sul campus gets mostly upper and middle class students.  They often spend a long time at CTJ and learn to speak English almost flawlessly. Taguatinga is not much like Lago Sul. Most of the students there are poor and many come from single parent households. It is harder for them to continue their English educations, but it is a tribute to them and their parents that they continue to show up. 

The ACCESS program in Taguatinga has an excellent retention record, despite the challenges of its students.  Of the 54 students who entered the two-year program in March of last year, 52 have returned for the second. CTJ staff is active in creating this happy result. The CTJ teachers and administrators take it personally. I heard one story about a young woman from last year’s class who was going to drop out. She was getting married and her prospective husband thought that she had better uses for her time than to study English. The CTJ director called the future husband and explained what a rare opportunity this was and that he should not take it away from her.  The young man relented and the young woman returned to class to finish what she had begun.   I wonder what changes this intervention will make in her life and the life of her community.

In all there are 1,147 students in the ACCESS program in Brazil, in Recife, Sao Paulo, Salvador, Porto Alegre, Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and here in Brasilia.

My picture up top is the class picture. You may notice that most people seem not to be looking at the camera.  This is because there were multiple cameras. The picture taking can take a long time; everybody wants a photo.  The middle picture is a student from last year's class and me. She had the scary task of giving a speech in English to the new students. She did very well. The bottom picture is the street outside the BNC.

Remarks below, FYI:

- Muito obrigado, Ana Maria!  

-  Muito obrigado à Casa Thomas Jefferson, à Secretaria de Educação do Distrito Federal e à Diretoria Regional de Ensino do Recanto das Emas pela importante parceria na implementação do Programa ACCESS.

- Bom dia, alunos do programa ACCESS e PARABÉNS pela bolsa de estudos!  

- Vocês agora são alunos ACCESS da Casa Thomas Jefferson e participantes nesse importante programa de ensino de inglês, cultura americana e responsabilidade social.

- Sintam-se orgulhosos!  Vocês fazem parte de um grupo de aproximadamente 1,150 (mil, cento e cinquenta) bolsistas Access espalhados pelo Brasil em cidades como Brasília, Manaus, Recife, Salvador, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro e Porto Alegre. 

-  À medida em que o Brasil cresce no cenário internacional, surgem muitas oportunidades e é muito bom ver que vocês já estão começando a se preparar aprendendo inglês.

- Além de abrir portas no mundo profissional, o inglês também permitirá que vocês busquem interessantes oportunidades de estudo no exterior, com programas como o Jovens Embaixadores, o Ciência sem Fronteiras e muitos outros que existem.

- Sejam curiosos, perguntem, participem e aprendam bastante.  Da próxima vez que eu me encontrar com vocês, conversaremos em inglês,

- Novamente, parabéns e muito sucesso para vocês!

-  Muito obrigado!

February 15, 2012


Dock on Amazon 

It is often not the person who you touch but the person touched by that person who really makes the difference.  This I noticed when we talked to a guy at a reception at our political counselor’s house last night.  He had not been on one of our programs but had a close friend who had been.  This friend visited reconciliation meetings in Manhattan as part of a Voluntary Visitor tour. 

He told us that he did not get the idea from us - reconciliation meetings are an old idea after all - but knowing that such a model was working so well in the U.S. inspired him to go ahead with his push for an expansion of the reconciliation system in Brazil.  

As background he told us that the general idea of a meeting of reconciliation had been around during the time of the Empire in Brazil, but had largely been abandoned with the advent of the republic, when many were animated by Positivist ideas of clear regulation applied everywhere the same.  Results of a reconciliation meeting are more like common law. They are agreements among parties and specifically do not require the close exercise of specific rules. 

Brazilians like to make laws, he commented tangentially, but sometimes don’t think enough of how these laws will be implemented.  For example, he joked that he would not be surprised if there was a law against floods.  This sometimes overweening love of rules, even if they won’t be followed, impedes sometimes messy but effective institutions such as reconciliation meetings. 

These bodies are specifically NOT courts; a judge is not involved in the actual sessions.  A judge can legally sign (and enforce) an agreement that comes out of the reconciliation session, but does not intervene in the formation of the agreement itself.

He admits that the meetings are not uniform throughout Brazil and that there is significant resistance by lawyers and judges.  Some of this is principled – they don’t think justice is properly served, but some is probably just that they see the meetings as eroding their privileged position. Many people prefer the alternative to the court system, which is very slow and can be very expensive to use. 

When somebody used the term arbitration, our friend pointed out that this was specifically not what the reconciliation meetings were doing. Arbitration, he thought, would not fit in well with Brazilian cultural norms.  They either decide by themselves or go to the judge. Judges are involved in the reconciliation meetings, however. They record the agreement which becomes legally enforceable as a contract.

We have been sending IVLP and VV groups of Brazilian lawyers and jurist to the U.S. for some time and it seems to have a positive effect. Brazil’s legal system is based mostly in code law and so resembles continental Europe much more than a country like the U.S. which leans on common law. However many commercial and regulatory rules are based on similar principles in our countries. We can learn from each other.

Another guest at the party gave me the two minute version of Brazilian legal history. Brazil started off as a code law country, with Continental European style laws with roots in the Napoleonic or even the Justinian codes. But in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Brazilian elites were fascinated by the U.S. experience. They thought that they could learn from the other large republic in the Americas. So some Brazilian legal practice acquired an American accent.  He mentioned specifically Ruy Barbosa. This is a name I knew from streets named after him, but I learned that he was a great figure in Brazilian political, legal and literary circles. I was a little embarrassed not to know more. He is certainly someone I should get to know better.

My picture is unrelated to the story.  It is left over from my recent trip and shows a dock on the Amazon.  

December 23, 2011

Burgers w/o Borders and PD Success

Me cooking burgers with cowboy hatI would call it a public diplomacy triumph & I don’t think it is hyperbole to say so. We held “visa days” in Rio, São Paulo & Brasilia for student going to the U.S. on Science w/o Borders scholarships. There were about 600 served today.  The Brazilian government estimates that they will have sent 1500 to the U.S. by summer and more from then on thousands more.

In Brasilia, we held a big event to talk to them about the U.S. and get them ready to go to the U.S. They will be spread out all over the U.S.  

We called our event “Burgers w/o Borders.” The Ambassador and other American officers cooked and served hamburgers, American style, on a fried on a Webber grill. (I cooked too, as you can see in the picture.) Our goal was to create an American style cookout.

Always I try to learn from our successes as well as our failures and so I have been thinking about this. Getting this first wave of Brazilians to the U.S. only a few months after the Brazilian president announced the outlines of the program is a definite success. In the midst of such success, we need to determine the role of our team. How different would be the outcome if we did things differently? We don’t want to be like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, but we also don’t want to attribute to luck what was influenced or even shaped by our efforts. You cannot learn from experience if you take credit for everything or take credit for nothing.

Results are important, but the only way to improve is to study the process that went into the results. The challenge is when we study the process already knowing how the story ended.  Knowing the outcome, we work backwards, emphasizing events that seem to have contributed to what we know happened, but may not have done so, may not be duplicable or may not be recognizable in advance. Some people say that hindsight is 20/20, but this overestimates our ability to understand the real processes and underestimates our tendencies to tell good stories and create narratives even where they don't exist. Our stories usually overestimate deliberate actions of individuals involved, undervalue the importance of interactions among actors and neglect almost entirely the role of random events. We also tend to emphasize our own contributions. This is not only because we are egocentric, but also because information about our own actions is more readily available to us.  With those caveats in mind, I am thinking through the process.

I have written earlier about the larger program, Science w/o Borders. You can read about it here.  I won’t repeat. Let me talk here specifically about our visa days/Burgers w/o Borders, the reception we gave the students that made it an event, marked a transition, and created an impression.

Students at Science w/o Borders event at US Embassy 

First let me be open about what I think I can take credit for doing (caveats above applying).  I take credit for taking this program seriously and conveying the urgency to colleagues around Brazil.  I knew where we wanted to be. Leadership is intangible in many ways. Big successes or failures often look impossible before they happen, but then inevitable after the fact. By extension the person pushing it sometimes seems nuts before and irrelevant after. That was my role (yes - to seem nuts before & irrelevant after, and I did it well.)  I didn’t let things slip, pushed for success and let everyone know that I would back them up. W/o this leadership, I am convinced we would not have achieved this result. In the bigger picture, w/o the Mission's consistent, proactive support, I do not believe the students would have gone this semester. We would have had a trickle in the fall semester and it would have seemed to be the natural outcome.    

CAPES President interviewed by Brazilian media“My” biggest contribution was putting the right people in the right places and letting them do what they were good at doing. I have been teaching my Brazilian colleagues the use of the word “honcho” both as a noun and a verb.  I use it in a particular fashion.  For me the honcho, or the person honchoing, does what is needed to make something work. He/she doesn’t always have specific power he/she is working with in other cases and has to enlist cooperation through a variety of persuasion and power methods. 

I asked my colleague Lana to honcho the logistics of the program at the Embassy. She did a great job of coordinating the work of others. I think it is important that the big boss (i.e. me in this case) back the honcho, but not be in charge of details. This gives the actual honcho the ability to refer to higher authority and strengthens his/her ability to implement. You would think that having the ability to make the final decision would be strength, but it is often weakness. IMO, we in State often make decisions at too high a level and/or with too much consensus. My father told me that I should never spend a dollar to make a nickel decision. The honcho can make decisions with the cover of the big boss using the resort to higher authority if there are problems (i.e. can say "I would like to do it, but you know how the boss is.")

(It is very important that if we delegate responsibility, we also need to delegate authority for most decisions and freedom to make them. I hate it when someone gives responsibility and then comes back to second-guess or revisit all the decisions. Good leaders, IMO, add value by asking good questions and sharing experience when appropriate. Bad leaders subtract value by "taking charge" of details or "holding people accountable" while not giving them enough freedom to be responsible.  I am aware that I also suffer those faults and try tread lightly on working systems. I think of good leadership in forestry terms: know the environment; plant the right trees; thin and trim as appropriate; protect them from pests them; give them enough but not too much fertilizer to grow and let the system develop, all the time accepting that it is more complex in its details than you can understand.)

Students at Science w/o BorderAnother important “small” success was giving the program a catchy name. A project with a good name is almost always done better than one w/o one. We chose “Burgers w/o Borders” because it was a lighthearted parallel to “Science w/o Borders”.  It also had the advantage of fitting the program and the beauty of alliteration. In other words, it is easy to say; appropriate and memorable in the sense that it evokes a concrete image.

My colleagues had lots of ideas about making the event memorable in other ways. We had T-shirts and umbrellas to make the pictures memorable. Look at the picture down of the crowd with the umbrellas.  Now imagine it with just a couple people with ordinary clothes and no umbrellas. Look at my picture with the Burgers w/o Borders apron and the cowboy hat. Image makes a difference, doesn’t it?

On the day of the event, we put all hands on deck. There was some redundancy, but you need slack.  Better to have someone standing around unneeded than have someone needed not standing by.

Media was willing to cover the event because it was an event. Our press section colleagues were able to sell the it using the hook of the cookout event. They could promise good visuals and interesting stories from the student.  Of course, it didn't hurt that Science w/o Borders had been in the news recently. A good PD rule of thumb is that you should not create your own wave when you can catch and ride higher on one that is already coming your way. People are interested in "their" events, not ours. We also encouraged the students to bring and use their cameras and cellular phones. Young people are natural creators on social media, but you need to create opportunities for them. Since Burgers w/o Borders was not in the Embassy proper, security let them keep their devices.

Of course, much of the success was created by others. Our Consular sections all over Brazil were keys to success. They were fantastically cooperative. After all, visa day required visas. As I alluded immediately above, our security folks were also very helpful and flexible. This was a case where we were lucky, lucky to have great colleagues. I really cannot “analyze” that, except to say that keeping colleagues in the loop, showing them respect and understanding their needs is essential in any cooperative endeavor, and this category includes almost all human activities. 

Of course, our Brazilian friends will see it differently. From their point of view, WE are the support activity for their program and they are right. We are supporting their success. They are right too. It is a win all around, enough to go around. 

P.S.  Students arrived on buses and had to line up to get through security.  A line is a great PR opportunity, as all politicians know. You have a captive audience eager for some diversion. I worked the line on the way in, stopping to talk to forty or fifty Brazilians on as individuals. I think this made a great impression on the students. We spoke in Portuguese outside the Embassy and then English inside to show the transition. We joked about the quality of my hamburgers and generally made the personal connection.  I think this is something they will take with them and remember for a long time.  

More pictures at the Embassy Flickr site

December 14, 2011

How far can a dog run into the woods?

English teachers  

It is like playing an old video game where new monsters and obstacles keep on jumping up.  And just when you think you are done, you find that you have moved up to a new level, where you get to encounter a higher level of more devious monsters and more diabolical obstacles. That is how I feel dealing with getting a few hundred Science w/o Borders kids to the U.S.

President Dilma’s idea was great and historians may see it as a turning point in Brazil's development. She decided to send 100,000 Brazilian students overseas to study in the STEM (Science, technology, engineering & math) and put the resources and willpower behind the effort. The idea is to train Brazilians for the needs of the successful and more technically advanced country Brazil has become. It is also to open Brazil to the world.  The connections that the 100,000 make will be only the beginning of long collaborations. This is the idea, a beautiful idea, but somebody has to make it so. That task fell to the Ministries of Education and of Science and Innovation. Dilma gave them only a few months to create facts on the ground. And since the first kids were supposed to go to the U.S., it became our task too. It is great opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity. But this is where our video game experience started.

Implementation is hard.  Sometimes leaders think it is enough to have a visionary idea, to point the way.  Of course, somebody has to point the way, but there are tough steps on the dim and narrow road to at that bright happy region of the visionary. Of course, it is the unexpected things that trip you up and that old cliché that we should expect the unexpected is just plain useless (you end up in a kind of verbal Zeno’s paradox if you really think about what that means).  The challenge is that the biggest problems are often trivial, the lack of a properly filled out form, not enough slots for the TOEFL tests etc.

My colleagues smoothed out most of these things. The biggest hero, IMO, was the Fulbright Commission, but lots of people’s efforts were necessary, if sometimes not sufficient to get the job done. Many people did their parts when they needed to. I know of many, and I am sure there are others about which I am just unaware, deal busting dilemmas anticipated and overcome.

Our last challenge came this morning and for a while I thought it would finish us off.  IIE told us that we would not have the necessary visa forms for our visa day (when our Brazilian students would all show up at the Embassy and Consulates for their visas and briefings).  In the video game metaphor, this would be meeting the master villain on the last level before you “win”.  I thought it was “game over”. Fortunately, our Fulbright Director prevailed on IIE to send a person with the documents on a plane on Saturday.  I am again optimistic. This is still cutting it close and we are not out of the woods yet.

There is no going back for us and I believe we are coming out.  If we get the visas and briefings out of the way, our work is done – at least until next time.   We (and I speak broadly here to include all our partners, Brazilian & American) will have done what many said couldn’t be done, found, funded, placed, credentialed and deployed the first 600+ students to be followed by thousands more.  The initial condition sets the tone and this initial echelon is good.  We can bask in our glory for a few days, understanding full well that once it is done, everybody will think it was easy and inevitable.   Assuming it gets done.  Those chicks are not yet hatched. 

How far can a dog run into the woods?  He can run in only half way. After that he is running out. 

My picture is from another of our programs. We sponsor English teachers going to the U.S. on a scholarship. Two of the teachers are going to JMU.  I included the picture because it is in the general subject area - English teaching is one of those obstacles we are addressing - but it is here mostly because of the colors. The American and Brazilian flags are beautiful together, aren't they? Surely there is a lesson there.

November 08, 2011

Principals Come Home More Experienced

Principals with Brazilian flag 

The principals from each of the Brazilian states returning from their three-week programs in the U.S. come to one city on their ways home. They meet to share and report on their experiences and elect the Brazilian principal of the year. This year they went to Recife, so that is where I went too.

The principal of the year program is unbelievably good from my public diplomacy point of view. It is a Brazilian program that originated in part from a voluntary visitor tour in 1997. The principal of the year award for each Brazilian state and for Brazil as a whole was initiated in 1999. The Embassy sponsored exchanges with the U.S. in 2000 and the first group traveled in that year. It became a two-way exchange in 2004, when top American principals made return visits to Brazilian states. It is really a nation-to-nation (the American nation is greater than the American government) exchange. Principals from both sides see places that few ever visit.

The truly great PD aspect is that I – the PAO at the U.S. Embassy – get to moderate the debriefing and speak prominently at the award ceremony.  It is a big Brazilian program. CONSED, the national Association of Secretaries of Education, owns it. Yet we are a big part of it. Also present at the events are state secretaries of education from around Brazil. So we are talking to the best principals plus the leaders who make educational policy around the country. 

It doesn’t get any better than this in the Public Diplomacy world. And it has been going on for more than ten years.

Pictures taking at Principals ceremony 

The Brazilian principals divided into nine groups, clustered by where they went in the U.S. Each group reported on what they saw and their impressions. They went all over the place, from rural South Carolina or Virginia to urban Chicago and Brooklyn. American is a very diverse place and the challenges in Anoka, Minnesota or Poulsbo, Washington are not the same as in Chicago or Cleveland. But America, despite its size and diversity, shares many similarities, at least as seen by our Brazilian friends.

Award ceremony at Principal conference in Recife 

One of the things that impressed the Brazilians was the same thing Tocqueville saw. Americans are involved in ways beyond their government. Our Brazilian friends were impressed by the amount of parental involvement as well as how much community organizations contributed to schools. 

Long skinny building in RecifeThere are other differences. The Brazilians commented that American school days are “integral.”  This could be a confusing concept unless you knew that Brazilian schools tend to run in shifts, with different grades rotating in and out from early morning to evening.  Brazilian educators tend to believe that a whole day school is better.  It makes sense to me too. The Brazilian school shifts seem a bit rushed. Nobody really has a home. The same goes for teachers. Our Brazilian principals expressed surprise that most American teachers have their own classrooms and the kids move.  In Brazil the teachers are the ones who move. This leads to a kind of transience that hurts discipline. 

There are lots of criticisms of American public schools, but to hear the Brazilian principals’ report, we are doing just fine.  The schools the Brazilians visited are not chosen because they are “the best” and we do not try to sanitize their experience. But the schools are self-selecting – they have to apply - and have to possess conditions to host guests.  I think this de-facto selects the best, or at least eliminates the worst. It is also likely that the better parts of the schools are those that interact the most with foreign guests.

Some American public schools are excellent; others are very good.  Of course, some are bad and others are horrid.  Often these diverse & contradictory conditions exist in the same district or even in the same school.  Perhaps it is like the old story about the blind men and the elephant.  Reality will vary. 

I got to moderate the discussion by the principals, as I mentioned. I tried to say as little as possible, so as not to overtax my Portuguese but also to hear more of what they had to say. I was proud to hear report after report praising our American public schools, but a little conflicted, as mentioned above. Were the Brazilians just being nice or did they see something in American public schools that we missed? 

Let’s think about it from the point of view of someone trying to improve. You certainly should try to avoid mistakes, but you can probably improve faster if you concentrate on the positives. So if I was a Brazilian principal, I would be looking for the good things that I could copy or adapt to my own conditions.  The same goes for the American principals who will be paying a visit to Brazil in a couple of months. You don’t need to concentrate too much on the negatives, except to avoid them. And if you don’t have them in your own country anyway, what does it matter?  

We had an evening program where the principals got their award certificates and recognize the Brazil-wide principal of the year. Principal Adriana Aguiar from Gurupi in Tocantins won. It was a real show of solidarity, with the Secretaries of Education giving the award  (certificates of excellence in leadership and management) to those from their states. Some states had big cheering sections. I noticed particularly Amazonas, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul brought big teams. I got to give out the plaque that will go on the school. It was great seeing the excitement and enthusiasm and getting to be a big part of it.

Of course, I understand that I am just a symbol of the United States, but I can accept that.  The real rock star is our Brazilian colleague Marcia, who is known and loved by the principals and the people at CONSED.  She was doing this before I arrived and will (Ihope) continue after. Our local colleagues are the real source of public diplomacy success. They are a resource we often take for granted and sometimes fail to sufficiently appreciate. All public diplomacy, like all politics, is local and they are our local connection.

The pictures show the ceremonies and awards. The building is one of many tall skinny buildings I have seen around Recife. I guess the land is expensive. The area near the ocean is narrow. Sorry re the quality. I took them with my cellphone.

You can read more about this program at the Consulate's webpage here.

November 03, 2011

More on Youth Ambassadors

We got more good coverage from our Youth Ambassador program at this link.  My colleagues in Sao Paulo did a really good job.

October 31, 2011

Youth Ambassadors 2012

Youth Ambassador ceremony 

We announced this year’s winners for Youth Ambassadors in São Paulo on Friday last.  This program keeps getting bigger and better. It attracts an ever larger pool of highly-qualified candidates (this year 7500); pulls in more cooperating institutions (now 64 partners in the recruitment and screening process}; and is acting like a magnet pulling in resources from the private sector. 

This year firms like IBM, DOW and Bradesco promised tens of thousands of dollars more in support. In fact, we are quickly approaching the legal ceiling of PA Brazil’s authorized fundraising for a single project, which is $75,000.  In addition, outside the actual project firms are providing things like mentoring programs, free software, internship and/or job opportunities, and scholarships to the winners and alumni.  This is a program that has captured the imagination of aspiring students all over Brazil and all those who support them.

Ambassador cutting the cake at YA event in Sao Paulo

Some people say that success is achieved through resources and they are right, but theirs is not a dynamic perspective. It is clearly true that good ideas and well managed programs attract resources.

The ceremony of the announcement filled the auditorium at the Alumni BNC in São Paulo. But the crowd gathered to hear Ambassador Thomas Shannon announcing the forty-five winners from among around 150 finalists was only the tip of the iceberg.  We live streamed the event to around 500 viewers, but even this doesn’t tell the whole story.  We know that many BNCs were hosting events with the streaming featured.   The State Secretary of Education in São Luís do Maranhão hosted an event in his auditorium which included eighty teachers, students and parents.  But even this is not all.  For weeks leading up to the big event, events were being held in all the states of Brazil to bring together students and talk about the program.  This is a really big show for a really big project, the culmination of a great process but just the start of another.

After the announcement came the media in proud hometowns all over Brazil. Headlines like “Londrina terá representante no Jovens Embaixadores de 2012” (a Londrina girl will represent the Youth Ambassadors) “Estudante cuiabano representa MT” (A student from Cuiaba will represent Mato Grosso.) or  “Estudante de Araguaina é a nova Jovem Embaixadora 2012” (A student from Araguaina is the new Youth Ambassador 2012) set the tone.

Initial press reports are available at this link


October 30, 2011

Yesterday's Newspaper is Old Tomorrow; Homer is New Forever

Brasilia big sky 

A good measurement must be appropriate to the things being measured, stable and easy to understand. Public Diplomacy really doesn’t have such a measure.  Even in much more concrete marketing of goods or services, there is significant disagreement about the extent that advertising drives sales.  There are often rises or drops in sales that have nothing to do with the promotion.  For example, many firms did very well in the late 1990s when the economy was strong.  Many have seen sales drop after the economy went south in 2008.  Is advertising to blame?

They tell us that we need to have a culture of measurement & that should measure all our programs against objective criteria.  I agree.  My problem is with the proxies we must use in PD and the time periods we assess.   By proxies, I mean things we can measure that we think reflect the real thing we want to measure, that is changes in attitudes that lead to changes in behaviors.  At best, we can do opinion research, but such surveys are often poorly designed (what real use is the question about whether or not you approve of the U.S., for example?). Besides, people often do not tell the truth to pollsters or even know themselves what they really think.

But the bigger challenge is time-frame.  We want to know within days if our exchange program or outreach effort was successful.  That is a little worse than planting an acorn and asking a day later about the size of the tree.

I talked to a lot of people during my recent trip to São Paulo.  I did not have a representative sample, since I talking only to those who had been affected by our PD programs.  I also am unable to factor out my own bias.  I asked the questions based not only on what people were telling me but also on my own ideas about what was important.  Nevertheless, I believe that my visit provided insights that, added to my extensive experience in diplomacy, produce a useful narrative.

Donna Hrinak giving interview 

My narrative starts not with a contact but with a creator.  I went to São Paulo a day early so that I could meet Ambassador Donna Hrinak and watch the taping of her telling the story of Youth Ambassadors.  You can follow this link for more information about the program in general.  I was impressed by how well the program had grown and progressed since it originated in Brazil ten years ago.  This primed me to look for other signs of achievement.

I didn’t have to look far. I didn’t have to look at all.  The experience found me in the person of one of the former Youth Ambassadors, now an intern at DOW Chemical in São Paulo. Wesley told me how the Youth Ambassador program had changed his life and that he viewed his life history divided into before and after the program.  Wesley came from a slum in São Paulo so nasty that taxi drivers refused to enter.  He was poor in the existential sense but he lived hopefully in a hopeless place. 

The Youth Ambassador program was his way out.  But he didn’t leave physically.  He still goes back home to work on helping others improve and volunteers at an orphanage there.  His presence alone is a continual example that challenges can be met and overcome.  Our public diplomacy helped achieve this, but it is not mere social work and not limited to Wesley.  I have heard similar stories over and over from people who will be future leaders of Brazil.  They say they will never forget the generosity of the United States and I don’t think they will.  But Wesley told me something else more poignant. 

He said that before being chosen as a youth ambassador, he thought he was a limited person.  He now understands that he has no limits.  America is like that, he said, and it helps create this in others.  Can we have a better advocate carrying a better message?  You can see Wesley alongside this article, speaking at our youth ambassador event.  And there are scores of others like him.   Thanks Donna.

Pool at SESC 

Then I went over to SESC.  We don’t have anything exactly like SESC in the U.S.  It is a corporatist institution created by Getúlio Vargas that receives mandatory contributions from commercial firms. In return it runs social centers that feature gyms, arts exhibits, plays, swimming pools and even a dental clinic.  I was impressed but with somewhat mixed feelings.  It was a lot like things I had seen built by the communists in Poland or by authoritarians in other parts of Europe, a paternalist network.  But nice; undeniably something that worked.

I met the directors, who were honest, earnest and dedicated.  I started to praise their operation, mentioning that we don’t have similar networks in the U.S.  This they knew, because many of their number had been to the U.S. on our voluntary visitor program.  The VV program is, IMO, a highly leveraged PD tool.  The visitors pay their own way and so are highly motivated – at least they have some skin in the game.   My colleagues in the U.S. help set up a program of study.  In the case of SESC, they studied how charitable organizations and NGOs work in the U.S.


What the SESC people explained to me, I could not have said better myself, although I have on many occasions tried to explain it.  They saw that in the U.S. we indeed did not have public funded organizations like SESC.  Our public-funded institutions were often more literally public funded – and staff. The U.S., they understood, was exceptional in the way that voluntary contributions of time and money ran many of the things that governments need to do in other places.   This goes back at least to the time of Alexis de Tocqueville, I added.  They approved of the way things were done in the U.S.  They understood the subtlety that the U.S. Federal government does not much sponsor culture, but that the America nation does in spades.  Again, imparting this understanding of the U.S. is an important PD objective.  I could have brought down an expert on NGOs or maybe given a lecture on Tocqueville.  As a matter of fact, I have done both those things more than once.  How much better is it for intelligence and involved Brazilians to do the explaining for us?

In the cases I mentioned above, how would we measure?  I suppose the people involved would have expressed satisfaction when they were debriefed.  But the understanding and appreciation developed over time.   I understood from the SESC people that they had shared their experience all around their organization, even published a book about it.  As the experience in America mixed with experiences of their own in running their operation in São Paulo, it became something different, something their own, something sui generis the offspring of Brazil and America shaped by its own environment.  They also have maintained contact with Americans they met on the trip, forming with them an engaged and interactive community.   This is the kind of thing that public diplomacy can foster but not create.  We can create only the conditions for others to prosper.  We did.

I had supper with a couple of people from the arts community. As a talent-free individual myself, I don’t really do art, but I understand that others do and the value it has for the community.  One of my meal-mates we the culture director at a local TV station.  When I mentioned that I had been in Brazil in the 1980s, she explained how an IVLP grant they received during that time had changed her career path and not incidentally her views of the U.S.  Back in her youth, she recounted, she had been influenced by European artists and intellectuals in ways not generally favorable to the U.S.  The master narrative was that Americans were a materialistic bunch who didn’t really have much use for the higher things in life.  Her visit to the U.S. showed her that this was not true. 

She learned that the American system was simply different.  It was much more flexible, less dependent on centralized or bureaucratic planning but as or more effective as other systems in “delivering” arts and culture to people all over the vast country.  In many ways, she said, this system was more appropriate for Brazil, which like the United States is a vast and diverse country.  Since the time of her visit, now a quarter of a century ago, the insights she got on the IVLP tour have been developing and evolving.  Of course, the way she thinks today is not based on what she “learned” in America during her first brief visit, but the visit was instrumental in setting her thoughts in a new direction. This is what she told me.

 Our other meal-mate was headed to New York the next day and from there to Washington to meet contacts at the Kennedy Center.  His ties to the U.S. were greatly enhanced by a voluntary visitor program (the one where the visitors pay for the trip and we help arrange meetings) three years ago.  Among the places he went was Julliard in New York, where he met with Americans eager for exchanges of talent and experience with Brazil.  This led to a robust series of privately funded and run exchanges.  It is not enormous.  We are talking about five people a year, but this is exactly the kind of individual networks that hold society together and help bring communities together, in this case artistic communities in São Paulo and New York.  The American nation is greater than the American government.  In this case, like in others, activities of diplomats and bureaucrats like us helped bring together Americans and Brazilians in sustainable ways that is leading to cross fertilization and enrichment on all sides.

Let me get back to my original question.  How do I - how do we - measure these things?

We have lots of friends in influential places.  They are in constant contact with Americans influential in their fields.  They actively seek contacts with us and with American counterparts; they talk to their fellow Brazilians about the U.S., sponsor programs and even publish books about their experiences or the outgrowths from them months and years later.  This didn’t happen in a few days.  We would have been able to boast about media coverage, but even the most widespread television or newspaper coverage would pale in comparison to what that slow building of friendship achieved.  

I used to think we were in the information business years ago when I was a young officer.  I measured my success mostly by media coverage and “buzz”. Now I understand that we are in the relationship business and relationships take time to grow. To illustrate, I suppose we could say that relationships are the orchards and the day-to-day information is the fruit, or maybe it is the urgent versus the important. We have to do the fast-media. Not paying attention to this can be hazardous.  But, we should go for the high value-long term results whenever possible.

Yesterday’s newspaper is old tomorrow; Homer is new forever.

My top picture shows Brasilia roads, with the green of the recent rains and the shining sky.  Below is Ambassador Donna Hrinak being interviewed about Youth Ambassadors. Down one more in Wesley, one of our most successful YA. Below that is a pool at SESC followed by a Sao Paulo business center. 

October 09, 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

Museum Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba 

I am not a big admirer of modern art, although I am learning to like it better. We usually appreciate things as we learn more about them and get more accustomed to them. It is like exposing your kids to vegetables. Eventually they get to like them at least some. I also understand that this art is popular among many of our friends and I can see the potential for exchanges and cooperation between our Brazilian friends and American counterparts.  In our work, the relationships are what count. Art, music & information are the shared interests that make the human connections work and make our work interesting. That is why we scheduled meetings with leaders at the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba and a couple days later at the Fundação Iberé Camargo in Porto Alegre.

Inside the eye at the Oscar Niemyer Museum 

The Oscar Niemeyer Museum includes lots of his work as permanent exhibits and the works of other artists rotate through. During my visit, they were showing Polish poster art. The Fundação Iberé Camargo has a similar policy, with one floor devoted to the work of their eponymous artist and the others featuring temporary collections. (FYI - Most people are familiar with Oscar Niemeyer. Iberé Camargo was a Brazilian expressionist  from Rio Grande do Sul.) In both cases, the most remarkable part of the installations for me was not the art itself, but rather the cultural communities built around the museums and the buildings that housed them, which were also works of art.  

Theatro Sao Pedro in Porto Alegre 

(Among the people I was supposed to meet in Porto Alegre was Eva Sopher, the woman responsible for the Theatro São Pedro.  You can see the Theatro just above. Notice that it is spelled in the old fashioned way, with an h. It was from her that I first learned to appreciate the importance of the total community that clusters around any cultural center. I wrote a post about this a couple years ago and if you read this post I suggest you read that one too at this link. I added the picture, BTW, so it is the same in both, but I took it on this most recent trip. Unfortunately, Eva couldn’t make it to our meeting.  I wanted to tell her the story. I did talk to her on the phone, but I don’t think I made the point well.)

Porto Alegre, RS Brazil 

You can see in the picture of the Oscar Niemeyer Museum why they informally call it “the eye.” Fundação Iberé Camargo also has a great architecture with “floating” corridors (i.e. the hang outside the building) to get from floor to floor. The building is made from white concrete and the “floating” aspect must have been a significant engineering challenge.  Nevertheless, the most striking aspect, IMO, is the beautiful location.  You can see on the picture the fantastic view of Porto Alegre you get from the Fundação building.

October 04, 2011

Saying the Words of Others

Interview at conference on Black enterprise 

I was one of the opening speakers at conference on black entrepreneurism in Salvador that I talked about in my last post.  It is part of our program on encouraging racial equality in both Brazil and the U.S.  You can read about it at this link.

This is part of my ceremonial diplomatic duties and the part of communications that I am less good at.  I am good at the extemporaneous talks and persuasion, but I have a real problem actually reading a speech.  I always want to skip ahead and I tend to accelerate as I am reading. I could make the excuse that I have to read it in Portuguese but the concern is not valid.  If I have to read a speech and say all the words (as opposed to the free form) I think I actually prefer to do it in Portuguese. It is easier for me to read slowly in my non-native language. I worked with the language coach yesterday to get the pronunciation better.

I have been practicing this entire career and still feel like a freshman when I get in front of a crowd. Nevertheless, in the last couple of years I think I have finally gotten a bit better at this type of performance precisely because I now understand that it is indeed a performance.  They don't come to see me; they come to see a representative of the United States of America. I am expected to play a role and I do that. When giving a set speech, originality and knowledge are not virtues. I didn’t write the speech. I am there to convey the policy produced by others and it is much more important to be true to that than to add my own spin. My job is to wear a nice suit, smile at the appropriate time, read the words right and modulate the sounds so that at least some members of the audience enjoy the experience.

I have to fight the feeling that I am a fraud for not producing my own material.  This is where the recognition that it is a performance has helped a lot. The higher you get in the organization, the more you are called on to perform the ceremonial task using words prepared by others.

Speaking of others, my picture shows one of the other participants. I don't have a picture of myself, and he is better looking anyway.  

September 30, 2011

What Can 100,000 Smart Kids Accomplish?

US Capitol Mall in rain 

I chaired my first Fulbright Commission meeting. This is a great honor & I won’t deny that I take some joy in bragging about it here, even if I didn’t do anything in particular to earn the honor. I take the responsibly seriously and I took the Fulbright course from FSI distance learning so I understand the history and the process. Ours is a binational commission, which means that the Brazilian side shares in the decision making and funding. It is a great asset to our two countries and to the world, since such encouragement of scholarship is good for everybody. 

Besides the usual business, we talked about Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s aspiration to send 100,000 Brazilians overseas to study in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Math & Engineering). We all have been thinking about that and the all the world’s universities have been beating a path to Brazil to try to get a piece of this action, especially since the Brazilians will fund the studies. Fortunately for us, President Dilma has said, and repeated on many occasions, that she wants at least half of the students to go to the U.S.  Today there are only around 9000 Brazilians studying in the U.S. Multiplying that by five will be a challenge.  

Our interests and those of our Brazilian friends correspond almost perfectly, but so do some of the challenges. Brazil is a big country like the United States and Brazilians, like Americans, are not among the most polyglot people of the world. Americans are lucky; our English, is the international language of business, science, education & entertainment. Brazilian leaders recognize that more Brazilians will need to know English at a higher level if the country is to continue to thrive in the wider world. Weak English will be one of the challenges in sending 100,000 Brazilians to studies overseas. It is not only in the U.S., the UK or Australia that English is necessary. Many Brazilians bound for places like China, India, Germany and even France will study mostly in English.   

English and Education are priorities of ours too. One of my goals is to make it easier for Brazilians to study in the U.S. I understand that just pushing harder to get more young people interested in the U.S. is not the answer. We need to smooth the path and remove obstacles. A problem with English proficiency, and the knowledge that goes with it, is the biggest hurdle, or at least the one we can most readily address. 

Fortunately, we have some solutions. I have written on several occasions about our BNCs. They already reach thousands of Brazilians and often exactly young people who might want to study in the U.S. So we are working with the union of BNCs to develop a course that would include intensive English plus acculturation to U.S. university culture. We would do this in cooperation with our EducationUSA colleagues. The courses would help in general with English and specifically with the TOEFL test of English proficiency. 

I don’t fool myself into believing that our efforts will determine the future of 190 million Brazilians, but I am certain that we will positively affect the lives of thousands of young Brazilian, enrich the lives of thousands of Americans who will become their friends & help American universities. This is no small thing.

The Brazilian aspiration is beautiful. As an American I feel proud that so many choose the U.S and American universities as their destination.  

As I have written before, we have been working in Brazil for generations (Fulbright has been here since 1957). We have structures in place that facilitate educational exchanges. Beyond that, the American nation is greater than the American government, and American universities, NGO and others have also been active. But our network has been carrying a relatively small number of mostly high level student and professors. What our Brazilian friends imagine now is a much bigger number with participants from all parts of Brazilian society. I think of this like the streets of São Paulo. The network is designed for a much lower level of traffic.  We need to figure out ways to make it work better.

My picture is left over from my recent visit home. It shows the book fair on the Mall in Washington.  

September 23, 2011

Washington Dreaming

Capitol in DC from Arlington 

I had not seen rain for three months, but it has rained every day since I have been back.   It has made the grass emerald green. It is strange to be home, maybe stranger because I took the night flight. I left Brazil at night and arrived in the U.S. was the sun was coming up. It is like a waking from a dream. I find myself back home and it seems as though I never left.  

Rain at Atlanta airport 

My time in America will be short.  I am here for a conference with my fellow PAOs and to consult with colleagues.  Our work in public affairs is not rocket science. Everything we do is simple.  You need energy, persistence and experience. Meeting with our colleagues inspires energy and persistence and helps exchange experience.  This meeting, IMO was better than most because it emphasized the exchange of real work experience.  I don’t need to hear any more theories about public affairs by people who used to do the work or maybe just read about it in books. Our work is not amendable to detailed plans. We are creating it every day.  It is a continuous iterative process.  I wrote about this process aspect a couple years ago at this link and I stand by it.

Street scene in Arlington VA 

One of the big differences between Brazil and the U.S. has to do with fences. In Brazil, almost all the houses are surrounded by tall security fences and ground level windows have bars. American cities are open. Our fences are often decorative. A picket fence with a gate that doesn’t lock is not designed to stop would-be burglars.

Art in Rosyln Va.

September 12, 2011

September 11 Ten Years Later in Ceilândia

Right after the 9/11 attacks, the students at School #8 in Ceilândia made an American flag representing their feelings and sympathy toward Americans.  It was a beautiful and moving gesture and several generations of Foreign Service Officers have kept the flag over the last ten years and kept the memory of how it was made and presented.  

Right after the 9/11 attacks, the students at School #8 in Ceilândia made an American flag representing their feelings and sympathy toward Americans. It was a beautiful and moving gesture and several generations of Foreign Service Officers and Brazilian colleagues have kept the flag over the last ten years and kept the memory of how it was made and presented.

Newspaper report of 9/11 event in CielandiaWe reconnected today; this time we went to the school in Ceilândia where we met the new generations of school and a few of the original kids, now young adults.  I admit that it was a good media event with great visuals.  We got coverage on radio, TV & in newspapers.  But I think it was also a good way to pay back, or maybe pay forward, friendship and sympathy expressed a decade ago at a time when we really needed friends. 

The kids were very friendly and funny. They liked to hear us speaking English, even though they couldn’t understand it.  Some asked what their names would be in “American,” but names don’t really change.  One little girl very seriously promised that if we came back next year, she would speak to us in English.   It was hard to understand their questions and I have to admit that I am not really very good at talking to little kids in any language, but I tried with limited success.  When they asked me about my favorite team, I told them Corinthians, because that is the team that came quickest to mind. I found immediately out that their favorite team is Flamengo.  Who knew? Flamengo is based in Rio de Janeiro.  I also learned that the team recently signed a very good player called Ronaldinho Gaúcho & that Flamengo is not named after the birds with a similar name. You can learn a few things from little kids. Next time somebody asks me about my favorite team, I can say Flamengo and reference Ronaldinho. I will be okay as long as nobody asks any follow-up questions. I always wanted to know more about spectator sports, but I just don’t care.  I am the opposite of most guys. I watch the news every night, but my attention drifts when the sports comes on.  I think I will master a few more facts about football, however.

BTW – Ceilândia is one of Brasilia’s satellite cities. It grew up out of an informal occupation by people who worked in Brasilia but couldn’t afford homes there. Even the name of the city reflects this.  The CEI comes from Centro de Erradicação de Invasões, which means center of eradication of invasions; in this case the term “invasions” refers to irregular occupations of land near the capital.

My colleagues did a very good job. The visit to School #8 in Ceilândia was the last event in our 9/11 campaign themed on resilience “Superação”. The webpage is here. Our social media got around 170,000 comments and probably around a million visitors.  We also got good coverage on TV and in newspapers. My colleagues also made a good video to go with the visit in Ceilândia. We sponsored graffiti artists to paint a couple of walls at the school. You can see it being done on the video.  

The pictures show the kids at the celebration. Below is a newspaper article reporting on the event. The last picture is an interesting juxtaposition of the Brazilian symbol of Christ that stands above Rio with the Statue of Liberty. We didn't make it. It is a little corny, but the thought is nice.

Please look at our videos here & here.  IMO, they are very good.  The one shows how art overcomes the gang markings. The other shows the story of the Brazilian kids and the flag.


September 02, 2011

All That Jazz Too

Our consulate in São Paulo made this video of the jazz master class I described in an earlier post.  Follow this link.

August 30, 2011

A Banda-Larga Public Diplomacy Success

Our Information Section did something really great with social media. I find it almost unbelievable.It came, as many things do, at the intersection of preparation and changing conditions, with a little bit of luck. Let me explain.

We launched our 9/11 commemoration campaign a couple days ago. Our theme is “superacão” or resilience & overcoming difficulties. My colleagues prepared a poster show. We did some media interviews & generally reached out to Brazilian media and people. There is no shortage of attention to 9/11 in Brazil. We don’t have to create a demand.  But we do prefer that the narrative be one of superacão and resilience rather than destruction.  We want to remember and honor the victims, but emphasize the resilience of America.  

Among the things I find most appealing is a program we have set for September 12. Ten years ago, after the attacks of 9/11, a school in Ceilândia, just outside Brasilia, made an American flag for us. All the students contributed part. It was very touching and we still have their work. We will return to the school for a ceremony and have invited the original students, now young adults, and their teachers to join us. Response has been great and I look forward to taking part. But I am drifting. Let’s return to social media.

We launched the campaign this weekend and as of this writing we have more than 106,000 responses. We might have had a few more, but the initial surge crashed our server and we had move to a bigger server. Our theme of superacão was popular with our audiences. They were invited to write their own feelings about 9/11 and/or their own stories of superacão. And they did. Our Facebook page has almost 10,000 new members and we have gained another 38,000+ on our Orkut platform. Orkut is popular with non-elite audiences in Brazil. A video of Ambassador Thomas Shannon talking about 9/11 has garnered 9,260 views as of this morning, but I figure more than 8000 by the time you read this. Today we were getting almost 1000 new comments every hour. I say comments, not visitors and not “hits”. A commenter has to take the time to write something. 

Our initial demographic analysis indicates that participants are coming to us from all over Brazil, even interior towns indicating that Internet has penetrated far into Brazil. Many of our participants are from the less-privileged social groups. This is because the Orkut component is providing them a forum, we believe.    

I want to emphasize again that these are responses, not mere “liking”. Of course, we have been unable to look at all 100,000+ responses, but our sampling indicates that most are thoughtful. Most are also favorable to the U.S. Many of the personal stories of resilience are moving.   

We will follow up with social media and with boots on the ground. I remain a little skeptical of social media that doesn’t yield physically tangible results. One of our initial ideas is to take representative groups from various cities and invite them to programs or representational events when we visit their home towns. This will create a good media opportunity both in MSM and new media, especially in those places were we rarely tread. It makes it more concrete and exciting for the participants and fits in well with our plant to reach out to the “other Brazil”, i.e. those places not Rio, São Paulo or Brasilia. As I wrote earlier, we had planned to reach to the 50 largest cities.  I had to add a few extra so that we could encompass all state capitals, even in places with thin populations and some cities of special significance, such as an especially good university, for example. I ended up with 61, but I think I will find five more so that I can call the plan “Route 66”.

I don’t know how many Brazilians we will have touched by the time we are done with this campaign, but I think we are doing okay so far. As I have written on many occasions, this is a great place to work. The only problem is that we might get tired taking advantage of all the opportunities. 

Up top I mentioned the intersection of preparation, good luck and changing conditions. Preparation is what my colleagues did and have been doing. They built a social media system ready to be used. It needed an opportunity. They also prepared for what they knew would be a big anniversary. But this program would have gone nowhere had not Brazil expanded its internet network, so that people could respond. I don’t think this success could have happened last year or even six months ago. One of the Portuguese terms I learned was “banda larga”. It means broadband. Many Brazilians were learning the term and its meaning the same time I was. Now they have the capacity to log in and they are doing it. New fast-spreading technologies have allowed Brazilians to jump over a digital divide that we thought was as wide as the Grand Canyon. We are lucky to have these conditions.

August 27, 2011

Seventy Years in Salvador

Associação Comercial Bahia  

Our BNC in Salvador, ACBEU, celebrated its seventieth anniversary. It was founded when much of the world was already at war and only months before the United States would be dragged too.  The context is not coincidental.  The founders understood the need for the two greatest nations of the Western Hemisphere to come together in the face of all of this rising sea of trouble.  They wanted to make their contribution. 


I say “our” BNC.  The accuracy of the usage depends on what you mean by the word “our.”  It is certainly “our” in the sense of U.S.-Brazil and it is our in the sense of the U.S. government representing the U.S. nation. We helped.  But it is mostly theirs.  It belongs to the people of Salvador, who over generations have built ACBEU to the institution it has become.  The thing that impressed me most about ACBEU, what has impressed me about all the BNCs I have visited, is the depth of community involvement.  There are people who have been involved with this BNC for two generations.  The son of one of the founders spoke at the anniversary celebration and around the room were leading members of the Salvador community.

AcBEWU mural 

I talked to a guy about my age who runs a charity that helps a thousand poor kids with education, medical care and general direction. He proudly told me that he had been a student at ACBEU many years before and that it has helped shape his life.  This is an example of a long term impact. The Chairman of ACBEU Board estimated that they have around 420,000 alumni, many like the man I mentioned above doing important work in Salvador.


ACBEU has around 6000 students this year.  It is the usual BNC mix, with mostly young people but also adults and professional students.   ACBEU supports an EducationUSA advising center; they have strong partnerships with local businesses and governments and the reach out to the community, giving poor kids scholarships and holding some classes in the poor neighborhoods.  These are all great things that most BNCs do.  An unusual aspect of ACBEU was its American student contingent. 

ACBEU hosts around three-hundred Americans each year who come to learn or perfect their Portuguese.  We talk a lot about two-way exchange, but it more often is Brazilians going to the U.S. Brazil is a great country and getting more important all the time.  We need to develop a bigger group of Americans who understand this country, its language and customs.  These students mostly come through linkages with American universities.  American students want to come to Bahia and the cultural experience is great. 

We also met one of our ELFs – English Language Fellows.  This particular ELF, Jennifer, is housed at ACBEU.  Among the things she does train high school English teachers, obviously another high-leverage activity since they will in turn train thousands of kids.  We are trying to expand this program in Brazil to help satisfy the seemingly inexhaustible demand for English language.  We currently have only two in the country: one in Recife and the one in Salvador that we met.  But next year we should get four more funded by ECA and another one funded by the public affairs.   In addition, the Secretary of Education in the state of Pernambuco wants five more ELFs and he says that he will pay for with his own funds.  ELFs have always been hosted by local partners, but I don’t think this type of full cost-share has ever happened before and it is certainly the first time in Brazil that we have had that kind of partnership.  Our English Language Officer in São Paulo is figuring out the details.  You always know when somebody really wants want something when they put their time and/or money up.  

ELFs are is a great way to reach young Brazilians, a high leverage activity, since we are helping them get what they want and we get a self-selecting group of highly motivated people, who are likely to be influential in the future. 

I have marveled at how easy it is to work in Brazil. It is because of these programs implemented over many years that we can so easily do our business in this country.  The polling data give us their ephemeral numbers of how many like us and how many don’t. Currently we are well-liked in Brazil, according to the polls.  I read polls and I pay attention to them, but I understand their limits.  People have opinions that they report and they have things that they do; these are often not closely related. I know that through good times and bad times, we have friends. 

The top picture shows  Associação Comercial Bahia. Below that is me at the commemoration trying to look good. The next two pictures show murals at ACBEU. They have an art gallery space. New artists can show their work there.  There is no money charged, but the artists have to leave a work of art at ACBEU.

August 24, 2011

The Goal of the Process is the Process

Sao Paulo View

I watched “Remember the Titans” today. The story is a common one, retold since the time of Homer or Gilgamesh.  Different people, maybe even enemies, come together to achieve a common goal and in the process of working toward the goal they become a team.  They learn to respect each other by working together. Winning the championship is not the story; becoming a team is the real theme and long-lasting mutual respect is the long-term outcome.  

State Department of Education in Sao Paulo 

A successful public diplomacy program is like that. We don’t win friends in the long run by always being right or by convincing people of the righteousness of our cause; we win friends by working together on a common cause.  And the process of doing the task is often more useful than the final outcome. Creating a process IS the goal if your purpose is to make friends for the long run. The key to finding joy in this endeavor is to find a worthy common purpose that will absorb the energies of the participants and capture their imaginations.   I mentioned our school principal exchange before. I didn’t know a thing about it a few months ago, but I love this program.  It takes top-performing Brazilian public school principals and sends them to the U.S. where they work with American counterparts for three weeks. Then they come back to Brazil to report on their experiences to their Departments of Education and their colleagues.  They hold their big conference in a different city each year.  It will be in Recife this time on November 5.

This year we will have representatives of twenty-four of the twenty-six Brazilian states. They usually do not come from the biggest cities in Brazil and they do not go to the biggest cities in the U.S.  It is a heartland –to-heartland exchange as well as a heart-to-heart emotion.  Next summer, after keeping in contact over the intervening months, the American principals will come to Brazil. I wrote a little about the principal exchange in an earlier post. This is a great process in  and of itself and if we achieved the goal of bringing the principals together I would consider it a grand success. It puts Americans and Brazilians in a common quest to improve public education in our two countries.  But it is even deeper than that.  The Brazilians and the American institutions involved take the selection process very seriously. Dozens of Brazilian principals vie for each opening. Thousands of people are involved and I believe they are improved by it.  

Our youth ambassador exchange is celebrating its tenth anniversary next year and it keeps on getting better.  It started out when then U.S. Ambassador Donna Hrinak wanted to do something to reach a youth audience in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  Our PA section came up with the idea of sending twelve ordinary young people from public high schools to the U.S.  It was a modest start and it is still not a program that reaches masses of people, but it has grown.  Now we send thirty-five and work with 7500 students. And again the process is what touches most people.

This year we got around 7500 applicants, as I mentioned above. All speak English and are good students. They apply through sixty-four of our partner organizations throughout Brazil, all of Brazil including little towns in places like Acre or Rondonia, where we can rarely tread.  This partnership is valuable. They are BNCs, education departments and schools, all of which are willing to devote many hours of their people’s time to the service of what they consider a worthy cause.  Everybody is a volunteer and they do it for the love of learning and the future of their country.  In the process we build friendships.

The applicants write essays about American topics – in English, which are judged by boards that include university professors, teachers and BNC officials. They narrow the field to 180 finalists. After that a board in Brasilia made up of our CAO, our lead Brazilian employee plus some other people from consulates in Brazil. Thirty-five get a scholarship to visit the U.S.  This year, since it is the tenth anniversary, we want to send “plus ten” or forty-five. We are looking for corporate sponsors for this addition, which is another opportunity for partnership.

All the finalists get something. Those not chosen as youth ambassadors get a week of English immersion at one of Brazil’s great BNCs.  I wrote about the last time  here and here.

The lucky winners go to the U.S.   During their first visit in 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell took the time to meet with the group. He spent more than a half hour with them, which is a lot of time for a busy guy like him at that time.  Subsequently, they have met other Secretaries of State plus people like Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.  It is a class act.

We always get a lot of great press in Brazil, which magnifies the reach of an already great program.  This year we believe we will get the winners announced on one of Brazil’s most popular TV variety programs.  It will reach millions of Brazilians with the kind of excitement generated by American Idol. I am not at liberty to reveal details now, since we are still in negotiations, but I am reasonably certain that we will make a big noise o/a October 22.  

So this is a great program in terms of tangible PR results, as is the principal exchange. We get press and we get noticed.  By I return to what I consider more important, the lasting relationships. We have friends all over Brazil who have worked with us on these programs and recall our common success.  Long after the newspapers have composted and the television glamor has faded, these relationships abide.

My pictures show the city of Sao Paulo from the offices of the Lemann Foundation and the SP State Ministry of Education. 

August 15, 2011

Youth Audiences: Simple, not Always Easy

Choir at assembly 

Reaching youth audiences in a meaningful way is a perennial challenge for public diplomacy. We sometimes pander to them, trying to supply vacuous messages in a pathetic attempt to be cool. I don't like this. We (USG) are not cool in the adolescent way and I don't want us to be. But I think we already have nearly perfect vehicles for sustained contact with youth. We may not appreciate them because we have been using them for a long time but we have not been using them in the same old ways.

I wrote a note about our BNCs earlier here & here.  So far, I have visited BNCs in Rio, Recife, São Paulo and Manaus and that has made me more certain than before that this is a great vehicle. We reach thousands of young people with almost no direct cost to the U.S. taxpayers.  BNCs have also played parts in a couple other great programs, that I will describe below. It is the synergy that we are always seeking. 

HS marching band in Manaus 

For example, one reason I went to Recife and Manaus last week was to follow up on participants in our youth ambassador program.  Young Brazilians went to the U.S. a few months ago.  Most of the winners were chosen with the help of the BNCs. The BNCs also did follow up programs with runners-up, as I described in an earlier post here & hereNow they are hosting Americans coming to Brazil as the counterpart of the program. It is a great experience for the young Americans, but it is even more important to the young Brazilians they meet.  The program lets us reach all parts of Brazil.  Each of the youth Ambassadors personally interacts with hundreds of Brazilians. Through social media and traditional media (they are interviewed in newspapers, radio and TV) they reach even more.  One reason this is so effective is that they are in smaller centers too. An official American is a bigger deal in Manaus than in São Paulo and an even bigger deal in Rio Branco or Boa Vista.

In Manaus, I had planned to meet the four American youth Ambassadors who went there. So I invited them to a meeting.  I had not counted on all their new Brazilian friends and former Brazilian youth Ambassadors. I ended up with twenty kids at Pizza Hut, excitedly talking about America with me and with each other. They want to know about ... everything.  They commented that they couldn't believe that American diplomats could be so open and eat so much pizza. They had a image of us with three-piece suits. The Pizza Hut encounter changed their minds. I am not saying that twenty kids will change the world, or our image here, but, as I wrote above, they talk.  It was touching that they worried about spending my money and wanted to chip in for the check.  It cost about $R20 a person. We can afford that and it was money well spend. I think I will try to regularize these kinds of meetings with young people. I used to do it a lot in Poland and it worked well.  Kids everywhere like pizza. Me too.

The other program I have been following around is the Brazil-U.S. Principal Exchange Program. This one takes the best principal from Brazil and sends them to work with schools in the U.S.  It is followed by some of the best American principals who come to Brazil.  Each group studies the work of the others and suggests exchanges of best practices. These educators go to places where Americans are less common, like Acre, Tocantins, Mato Grosso or Rondonia. They reach thousands personally and maybe millions through the media.

I spent the morning in Manaus with the principal that went to Amazonas & Acre.  Her name was Sandra Boyles and she was a principal in the State of Georgia.  She made her report to the State Secretary of Education in Amazonas at a big assembly of school leaders from throughout the state. They met us - literally - with a band and a choir. 

I talked to the Secretary of Education Gedeão Timóteo Amorim during lunch that followed the program.  I have rarely found anybody so satisfied with one of our programs. He said that he had spoken with the principals that went from Amazonas and that his staff had lots of ideas for following up.  In fact, our current good situation is a partial follow up to an even to an earlier program. This guy was an IVP. He told me that he got many ideas about distance educations during his official visit to the United States.  Amazonas is mostly rain forests and it has few roads.  People have to travel hours by boat along the rivers or they have to fly. Amazonas today has one of the best organized distance learning systems in the world. And we helped; our program made a big difference. And the authorities in Amazonas recognize and appreciate it.

Our principal was treated like a rock star by the HS students and she told me that this had been her experience during his whole time in Acre and Amazonas.  Students, teachers and administrators flocked around to have their picture taken with us or to offer their words of English.  With the social media, they are sharing these pictures and sharing their experience.  She told me that it had been like this during her whole trip. The other principals confirmed this with their own stories.  I lost track of the number of times I heard some variation of “Americans are so much better than we thought from the news or movies” I heard from the kids. 

I am certain that we will have had a lasting positive effect on Brazilian education and I think the exchanges of ideas will have a lasting positive impact on U.S. education. But strictly from the public diplomacy point of view, I don’t think we could have made a greater impact on youth audiences in any other way. These programs work.

As much as we want direct contact with the youth audiences - future decision-makers- which these programs give us, I still believe in the imperative of reaching current decision makers.  This exchange program got us in close personal contact with decision-makers like principals, politicians and state secretaries of eduction who will decide what to do now.  The principal I was working directly with in Amazonas has impact in the states of Amazonas and Acre.  This program also sent principals to Alagoas, Ceará, Espirito Santo, Goiás, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais, Paraná, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Norte, Rondonia, Roraima, São Paulo, & Tocantins.  Suffice to say that the got to places were our public diplomacy would not otherwise reach.  They talked to people we would not otherwise meet and had experiences we will never have.  Beyond that, there is a network that has been created. This year's principals are benefiting from those that went before and so shall it be in the future. I repeat because it bears repeating that the American nation is greater than the American government.  A program like this lets our public diplomacy leverage the power of the American nation.

I also repeat again – just about everything we do in public diplomacy is simple. Success depends on energy and persistence in the application of things almost all of us know to do. We have to get out of the offices and among the audiences, fewer meetings with each other and more meetings with audiences. And we have to leverage the efforts of others. We all know that. It is simple, but maybe not easy to do. My first weeks have included lots of travel and literally hundreds of meetings with Brazilians. This “boots on the ground” approach is also something that works.  I hope I have the energy to keep it up and to keep up with the Brazilians.

Vice Consul interview on TV Globo Amazonas 

One more thing to add about our youth outreach. We are using the interaction of old and new media very well. During my stop at the TV Globo in Manaus, I ran into two of our vice-consuls, Dustin Salveson & David Fogelson doing TV and then online interviews about visas.  Nothing is we do really more interesting to Brazilian audiences than visas.  There are lots of myths and misconceptions.  Almost all Brazilians now who seek visas get them.  This is a change from years ago, but many people still believe the old system is still in place.

TV GLobo Manaus interview 

Beyond that, there is essentially no wait for student visas. I asked our vice-consuls to repeat that early and often.  You have to repeat the same message over and over. It gets boring for you to do it, but we have to remember that most people are hearing it for the first time and even if they heard it before, they probably did not pay attention. Our vice-consuls did a great job. You can see the pictures of the "event". This is a trifecta. We get television, live-online interview and a written record. 

I believe that you have to understand before you can try to be understood, which is why I am doing so much contact work and travel in Brazil.  I am learning a lot and my Portuguese is improving too. The more I see of what we are doing in Brazil, the more encouraged I become. Our colleagues of the past laid a great foundation and our colleagues now of doing a great job. Beyond that and most important, the Brazilians like and appreciate what we are doing.  I have always been lucky with my posts, but this one seems to be beyond great fortune.

August 09, 2011


Manaus Opera House 

My posts will be late an out of order.  I am really enjoying my work in Brazil and I asked my colleagues to create very tight schedules for me on my travels.  They did.  I am usually scheduled with an early morning or breakfast meeting, meetings during the day and then some sort of representational event at night.  I don’t write this so much to brag (maybe a little) but to emphasize the scheduling.   Back home, some people think the life of a diplomat is just doing fun things … and it often is.  It is great fun and personally rewarding to have the chance to meet so many Brazilians and talk to them about such a wide variety of concerns. 

But it is also very tiring.  I always tell people that everything about doing public diplomacy is simple.  You just have to keep doing it and keep doing it.  It is also hard to speak Portuguese all day AND at the same time keep track of the important things that are being said.  You will read in subsequent posts about our visits to a high-tech complex in Recife.  It is hard to talk nanotech in Portuguese.  Actually, many of the high-tech words are almost the same, but the concepts are not easy in a foreign language.

Manaus street 

The biggest challenge is writing notes.  What I post on the blog are derivatives of the notes, so you know what I am talking about.  I take out most of the names and some of the details and add a few more touristic details.  I generally cannot take written notes during meetings.  It would be strange or bad manners to pull out the old note book at every lunch meeting.  So I have to write notes within a day or two, otherwise I forget details.   If I don’t make a note and share it with others it is not really much of a meeting from the practical point of view. 

I think I should add a note about the “tourist” aspects of diplomacy, because this is something I  didn’t understand as a junior officer.  My first time in Brazil, I mostly worked on the things people call work. I wrote all my reports, made the official points etc.  I think I did a good job, but not a great one because I didn’t understand that the fundamental task of a diplomat (IMO) is to understand and appreciate the local reality.  I am not talking about the usual tourism, of course, but of a better understanding. The people I contact in Manaus want to know that I have seen and appreciate their Opera House, for example, even if some of them have not actually visited themselves, BTW. So one of the most important tasks is to learn about the points of pride or concern and just be there.  Imagine a diplomat in Washington who never had time to visit the Washington Monument or the Smithsonian.  His credibility is compromised.   So now I make it my business to study the places I go.  It makes my job a lot more interesting and makes me much more effective.  That is the part the blog posts reflect. 

The Brazilians that I meet  have often known other American diplomats.  The ones that they remember, the ones that were effective, are those that knew and appreciated Brazil, not the ones that effectively delivered talking points about the most recent hot issue.  They did that too, but they knew that the message has to be delivered in the proper cultural context.

My rant is done.  Have to get to work now.

The picture up top is indeed the Manaus Opera House, which I made sure to see. Below is a picture of modern Manaus.  It is a big and dynamic city. You would not know you were in the Amazon, except for the remarkable heat and humidity. 

August 06, 2011

Sports Diplomacy

Basketball w/o borders in Complexo do Alemao Rio 

I wrote about music in public diplomacy a few posts back.  This one is about sports diplomacy. I am belatedly getting around to writing this; it actually happened in Rio before the music program in São Paulo.

This one was also depended on the generosity of individual Americans, this time NBA basketball players. This program was also a great deal for us; it cost us absolutely nothing except our time to support the activities and publicize them.

band at Complexo do Alemao Rio 

Our part consisted mostly of attending a basketball clinic at a community center in the Complexo do Alemão.  This was one of the most violent and dangerous places in the world until a few months ago. It was controlled by drug gangs. Honest people were in constant danger and the police could not enter many of the areas; they were outgunned by the traffickers. As the City of Rio tried to establish order, the traffickers lashed out.  They attack and burned buses and cars to show that they were serious about their violence and get the authorities to back down. Instead, the Brazilian authorities went all in, using the military and special police units to pacify the favela.


What we see now is a variation of the “seize, hold, build” counterinsurgency strategy. In fact, walking on the streets reminded me of my time in Iraq. These former violent places were bouncing back.  There was still a heavy police presence to maintain order, but the emphasis now was on building and providing services.


The basketball (Called basketball without borders) was helping with the reconstruction of civil society.  NBA players came at their own expense and the NBA paid to set up a basketball court, which they inaugurated with the clinic that you see in some of the pictures.

Dancers at Complexo do Alemao 

Our post in Rio did a good job of publicizing the event. I use a variation of the old saying that it is like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.  This event could have happened w/o us.  IMO, it would not have been as successful, but who knows?  But we (the post) helped call attention what was happening and explain its significance. So it is not like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. It is rather like the rooster calling attention to the rising sun; he spreads the good news so that others can understand the significance and benefit from the light and the warmth. It is a very important task.  

NBA interview in Rio 

Sports, like music, engage people that we often cannot engage with our programs. Also like the music, we could not possible afford to pay the participants what their talent is worth, so we are grateful that they give it freely. Above and below you can see the public diplomacy tasks. The bottom show our Rio colleague explaining to one of the kids how things work. Other pictures show the NBA athletes teaching kids; the local community showing its talents with dance and capoeira.

showing the kid in Rio how the little camera works 

August 02, 2011


Rio beaches at night 

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff wants to send 100,000 Brazilian students to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in other countries by the end of her term and we want to help. It is the classic win/win. American universities are coming to Brazil to get their share of the new students. We have an opportunity rich environment. Great.

Grafitti artists at Complexo Alemao 

Americans and Brazilians have been working together on this for a long time. We have the venerable Fulbright program, which was established in Brazil in 1957. U.S. universities have been active in Brazil and Brazilians have looked to the U.S. for more than a hundred years. American universities are acknowledged to be the best in the world.  It is an embarrassment of riches. We have all the networks in place and they have been working well for a long time, but now we are going to push more through the network than ever before.

Kennedy Wing at PUC 

Among our best assets is a regional educational advising center (REAC), headquartered in Rio at PUC University. I visited there during my recent visit to Rio. PUC, our Brazilian partner institution, gives us the space, which is at a premium on their crowded campus. Their students also provide volunteer support in marketing and advertising the services. In addition, we have advisers at twenty-three other centers, such as BNCs, around Brazil and three offices at private universities. State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) office trains the advisers, but they are paid and otherwise supported by their local Brazilian institutions. Such is the demand for this service that our partners are happy to cooperate. The centers can defray some of their expenses by offering translation services and consultation on writing in English, but they do not charge prospective students for educational advising.  

One of their big activities is sponsoring Education USA fairs. American universities come to Brazil to recruit students.  The advising centers can and do charge U.S. institution to defray costs.  Interest in Brazil is growing and the fair in Rio scheduled for this fall is already booked up with fifty U.S. universities. Other centers also hold fairs.  The BNC Casa Thomas Jefferson will hold a fair later this month in Brasilia, for example. 

Nobody really knows how many Brazilian students there are currently in the U.S.  Our deceptively precise number is 8786, but we get this figure by a survey of answers supplied voluntarily by U.S. universities. Our educational advisers think this number is lower than the real one. They mentioned anecdotal evidence of universities where they know there are Brazilian students that reported none, but the real number in not much more. If Dilma’s aspiration becomes a reality, there would be more than four times as many coming to the U.S. in the next four years. This is a big bump and you get an idea of the challenge. 

One thing we have to explain to Brazilians is that America’s higher education system is extremely decentralized. The Federal government cannot order state or private universities to admit Brazilian students or offer them tuition discounts. This must be done on a individual basis. The good news is that we have hundreds of excellent universities in the U.S. and many want to get Brazilian students to diversity their student body and build a future alumni network in what will be a much more important country in the future. One of our (Embassy & REAC) goals is to spread the students out over the U.S. Brazilians tend to know only a few American universities.  Everybody wants to go to Harvard, MIT or University of California and who can blame them. But dropping thousands of Brazilians into a few institutions would not be desirable, even if it were possible. Our task is to explain the diversity of American education. We have many excellent choices and sometimes the best programs for a particular student might be at an American university that few in Brazil (maybe few Americans too) know exists.

Our centers are reaching out to Brazilians to explain things like that and to help with applications.  Their motto is that studying in America is “mais fácil do que você pensa” easier than you think. We have to remind students that there is essentially no waiting line for a student visa to the U.S. and that it is indeed, easier than they think. 

This is a great opportunity to shape the future of Brazilian-American relations through education.  It is truly a win-win. We just have to do it.

My pictures - at top is Rio from my hotel window. You see the symmetry of the reflection in the glass. I didn't get perfect symmetry because I could hang only so far out the window w/o falling 21 floors. Might have been a cool picture on the way down, however. Below that you see graffiti artists at the Complexo de Alemao, a favela that the Rio authorities recently took back from gangs and drug dealers. Third down is the Kennedy Wing at PUC. It is dedicated to the U.S. and JFK. Bobby Kennedy came down for the commemoration of the bust in the picture. 

July 11, 2011


Casa Thomas Jefferson in Lago SUl 

Many BNCs were created around Latin America during the years around World War II.  They were supposed to foster understand and create connections among Americans and the people of Brazil and not incidentally counter Nazi propaganda, which was virulent and effective in the region.

Casa Thomas Jefferson, Main 

BNCs have gone in and out of style with the U.S. government.  At times we have given them significant support; other times we benignly neglected them.  Even during the time of relative official neglect, however, we always kept the ties intact because most American FSOs (USIA and State) - working in the countries - like BNCs.   They are easy to like.  They are locally managed and usually self-sufficient.  Their boards of directors often include important local people, the kinds of people we want to get to know and they provide a continuity that us diplomats, who come and go like migratory birds, really cannot.  We always have friends at BNCs and this is important in hard times and good ones too. 

Students as Casa Thomas Jefferson 

Most of the money needed to support BNCs comes from English teaching and English has become a big business in recent years. This is both a threat and an opportunity for BNCs.  The BNCs now must compete with for-profit organizations that are often well-financed and springing up like mushrooms after a soaking rain. I have no problem whatsoever with profit-making enterprises, but as an American I prefer that English be taught in the context of our culture and values. And the BNCs provide much more than nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  Besides providing scholarships for language study, BNCs sponsor cultural events, hold lectures and help us with our exchange and educational programs. To the extent that we really reach youthful audiences in depth, the BNCs are a big part of the equation.


Last time I was in Brazil, I made it my business to visit the BNCs in my region (Rio Grande do Sul & Santa Catarina) on a regular basis. At that time, there were BNCs in Porto Alegre, Florianopolis and Joinville. I understand that the ones in Porto Alegre and Joinville are still prospering. Washington was in one of its less supportive phases back then,  but I could still contribute books, programs and time. Attention by American diplomats was and is still important to BNCs. It adds to their cachet. 


Today BNCs are back in style in official Washington because of their proven abilities to reach young audience and because of their expertise in English teaching. The English teaching is especially important in Brazil at this moment. The Brazilians themselves recognize the need. Their economy has gone global, but they do not have enough people with English skills needed to participate effectively. English is the world language of business, science and even tourism. With the flood of visitors expected for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in Rio two years later, the Brazilians know that they need to start now to meet the demand for English.

We are in the enviable position of having what people want and wanting to give it to them.

There are around 40 BNCs in Brazil today. I say “around” because it depends on how you count. Some BNCs have a for-profit affiliation that some of the BNC purists think is not good. My opinion is that we should judge them by what they do.  If the organization does all the things that BNCs should do, i.e. it provides scholarships, holds seminars & exhibits, cooperates with outreach and integrates energetically into its local community, I think that it looks and acts like a BNC and we can call it one if that is what it wants to be called.  I think we should be as inclusive as possible. BNCs are a great legacy left to us by good and farsighted people – Brazilians and Americans – going back to the 1930s.  We can benefit from their years of work and we have a duty to steward it for the next generations.  I look forward to visiting our BNCs and hope to get to all of them over the next three years.  I am glad that they are back in style. 

Let me tell you a little about our BNC here in Brasilia. It is called the Casa Thomas Jefferson. I remember it from the 1980s, when it was run by my friend and USIS colleagues Maureen Taylor. Back in those days, an American FSO directed the CTJ. In fact, we still sent directors until 1997, a time of budget cuts and a general downplaying of the need for public diplomacy. But our departure did not spell the end of the CTJ. On the contrary, it has grown and prospered beyond the dreams of the earlier generation. 

The Casa Thomas Jefferson today is run by Brazilians with a local board made up of mostly Brazilians and some expat Americans.  It is completely self-supporting and has grown to include six significant campuses around Brasilia (look at the pictures I have included to see what I mean) and eight min—operations embedded in local schools.   

CTJ affiliates teach around 15,000 students each year.  Some start as young as four years old. I have included a photo of the little kid classroom. They are on break now, so the teacher is preparing materials for them. But the biggest groups of students are middle school of high school age, although a significant number of college students are still involved and there are some adults. 

Brazilian government entities contract with CTJ for English teaching and cultural training for their officials who are going overseas or who will have to work with English in their jobs here. CTJ recently trained Brazilian air traffic controllers, who need to use English in their daily work, and also engineers from EMBRAPA (the Brazilian agricultural research agency) who have to travel and interact with scientists worldwide. 

We still work closely with CTJ, providing mostly moral but also some material support. Our Information Resource Center (FKA library) is collocated with the Lago Sul branch of the CTJ, as is the Fulbright office. We are probably most useful to them when we provide connections and training opportunities for their staff and management.   CTJ wants to keep in the forefront of developments and we, with our worldwide reach (State is a unique organization in that respect) help with that.  We also have stationed in Brazil officers devoted specifically to education, English teaching and information resource management, who provide extremely valuable support.  So I think we do our part. 

As I have been writing, we during the last week we have been cooperating with CTJ on our English immersion program (see earlier posts). This has been a wonderful thing. CTJ will hold its own EducationUSA fair later in August. We can cooperate again in something that we all benefit from doing and benefits Brazilian young people. 

All things considered, it is a pretty sweet deal for everybody involved. I like an agricultural metaphor. It is like an orchard. We are harvesting the fruit of trees planted and nurtured by those who went before us. Our job is to keep it growing, all the while enjoying the fruit. 

Public diplomacy is hard to measure. If I tally up all the people who have gone through BNC programs all over Brazil this year alone, I am sure we have reached thousands. Over the years, we are in the millions. But Brazil is a country of 190 million. How can we hope to have an impact? Might it not be better to “reach” millions through things traditional or social media?

First I have to respond that doing one thing does not preclude others. Our BNC efforts include face-to-face meetings, which are labor intensive, but they also have enormous social media and traditional media components. You saw the full-page newspaper report on our English immersion, for example. We also got a good piece of time on the evening television news. There is a definitive synergy. But let me put that aside for now. 

The BNC experience is deep, intensive and rich in favorable outcomes. Many of the people who use the BNCs develop lasting connections with American. Some of the students at CTJ, for example, are second or third generation, as former student parents sent their kids. Significant numbers want to study in the U.S. or work at U.S. firms. They are strongly committed and this has an effect through social networks, electronic and otherwise.  Recent studies have shown that people get many of their attitudes through social interactions several steps removed from themselves. The attitudes of friends of friends of friends can affect your attitudes and even physical characteristics such as body fat. Academics have studies this for a long time and we know it is true, although those who tell you that they really understand the transition mechanism are lying to you. I believe that getting 100,000 people really interested and talking to others is better than “reaching” millions in a shallow and short term transaction. I cannot prove that to you, but I think even a casual perusal of the history of ideas shows that it happens. 

The BNC is a high leverage activity.  I can devote relatively small amounts of time and money and DEEPLY reach lots of people, who will in turn reach many more. Take the example of our recent intensive English group.  Around 1600 students applied from public schools around Brazil. These are ordinary Brazilian kids, w/o much contact with America. They are doing an extraordinary thing just by applying. Around 100 were chosen. They are already a special group chosen from a special group and the experience improved their skills making them even more special. Now consider when they go home to places that are hard to find on the map. People will ask them about their experience. They will be the source of opinion. Who knows how many they will reach personally and how long they will continue to do it, but it will be a big number. And their experiences will pass through friend to friend for a long time.

February 16, 2011

Yes, We Have no Bananas

Bananas in San Diego 

We go through phases in my work where we spend way too much time fighting rumors and accusations.  It rarely seems to do much good.  People believe all sorts of silly things, sometimes things that if true would violated the laws of physics, but they believe them. Attacking rumor with mere truth is sometimes worse than doing nothing.  Our comments are taken as confirmations of the rumor. After all, the old saying goes that "where there is smoke, there is fire," and many people seem to figure that strenuous denials indicate that something important has come out.  "Fair" people will look at both sides with equanimity, thinking that the truth must be in the middle.  It rarely is. If you see a discussion between someone who believes the world is flat and one who tells you it is round, they both do not have good arguments and you should not conclude that truth lies in the middle, maybe earth is shaped like a cough lozenge.

Human belief is a complicated system.  I have come to understand that there are some arguments you cannot win, no matter how much truth you possess. The way to prevail is  to run around them.  Bring the weight of attention onto something else.  Change the frame.  These are all things smart persuaders do, yet we still get stuck in the denial game.  Sometimes we have to play that game, but it should be low key. Put the facts out there, but don't play on that unfair field.  My personal favorite tactic is to get someone else to ridicule the opponent's stand, but this is hard to do and can created backlash.

I read a good article about this recently in the Economist explaining that some researchers from Kellogg School of Journalism & at Stanford have come up with research that shows with some academic rigor what public affairs professionals know is a rougher and more intuitive fashion.   

The researchers experimented by planting rumors among undergraduates.  With each repetition, they found that skepticism diminished, increasing the chances that the students would believe them.  So what do you do?   The best thing to do is flood the zone with positive messages.   This takes the fuel out of the rumor fire.

Early in my career, I read a book by Herb Schmertz, the head of PR at Mobile. It was called "Goodbye to the Low Profile."  As his title implies, Schmertz advocated a kick-ass relationship with critics. He felt that businesses were letting their adversaries get away with attacking them and it was not working for them.  There were lots of rumors and innuendo spread about energy companies, then as now.  Schmertz mentioned one dramatic example of countering disinformation, when he described how Mobile debunked the myth that energy companies had tankers full of oil just outside American harbors waiting for prices to rise. Mobile took journalists up in helicopters and challenged them find them.   Of course, they couldn't.  

Schmertz never really solved the problem free riders. Everybody in the industry benefits when somebody takes on critics, but the firm that does the heavy work not only has to pay the expense of the counterattacks, but also makes itself a target for activists and is likely to bring in political pressure.  Most firms opt to keep as quiet as possible and hope that the false charges don't cost them too much.  The idea of a "good news flood" addresses this.  It doesn't provide much of an opportunity to counter attack and it can be justified as image building or even advertising.

The thing I remember most about the book was the saying "Yes, we have no bananas." Schmertz chose the words from an old and familiar song. (I remember it sung by Jimmy Durante, but evidently it was a big song by many.)  The fact that I still remember it shows the usefulness of a memorable handle. That was one lesson I took.  But the underlying explanation was also useful. The idea is that you always bridge from the negative to the positive. If you say, we don't have any bananas; it is just a negative statement.  "Yes, we have no bananas" says the same thing.  But it brings a little positive levity. Nobody is fooled, but it takes the edge off.

The good news flood is a more effective and practical way to do this. It frustrates critics, since if done well it changes the game and marginalizes them.  Sometimes they are honesty angry because they think you are not answering their questions, but nothing says you have to do that. There are always many ways to look at anything.  Their way is only one and probably not the best. When I read more on the subject of persuasion, I found out that this was called reframing or redirecting.  It is a potent tool, especially if you actually have good news to tell.  You don't have to take the frame you are handed and you should always test any frame for validity. Some questions cannot be answered satisfactorily as stated. The classic example is when you are asked to answer yes or no to the question, "Do you still beat your wife." An even more pernicious formula is when you are asks something like, "Why do you hate [name the group]? There is no way you can bring facts to bear on those subjects. The questioner knows this. It is not honest.   If you have to respond, talk over him/her to a wider audience.

Reframing is in order.

July 01, 2010

U.S. Liked by Latins

Give President Obama credit for improving the U.S. image in Latin America. Approval of the U.S. went from 68% in 2000 to 74% last year, according to a  Latinobarómetro  poll released yesterday.  The news is even better when you look closer. Younger people have a better opinion of the United States than the old guys. While 74% of the region's overall population has a positive opinion of the United States, only 55%  of respondents who were more than 60 of the over sixty set agreed.

Compared with other countries, the U.S. does well at 74%. Spain gets only 65%;  the European Union 63%; China 58% and little Cuba 41%. Despite (maybe because of) all his yelping, only 34% of respondents in Latin America think Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is playing a constructive role (only 25% of Brazilians think so)  & even in Venezuela the U.S. gets a 64% positive rating.    

April 09, 2010

Public Diplomacy Persuasion

Another FSI lecture is below.   I am doing this one on Monday.   The PowerPoint is available at this link.  It has a lot of the same themes as the last one, but is significantly different.

Everything is always becoming something else

Πάντα ε  - everything flows. That is what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said more than two and half millennia ago and he was right. But the fact that he said it around 500 BC indicates that the concept has been around and talked about for a long time. Yet it seems to be a concept that each generation discovers for itself and then thinks that it is the most afflicted – ever – by change.

We always have and always will live in a dynamic environment.  What is more, our attempts to understand and act within it alter it, so that we never really face the same challenges twice.  (Heraclitus also said that you can never step twice into the same river – and he was right about that too.)  There is no finish line; there is no stable end goal.  Success means sustainable change.
So I don’t think my reference to Heraclitus is as obscure as it might seem in the context of something as dynamic as public diplomacy and the media. Our job as public affairs professions is to understand the ebbs and flows of events, to take advantage when things are flowing in the right direction, help direct them when we can and know when to get out of the way of the big waves.

Portfolio or Toolbox Strategy (for an uncertain world)

No technique or media tool will work in all situations.  That is why we need to deploy the whole panoply of tools and techniques and know which combinations are best.  This is more an art than a science.  The key is flexibility. Don’t get too enamored with anything in particular or develop strategies around one platform. You don’t want a Twitter strategy.  You want a strategy that may use Twitter as one of the tools. Carpenters don’t have “hammer strategies.”   They have building strategies that may involve hammers as one of the many tools in the box.

There is no such thing as a global brand or a one-size fits all

Even a ubiquitous & simple product like Coca-Cola tastes different and is marketed differently around the world.  The reason they teach us all these things and all these languages at FSI and the reason you make the big-bucks as public diplomacy professionals around the world is that you are supposed to understand the local cultures and environments and apply a nuanced and appropriate persuasion strategy.  

I would add that almost all the effective public diplomacy (as opposed to public affairs, which happens mostly in Washington, BTW) work occurs at posts overseas.  Washington programs should be in business to support the field in this respect.   This is something we sometimes forget.
We are not allowed to change our “product,” i.e. the United States and its policies, but we can choose which aspect to emphasize, what analogies to make, what frames to deploy, what relationships to cultivate and when and where to do these things.

The human equation: bridging the last three feet

Edward R. Murrow, the greatest director of USIA or public diplomacy, observed that our communication technologies could span the world, but the real persuasion took place in the last three feet – human contact. He lived in the days before Internet. IMO, internet can (although less easily than people think) create or at least sustain the kinds of engaged relationships Murrow was talking about, but we still have to build those relationships. There is a cognitive limit to human engagement. You can only keep in real contact with a couple hundred people, although new technologies may expand that number, it does not reach into the millions or even the tens of thousands.  That is why you have to set priorities.  You just cannot love everyone equally and any strategy designed to reach everybody will satisfy nobody.

There is no garden w/o a gardener.   

You cannot outsource or compartmentalize your brains or your engagement.  The person doing the public diplomacy must be involved with the public diplomacy decisions.  There just is no way around this.  If we don’t get involved, we cannot make good decisions.  Too often, we just try to shunt off the PD function.  We hire consultants.   Many consultants are good, but a consultant is often like the guy who borrows your watch and then charges to tell you what time it is. If we outsource our decisions, we essentially outsource our intelligence. Then THEY know what we need to know.  It is a lot like hiring a guy to look after your spouse.  Even if it seems to make her happier, maybe that is your role.

BTW – be very wary of pseudo-experts who claim to “speak for” large groups of people or have some kind of inside knowledge that cannot be replicated or properly explained.   If they cannot explain it to you even in broad strokes, they probably don’t understand it themselves and often they are just hucksters protecting their phony baloney jobs.   We have too many such people hanging around us not to trip over them occasionally.

So let me sum up before I move to the next part.  Technologies are new; human relations are old.  Our “new” methods return to an earlier age when communication was engaged, individualized, personal, two-way and interactive.  And for public diplomacy the lessons of anthropology (people) trump technology (machines.)

How does public diplomacy really work?

Forget about mass marketing & advertising analogies. We are not selling something as simple as a can of soda and we do not have the resources to engage mass markets. We are not trying to build awareness (who is not aware of the U.S.?) and content DOES matter.

Public diplomacy is a mass networking proposition, where we build key relationships with opinion leaders and use leverage to allow/encourage others to reach out, who in turn reach out …  We cannot reach THE common man (because he doesn’t exist) and we should be careful not to mistake A common man for THE common man.

There are thousands of books and experts who will point to the example of the obscure person who did something great.  They are right; but it is really easy to pick Bill Gates out of the crowd AFTER he has been wildly successful.   Then it is easy to explain why he succeeded.  Of course millions of others did similar things and did not become the richest man in the world.   

They call this survivor bias.  In many ways it is like a lottery.  We can be sure that SOMEBODY will win, but we cannot tell who before the drawing.  So we have to play the odds and we cannot treat everybody who buys a lottery ticket like a potential millionaire. 

Humans are social creatures who make decisions in contexts of their culture & relationships

We make a big mistake if we treat people as members of undifferentiated masses.  Human societies are lumpy. There are relationships that matter more and some that matter less.  And (as per Heraclitus) they are in a constant state of flux. People make most of their important decisions in context or in consultation with people they trust.  Later they might go the some media sources for confirmation or details. Probably the biggest decision you have ever made was buying a home.  Did you just read some literature and make an offer? Or did you ask around and talk to people you trusted?  How about the car you own?   We like to explain our behavior rationally, but relationally will provide more reliable assessments.

Information is almost free and a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention

We now must find or create social context for our message to get attention.   I always laugh (at least to myself) when I hear someone say that “we got the message out” or “We reached a million people”.  I am going to start calling this the barking dog strategy, because like the dogs, we just shout “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here.  It doesn’t matter what you say; it is what they hear that counts.   If your message does not say the right things, if it doesn’t fit into their cultural and socials contexts and if it is not delivered in an appropriate way, it doesn’t get through.   I will reiterate that the reason you get those big-bucks is to understand the right time, place and context of the communication.   The new technologies have not made this easier.

Understand - Everything has rules and patterns

I mentioned Heraclitus.  Let’s go a bit farther east and think of Lao Tzu.   He talked about the need to understand the “Tao”, the patterns and logic in all things.  Understanding these things could make the most difficult tasks fluid and easy.   There is usually easier and harder ways to do things.  Sometimes you CREATE more resistance and make less progress by pushing too hard.   So try to understand before you try to persuade.  If people have been doing things for a long time, there is a reason.  Figure out what that is and persuasion becomes much easier.   And always look for the links and relationships.  People may not be aware of what drives their own behavior, but it is often linked to social acceptance. And a person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality. 

Let me digress with a fish story from my time in Iraq.   During the late unpleasantness, Coalition forces had to ban fishing on the Euphrates River for a time, to prevent insurgents from using it as a highway.   But fishermen didn’t return after the ban was lifted, even though the fish were plentiful and bigger given the no-fishing respite.   We thought of helping them buy new boats, nets, sonar etc. But the reason that they weren’t fishing was much simpler – no ice.  The ice factory had shut down and in this hot climate if you cannot put the fish on ice, you cannot move them very far or sell them. We helped the ice house back into operation and the fishing started again.  

ENGAGE - influencing your community but also being part of it and willing to be influenced 

This story shows the importance of engagement.  You also have to get out – physically – and meet people where they are.

Inform & Interpret – turn information into useful knowledge

Engaging is fun and essential, but if we are not giving the taxpayer value for their money if we don’t inform and persuade.   Since information is almost free, what do I mean by inform?  This means turning raw information into useful knowledge and narratives.   Even simple facts must be put into contexts.  What if you didn’t have any dresser drawers or hangers in your closet?  What if you didn’t have any bookshelves or cabinets and all you stuff was just lying on the floor.  It would be hard to find things and many things would not be useful. 

Turning information into knowledge is like putting things in some order.  In the public diplomacy realm, that usually means framing and narratives.   People understand stories and until they have a story that makes sense, information just sits there, useless as the shirt you cannot find under the pile of dirty clothes.  Analytical history, BTW, as opposed to antiquarianism or chronicles is depends almost entirely on framing. The historian must choose what to put in and what to leave out and that makes the story.

So if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to our success in the Cold War because accurate information was in very short supply. Today in all but the dwindling coterie dictatorships in the world’s most benighted places, information is already available.  It is how that information is put together - the contexts, relationships and the narratives - that counts.

As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what even science is beginning to explain. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success. 

I mentioned framing, but I should say a little more.  The frame is how you characterize information or events.   If you want to be pejorative, you can sometimes call it spin, but there is no way you can understand complex reality w/o some kind of frame. Most of our frames are unconscious, but that doesn’t mean they are not powerful or pervasive.  Think of the ubiquitous sports frame.   Describing something like American football, (i.e. centrally planned, stop and start with specialized plays and players) versus football other places (i.e. fluid, fast breaking with the players less specialized) makes a big difference to how it will be perceived. Or think of how we try to frame our presidents.  We want our candidate to be in the frame with Lincoln and Washington, Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B Hayes, not so much.

Build a community & be part of a community

 Figure out what you can contribute and do it.  Remember people make decisions in the contexts of their relationships.  Also make sure that you get something back. 

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. You want to be able to give to your fellow man and expect that he will do the same when you are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if you don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. You might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected.  At first they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor.  And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.

A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give.  Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. You notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts you can receive is advice and knowledge.  Let others share their culture and experience.

Just a few more short points …

Inclusive & Exclusive 

Communities are inclusive for members and exclusive for others. You attract nobody if you appeal to everybody. You have to earn membership in any community worth joining. 

Personal – or at least personalized  

Editors and marketers have tried for years to homogenize for the mass market. That’s how we got soft white Wonder bread and Budweiser beer.  Niche markets – and social media is a series of niche markets – require personality.  We do a poor job of segmenting our market in public diplomacy.  This is something I will work on when I get to Brazil and I suggest you think about when you get to your posts.


Success is continuous learning - an iterative   process- not a plan - and a never ending journey.  As I wrote up top, we never get to the end. We have to learn from our failures and our successes and move on. The best we can do is make our own ending worth of the start.   

April 08, 2010

Notes on Social Media & Public Diplomacy

A more mature understanding of the social media

It is no surprise that our early forays into the media felt a bit like returning to high school.   Much of the social media was for and by teenagers and catered to their motivations and predilections.   We followed through that door, looking for that ever elusive youth market and we were about as successful as adults always are when they try to “hang around” with teenagers and young adults.

This is one of the impressions I got from participating in an open discussion about how we (State) use social media in Washington and at posts at the tail end of the FSI course on using the social media.  In addition to teaching techniques this course was also designed to assimilate experience from those who actually work with the social media on a regular basis in real world public diplomacy, making, as course organizer Bruce Kleiner characterizes it, a “why-to” as well as a “how-to” course. 

Bruce ran what amounted to an informal expert practitioner focus group and since Bruce and I had worked together to design this module, I got to be there to take part and take notes.
The good news is that everybody is now using a wide variety of social media methods and platforms in public diplomacy.  We no longer have to do the sales job.  And we are maturing.  You can see the changes month-by-month.  Not much more than a year ago, it was enough to be on the media. 

At first we looked to the social media for numbers.  In many ways adopting the teenage paradigm of popularity, we measured our own worth and that of our programs by how many people put their names on lists, called themselves our friends or said they approved of our comments. We learned how to build audiences and found that it was easy.   But we don’t have the audiences we want and we don’t really have the audiences that want what we provide.

Several people complained that they were pressured to create and populate Facebook or Twitter realms w/o specification about the kinds of audiences they were supposed to get.   The result was massive, unsegmented groups of fans or friends, with little commonalities of interests.  We indiscriminately push our messages to these groups and call it a success if we reach a million people. But  we are now exiting this stage of development.

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on

It seemed fairly unanimous that audiences and content count.   The social media can get people’s attention, but we have to hold it once we got it.  This is harder.  I compared some of the social media to barking dogs.  The bark says “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here.”  Our audiences are acknowledging our presence and now asking what is it we want to say?   If the content that follows is insufficient or not well targeted, we will be about as effective and maybe as annoying as a barking dog.

This transition will not be easy.  We have developed general social media audiences but we want to pass messages about specific topics.  It is unlikely that any particular people will be interested in all or even most of our topics and few people will sift through all of what we send to find the nuggets of gold. 

Segment the audience and sell to the segments

Skilled marketers know that marketing is not selling.  It requires understanding your customers, your products and your potential products and putting these things together.  It is easy to take marketing analogies too far, but this one fits public diplomacy well.

The first imperative is to segment our audiences.   This may mean trimming them to smaller and more interested proportions.   A community that allows everybody in quickly becomes a mob, where important ideas and messages are lost in a sea of inanity. This actually fairly describes much of the social media.  If we want to make this medium useful, we have to tend to our audience segments.

Of course addressing a market segment implies that you have some product particularly appropriate for that audience.   This means content and often very specific content.   An individual interested in climate change, for example, will not long remain satisfied with simple information aimed at a general audience.   This will apply to any subject we can think of and it will happen even if we are trying to talk to experts.  An informed layman will quickly move beyond the general information and demand more.   If they don’t find it with us, they will move elsewhere.   Information is easy to find on the web.

Social media exacerbates a classic sales temptation.  An aggressive salesman can sell products his organization cannot reasonably produce or deliver.   A good salesman ensures that customers get what they want and his organization can produce and deliver what he promises.   This is often the difference between short and long term success.  

Another temptation is to use the social media as a conduit to unload our products into the market.   I asked how many people would actually read the various speeches or watch the videos we send out.  The response was not overwhelming.   If we, who are more interested in such things than a most people, will not be interested in these things, why do we think others will want them?   We have an important role to play for sources or archiving.    Most people will not read through a whole speech by the Secretary of State or the President, but many people want to have it available as reference.   They essentially mine out the nuggets of information they want.   Filling this need is a web 1.0 function or even just an archiving task.   We might use social media to remind audiences that these things are available, but regularly sending out texts is probably a waste of time and may even morph into the barking dog mode of annoyance.

Culture matters

It was clear from the discussion that people at our posts have many similar problems and successes with social media.  It was equally clear that there are substantial differences in what is possible or desirable based on local cultures, environments and priorities.   There is no such thing as a global product and we need our people on the ground to tailor and modulate our messages.   BTW – it is also very important to have up-to-date information from people on the ground.  Conditions change rapidly and what worked last year may be a disastrous failure this year.   There is no substitute for local expertise.  Social media can leap borders, but it still has to appeal to local people when it arrives.

Answering criticism

Another audience question concerned responding to criticism.   Sometimes we just have to repeat the same answers over and over because there is nothing else to say. This may not be satisfying to us or others but it is the way it has to be.  We agreed that we should welcome legitimate criticism and answer it truthfully and forthrightly.   There is a danger, however, of getting too deeply involved.  We don’t know how many people are really involved in an online discussion and/or if it may reach a wider audience.   We also don’t know the level of commitment.    For example, there might be only a couple individuals criticizing us.  Maybe they have thousands of friends “involved” but these people don’t really care.  Remember the difference between involvement and commitment can be seen in a ham and eggs breakfast.  The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

We can never be as efficient or nimble as a private firm

We talked a little about the differences between what we (USG) can do versus what private firms, or even smaller governments can do.  Much private effort in the social media is to simply build awareness or name recognition.  Unlike most private firms, the USG has no need to build awareness of itself.  Everybody knows who we are.   We also must recognize that people may see even our innocent effort as menacing.   I told the story about my recent experience with  I checked out a few books on ancient Greek literature a few days ago. Now is sending me updates on books in ancient Greek.  Their machine has noticed and categorized me. I don’t find this offensive and it may help me find things I might want.   Now imagine that you are a citizen of a country where America is not universally liked.  You learn that we have the kind of information on you that has on me.  Are you happy about that?   What if you find out that the U.S. Government wants to “help” educate your kid?  We have to recognize that we are not a normal organization and that our embrace is not always welcome.   That means that we can almost never just copy what others are doing successfully and we will never be as efficient or nimble as private firms because we cannot let ourselves be so.

Somebody has to do it

There was mention of the problems of staffing.  Social media duties tend to get tacked onto the workload.  Since most posts are already working with reduced staffs and already “doing more with less,” this can be a strain.  There are no easy solutions to the staffing problem.   All of them involve priorities.  We agreed that posts need to identify who will be doing the new work and how much time it will take.  Then they have to ask and answer the question whether the new duties are important enough to displace old ones, and if so what.   Of course, social media will sometimes automatically displace older duties.   The need to copy, collate and distribute is vastly decreased because of the social media, for example.   As with most management decisions, it might be better to reengineer and/or eliminate whole sets of tasks rather than tinker around the edges.  

A flatter hierarchy might be very helpful, since a great deal of time is spent getting clearances and making fairly meaningless cosmetic changes to documents.   The old saying that you shouldn’t spend a dollar to make a dime decision goes for wasting time too. 

The medium is not the message

Finally, we have to recognize that the advent of social media may be less immediately revolutionary than we initially thought.   Most people still get their information through traditional media, especially television and radio.  When President Obama spoke in Cairo, for example, it was hailed as a social media success but almost everybody who saw the speech, saw it on television.   Even people who saw it later on Internet saw it essentially through the television lens, just delivered differently.  And following up on social media has not proven as successful as the original excitement would have implied.  You still have to have something to say and you still have to maintain relationships.   Social media will become increasingly important as components in the toolbox of public diplomacy, but it will never be a standalone technique.   Social media can support programs, but it never can be the program itself.  The medium is not the message.  

BTW – I gave the keynote to this course.  The PowerPoint is available here.



April 05, 2010

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Steel tree at sculpture garden 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, its lack much be a sincere form of rebuke and our hypertensive desire not to be seen to be intolerant of “judging” makes it one of the few measures we can actually use to understand what people really think.  The capacity to copy traits you think are good or useful and let the negative ones die out is one of the primary benefits of diversity.   It is the essence of adaption and the lubricant of innovation.  It is how all successful people and groups have prospered in practice, but it has never been very popular in theory.

It seems a little mean, especially since it will tend to fall hardest on the least successful individuals and groups in society, since they are almost by definition doing the things that don’t work as well. Nobody wants to copy what losers are doing. And it gets entangled with ideas of cultural values and ethnicity.

What is culture?  Basically, a culture is a set of habits and traditions that were useful at least some times in the past.  Whether they remain useful is a question we have to ask constantly. There is nothing sacred about any particular cultural traits and while we should be very careful when changing long-established practices and relations – like ecology, they often have connections and purposes that are not immediately apparent – change them we must.

American culture is extraordinarily good at this. In the 1980s, we went through a revolution in business management, where we copied, adapted and developed many organizational principles from Japan.  Emphasize those words adapted & developed.  It was not just a copy; it was something better suited to our needs. Or consider the changes in the American diet, at least the one we know we are supposed to eat. My father would not recognize many of the things we commonly consume. We have imitated and developed.

Yet it is a common theme that Americans do not learn from others and try to force others to be more like them. One reason for this is that we adapt & develop with so much ease that it often goes unnoticed, even by us.  Another is a kind of bias against American ideas.  When we adopt something, it seems to become “American” and others might resist it for that reason, often while imitating it, BTW – the sincerest form of flattery - because it works. But I think a lot of it has to do with the other side of that flattery equation. The lack of imitation is a kind of rebuke and there are lots of things we don’t imitate and don’t want to imitate.

But too often we are too hypocritical, i.e. politically correct, to be open. Instead we praise, but don't take any concrete steps to learn or adopt. 

In my observation, the more people effusively praise something, the less they actually respect it* and if you have to have a special sponsored celebration you can be pretty much sure that nobody will be imitating whatever/whoever you are celebrating (i.e. they don’t really want it).   Think about it from the point of view of what we really want. When we were trying to learn about Japanese quality control methods a couple decades ago, we didn’t have to sponsor special months for it. Everybody wanted it. People & firms paid their own money and spent their own time trying to learn about it because they really thought is was something they wanted.

The cynical saying that you should either be sincere or fake sincerity only works in the short term and only for transactions that involve mostly words. If you loudly praise the food I serve, but won’t eat it, I know you don’t really like it.  After a while, I will resent the insincere praise.

We should respect all humans because they are human, but there are some types of respect that cannot be given or demanded; they must be earned. You earn this kind of respect by what you do over a period of time.  It means doing something worthy of emulation or creating something worthy of imitation. Respect is a kind of mutual society. You can only get it and only give it if you are doing the right things. 

This is the harder part. There are some people whose respect you don’t want and some whose respect you can’t get. When you are not getting the respect you think you deserve, it usually is your own fault, but sometimes it really is their fault. 

* Here I am talking about traits, habits and culture. Of course, we may legitimately praise heroes or great events, but even that can go overboard.

BTW - the picture is a metal tree in the sculpture garden near the Capitol Mall. I hate it. Who needs an imitation tree when there are plenty of real trees. I wonder how much they paid for it.

April 01, 2010

Computer Revolution #4 (and counting)

I am doing my FSI talk again on Monday.   It is very similar to the one I did in February, but there are some additions and changes.   The new PowerPoint is included at this link.  I was thinking through the slides and about the impact of new media this time.  Below are a few ideas.  I don’t know if I will use them in the very short presentation, but maybe if somebody asks.

This is the forth computer revolution that I have personally experienced

The first was when I was still too young to have much of an understanding.   This was the one where computers were going to take over the world.  Science fiction movies had computers just usurping the thinking of humans.   There were “evil” computers like Hal on “2001: a Space Odyssey” (funny, 2001 came and went w/o that Jupiter mission) but mostly they were just better than we mere humans.  The irony is that the actual computing power was so low in those days that we just laugh at the perceived threat.

I was part of the next revoltuion, proud and excited.  This was when young people (like me at the time) were going to use computers to change the world and displace all the accumulated wisdom of the ages with our raw young intelligence bolstered by computer power. The problem was that we really didn’t know how to do anything.  The computers just helped us do nothing much faster than before and leveraged our mistakes.  I recall a saying on the wall the University of Minnesota, where I got my MBA. It said,

“to err is human, but if you really want to mess up you need computer support.”

The other MBA epitaph was, "Often wrong but never in doubt." Harness that to the power of computers and see what you come up with.  

The third revolution was the boom of the late 1990s.  This is the one we have to pay close attention to because it has lessons for today.  The idea of the is that you didn’t really need any content or products. The race was for attention – eye balls.  People set up web sites supposedly selling all sorts of things, but all they really cared about was exposure.  Money poured in to investments in It wasn’t until around March of 2000 that people noticed that the emperor had no clothes. The demise of the pulled the market down with it and also much of the economy.  The NASDAQ still hasn’t fully recovered. Some firms like came out winners. The difference was their organizational skills and the fact that they delivered real products.

We have our own special cautionary tale. We (the USG, State, USIA) messed up big-time in the 1990s in relation to public affairs, or at least the concept did.  Many were taken in by the promise of the Internet and there were those who thought we didn’t need a real presence on the ground in other countries. We could do it all from Washington.  During the 1990s, we closed posts, shut down most of our libraries (made them into Information Resource Centers), eliminated many of our centers overseas and generally let our public affairs capacity atrophy. A simple but telling statistic is that there were only about half as many public diplomacy officers in 2000 as there had been in 1990.  After the attacks of 9/11, we really didn’t have the people on the ground or the experience needed to communicate with world publics. The website “air war” was a bust. You can reach millions of people, but you are just wasting your time if they aren’t paying attention or your message doesn’t appeal.

BTW - Rebuilding American diplomatic capacity began soon after 9/11. Colin Powell spearheaded a diplomatic readiness initiative to help compensate for the damage done during the 1990s Results are starting to show but rebuilding networks will take a while longer. U.S. diplomacy has a very peculiar age structure because of the nineties neglect. There are many new employees (>10 years experience) and many old employees (20 > years experience), but not many in the middle.  This will be a challenge in the next five years, as much of the experience will go out the door through retirements. (Career diplomats can retire after 20 years.) It will be a good time to look for a job in the Foreign Service, but our government will be paying for mistakes of the 1990s for the next ten years. You cannot turn these things on and off like a light bulb. Think of public affairs like a forest. Things take time.  The trees you plant today determine the forest years from now and you cannot expect to walk in the shade of your trees that you didn't plant 15 years ago.

Some things just take time.

Now here we are in revolution #4. I don’t know how this story will end.   My earnest hope is that we will remember that we are always and everywhere talking to people.   People are funny.  They don’t always do what you think they will.   You still have to understand them before you can expect them to understand you.   In this latest age of new media, reaching out with the newest tools is necessary, but not sufficient to achieve our goals.

March 25, 2010

The Irrational World of Persuasion

I am making a presentation about public affairs at FSI in a few weeks.  It is a short presentation to mid-level officers. Below is some of the raw material thinking I have been doing about irrationality and reciprocity in persuasion. I figure that all of the stuff below will distill into one or two short paragraphs, but thinking it through is useful and I think better when I can write and ramble.  Since I have it written out, I figured I would post it.   

We like to think the truth will always come out, but isn’t necessarily so. Similarly, people are often not persuaded by facts or even their own experience. Persuasion just is not logical in the way we want. 

If people do not always (or even usually) respond rationally to arguments and persuasion, they do tend to respond in recognizable patterns. Marketers and salesmen have known this intuitively – and used it effectively - for many years. Only recently has science or at least academics, recognized and tried to explain the phenomenon. Here are some of the books that talk about that. There is some overlap with a list I made earlier about decision making that you can see at this link

I won’t try to convey all the information in all those books on the lists above. Suffice to say that people respond differently to identical sets of propositions or incentives depending on how they are stated, framed or presented and that people’s preexisting predilections, prejudices and perceptions determine not only which arguments are most persuasive but also which facts are considered salient or even heard at all. That is why attempts to “set the record straight” usually only work with those already inclined to believe you. If the bad news is that people do not make decisions rationally, the good news is that they make their irrational* decisions in patterns that can be understood if not perfectly predicted. The bad news that comes after the good news is that these patterns can also be manipulated by those whose motives and goals we abhor, so the lesson is that we are playing this game, whether we like it or not. 

So if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to our success in the Cold War because accurate information was in very short supply. Today in all but the dwindling coterie dictatorships in the world’s most benighted places, information is already available.  It is how that information is put together - the contexts, relationships and the narratives - that counts. As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what even science is beginning to explain. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success. 

The first persuasion decision you have to make is whether or not to engage at all. No matter how urgent a problem, you should not engage unless you have a reasonable chance of success.   There are times for aggressive action, times for more passive approaches and times when you just have to hunker down until conditions improve. It is hard to know when the times or right and even harder to manage the transitions among them, which is why people who are good at knowing make the big bucks and are sought after or reviled (depending on which side they are on). 

There are some folks who say that you should be out there always and they are right that you should never fold entirely if it is something you care about and you have the capacity to stay.  But standing in front of an irresistible wave not only depletes your resources but also makes you less able to fight again another day. It is much better to let the wave expend its energy and then come back in.

Once you are engaged, think of it in a negotiation paradigm, not usually a negotiation between you and an adversary, but more of the win-win with you among a large number of participants.  Most people involved are not direct participants, but they are often the ones you want to persuade.   The committed radicals are not the targets of your persuasion.  There is no argument you can use and no concession you can make that will persuade them.  Your job is to talk over, around or through them.  Luckily, few people are really committed radicals and you can find some common ground with almost anybody.

Let’s talk about common ground. What if you have some monumental disagreement with somebody?  You might think that you cannot make any progress until the big thing is solved and then lament that the big thing is unsolvable. This is the wrong way of looking at it. In negotiations, it might be possible to set aside the big thing and work on a series of mutually beneficial smaller one.   Sometimes the momentum from successfully addressing the little issues makes solving the big one possible.  Just as often, it makes the big issue less relevant.  Most big problems are never “solved” in the context in which they were created. They are just overtaken by events. The situation might change so that it just doesn’t matter.    

Some families have a rule that you cannot discuss religion or politics. They know that agreement on these issues is nearly impossible, that a dialogue will just create more tension and that they can be safely avoided at family gatherings. 

Denial and avoidance are perfectly good tactics. Many things really do not need to be talked through and resolved and much diplomacy involved making sure sleeping dogs are not disturbed.  Not everybody likes this strategy and there will be persistent calls to “get it out in the open”.   There may be a time for this kind of frontal assault, but if dialogue will merely sharpen differences without resolving them and entrench individuals in their positions it is pernicious.  In the case of any contentious issue, there are also always a fair number of people who are professionally aggrieved.  Their goal is to keep the dialogue alive and fresh as long as possible.  In a rational world, dialogue would almost always produce better outcomes, but we don’t live in a perfectly rational world (see above).

If we are wise to avoid the frontal assault, what do we do about hard issues? When possible go around them, avoid the grievance professionals when possible and deny them a forum when you can. In public affairs, as in negotiation, you never want to be stuck on one issue where you cannot divert or make tradeoffs. One of the strengths of diversity is that it waters down grievances. If you have two opposing groups with one intransigent issue, you have a problem. But you have an interesting community if you have a dozen such groups.   

So in addition to denial, add dilution to your public affairs tool box.

Some people think it is naive to talk about win-win negotiation.  They say that somebody has got to come out on top. Avoid such people if possible because working with them will often lead to such an unhappy result. For most other things, however, we can all get more of what we want.  That is the whole basis of free exchange and cooperation in general. People all do not want the same things most things you get from a free exchange will be worth more to you than what you gave up.  The same goes for the guys on the other side and the same goes in persuasion as in negotiation.

The problem comes with the natural and good human desire to be generous. Win-win doesn’t mean giving away more than you should.  It doesn’t mean sacrifice. Those things are lose-win. It means that you get what you want AND I get what I want. Nobody should go into an engagement unless he/she believes that. But we do.

One of the dumbest things you can do is to make needless concessions.  It is not generous to give away your important positions. It is just dumb and it makes nobody really happy. Everybody will think that you are insincere. Either you didn’t really believe in your own position in the first place or you are lying about your concession, or –even worse – you are patronizing. There are to be a mutuality, a reciprocity.

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. You want to be able to give to your fellow man and expect that he will do the same when you are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if you don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. You might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected.  At first they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor.  And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.

A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give.  Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. You notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts you can receive is advice and knowledge.  Let others share their culture and experience.

I have had my biggest successes in public affairs when I genuinely wanted to learn something. My first assignment when I got to Poland a few years back was to write a report on the Polish media. I interviewed dozens of reporters, editors and academics and they became my best contacts, often sending me updates or referring to my questions even months and years later. The most influential thing you can often do with an individual is listen carefully to what they tell you and come back a while later being honestly able to say, “I was thinking about what you said and you were right.” This interest cannot be easily faked.  I have been “played” by people who have taken the course and try to feign interest in my esoteric pursuits or ask my advice. When they praise the insights, but repeatedly fail to act on them, trust disappears. Of course, maybe I have run into people who are just so good at it that I couldn’t tell.  I suppose that would be successful persuasion.


*   I use the term “irrational” cautiously. “Rational” decision making is overrated and under examined. We make decisions based on a variety of preferences and emotional factors, some of which we cannot state. When they are reduced to their “rational” components, they may no longer make sense. There are things that really cannot be reduced to rational parts. The lyrics to “Some Enchanted Evening” actually sum it up well, “Who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.” Or we can quote GK Chesterton “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” If we seek only rational decisions, a computer can do it for us much better than we can.

March 15, 2010

The American Nation is Greater than the American Government

A valid criticisms of traditional history writing is that it personifies & treats countries as if they are individuals. You might read, “France was angry with Prussia over its actions.”  What does that mean?  Was everybody in France angry? How much does a government represent, really represent the society it governs?  For most of history the answer has been - not much. The rulers decided w/o asking most other people. It is true even in a democracy.  People making decisions are always removed and different from "the people."

Of course, when writing history we have to simplify. Beyond that, notions of sovereignty indicate that the government speaks for the country. This is true even for dictatorships where we know that most people do not support the current government.

But the whole idea of public diplomacy is based on the contrary idea, i.e. that “the people” are more than their current government and that we should talk to the people of the world beyond and sometimes in spite of their regimes.  In the old days, we reached out with Radio Free Europe or VOA. Today there are proposals to provide Internet to get around despots in places like Iran. 

In reasonably free countries, most important things happen outside the direct purview of government. A good government stays out of the way when possible and when it does get involved it facilitates but does not manage. This means that in a country like America we can live most of our daily lives w/o having to make overt political calculations. This is a great advantage and one that people like Americans, long accustomed to freedom, take for granted and often undervalue.

Freedom is like good health, something you don’t properly value until you no longer have it.

But understanding that public diplomacy should reach out to people of other countries, beyond the tradition diplomatic outreach to their leaders doesn’t always stop us from not understanding that many of the same things apply on our side. Even we sometimes fail to appreciate that the American people are greater than the American government. 

We often hear comments/complaints that official USG public diplomacy efforts are inadequate.  This may sometimes be true, but what usually follows this thought is more problematic.  After the initial complaints and listings of problems, we usually hear that somehow the USG has failed to but should “harness” the power of the American people, private business, educational institutions etc.   Whether or not you should (or can) do these things depends on what you are proposing to do.

First a little background.  The American nation is indeed greater than the American government and it is frustrating to American officials that all that power cannot be harnessed for what they consider good or that we/they cannot get credit for reaching out.  But the American nation is already reaching out.  

Private American “foreign aid” already dwarfs programs officially run by our government.   If you add in remittances and private capital flows, the USG “investment” is only 9% of the total.   This 9% is still $21.8 billion dollars and makes up around 20% of the total official government aid given by all the countries in the world, so it is still a really big number.  So how should those contributing 9% harness those who contribute 91%? Maybe things are going okay without the harnessing. 

The same goes for our educational system. Our universities are the best in the world.   Last year 671,616 foreign students were studying at U.S. universities. Our USG Fulbright program is something we can be really proud of. It helps some of the best and the brightest improve their educations. But each year only around 6000 students get those scholarships.  

The same goes for … I could go through a whole list of American artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and groups of all kinds. I never cease to be amazed by my fellow Americans, but you get the picture.

The American nation is already in the game. The American government has a crucial role to play but it is a leadership role of pointing the way and removing barriers rather than a management role of specifying how things should be done or working through details.

I wrote a post a few days ago about how America’s de-facto cultural policy works because it decentralizes decision making and rather than harnessing the energy of the American people, it allows them to express their ideas and innovation. If anything, the American government is the one that is harnessed to the plans and aspirations of the American people, and in a democracy that is fitting and proper.

Maybe that is what is going on internationally too.  (Recall that because of the nature of our tax system a lot of that “private” charity has a USG component.)  The essence of the so-called soft power is that it is dispersed and not always exercised by the same people who possess the hard power.  One reason why American cultural products are so influential is that they are not produced by the American government. People trust that they are not propaganda or even attempts at honest messaging.  The close embrace of government, even when it is loving,  is not always healthy for artists and writers and it can be downright suffocating for entrepreneurs.  Governments work best as consumers of their products, not co-creators.   

It is great for public diplomats to be able to “represent” the phenomenal vitality of the American nation. However, the scope for overlap and cooperation may be very broad, but it should not very deep. Public diplomacy professionals should certainly be consumers and enthusiasts of the best our country offers. That doesn’t mean that we can or should work in close partnership to guide or be guided by particular individuals or groups over the long term. *

Being broadly representative of America is what public diplomacy officers do best and what we should continue to do, but we need to recall that we work for the government, which is only a part of the nation, and there are not very many of us.  

We can bring attention to what is best in our country. We can explain U.S.  policies and advocate them.  We can make friends and nurture relationships.  But we have to be really careful when we try to “harness” the power of the American nation for our (perhaps ephemeral) particular programming needs. In many cases it is best for us to facilitate contact among those who truly know and care about an issue and then get out of the way.  Opportunities for cooperation should always be explored but with the considerations mentioned above always in mind.  Particular partnerships can come and go, but the core task of representing the American nation abides.  

To paraphrase Matthew, maybe we should render onto Caesar (government) that which is Caesar’s; render onto God that which is God’s and let the American nation take care of the rest.

***** * 

*The most obviously dangerous one is the simple matter of exclusion and inclusion.   Sustaining deep relationships with any particular Americans means that we must exclude most others.  We have limited staff and limited resources. 

I wrote a post last year about the possible conflicts of interests of too close ties with business.  If you are interested enough to read the post please do so, but the point is that if business and government form partnerships, they both hope to gain something from the joint enterprise.  Unless everybody thinks the relationship through, much of what they expect might give the impression of impropriety and sometimes might actually be unethical.

It can be too easy for particular firms to become the “go to” places for U.S. officials.  Pretty soon it looks like the U.S. is endorsing or backing their products.  Even though nobody says so, foreigners might treat them differently because of this. When working in Poland, I found that many people assumed that they could get better treatment for things like visas if they worked with firms somehow associated with the Consulate. We would sometimes have to distance ourselves from a firm that was in fact actively implying such useful connections.

You can also easily envision situations where closeness to the USG would be a negative.  Unfriendly foreign authorities might not be able to effectively harass our diplomats, but they can take out their frustrations on U.S. firms or their local employees.

March 06, 2010

Changes in Attitudes; Changes in Behaviors

Influence means changing behaviors. Changing attitudes, raising awareness and altering opinions are all important but ONLY to the extent that they lead to changed behaviors. Research shows that the link between most attitudes and behaviors is sometimes weak and sometimes not present at all. (Most of the people who hate us don’t try to harm us and many of the people who try to harm us don’t hate us.)   

Those were some of the surprising things I heard at a presentation yesterdy. The guy said that we have to look for the drivers of behaviors, which may be very different from what we think they are what people say they are or even what the people involved themselves believe they are.

He gave the example of a middle aged man who buys and expensive car. If you ask him why he wants that Corvette or Jaguar, he will probably tell you (and believe) that it is because of the performance, the fine leather seats, the comfort and reliability etc. What he is really doing is trying to impress others.   

Many times the drivers of behaviors involve social inclusion. People want to be part of a group and/or improve their status within it. The reasons they give are often rationalizations.  It is hard to find the accurate reasons by asking the people  involved, since they are often deceiving even themselves, but ask the neighbors and acquaintances. The middle aged owner of a muscle car thinks he is just interested in the vehicle.  His neighbors know that he bought it to show off his wealth or impress women with his still youthful and powerful outlook.  

Our public diplomacy goal is to have deep influence on large groups and this is very hard. Nobody else really does this. When you look to the advertising world, you see that they are usually trying to influence shallow, short term decisions. They want to sell a product or service and that requires little in the way of long term influence. Politics is not much better. The whole campaign culminates in a single transaction, which costs the person nothing and requires no long term commitment.  As politicians learn to their sorrow, the extreme love the voters profess for them on Election Day usually will not translate into long term behavioral change and will not even guarantee a repeat of the same behavior two or four years down the road.

This is why public diplomacy remains an art and not a science. It is complicated by the fact that we are working in other cultures, but knowing the culture is also not enough. (I am always suspicious of those “experts” who claim to know what 1.2 million Muslims or a billions Chinese are really thinking.  Experts like that are a blight that should be avoided.)  We Americans know our own cultures very well, but how many of us can accurately predict, let alone influence the behaviors of our compatriots six month in the future? We have to understand before we can influence, but where to start?

It is good to look at what people have been doing for a long time and accept that they have a good reason for doing what they do. It may not be a correct reason from our point of view.  It may not even be objectively accurate, but it is a driver of behavior because it serves some useful purpose from the point of view of the person doing it.  

So the first task is to identify the driver of behaviors we want to encourage or slow down and then address them, recognizing that the ostensible driver is probably not the real one.   Our confusion about the stated driver and the real ones is a reason why many of our outreach efforts produce the results they do.   

A terrorist might say that he wants to kill to avenge some earlier perceived wrong, but he is not telling the truth (even if he believes it).  Put in a pragmatic way, removing his ostensible grievance would not change his behavior, although it might impel him to revise his grievance list.  I thought of last week’s talk by Ghaffar Hussein on understand radicals.

So … what do we do?

First we admit that it is not easy. Public diplomacy is not a science, but it can benefit from some scientific methods. The first should be to have some firm behavior based objectives. A goal to “change attitudes” or “raise awareness” is not sufficient. I have to admit that it would be hard for me to come up with objectives for many of our general public diplomacy programs, but the task is easier when we are talking about countering radicals.  We might define goals such as “cut donations to radical groups,” “reduce recruitment,” or “eliminate offers of safe havens.” After that, we need to formulate a hypothesis about how this might happen as a result of our work. This would be something we could test.  We don’t do this very often and the speaker  offered that some of our attempts at Muslim engagement don’t really do much of anything, since the real drivers of behavior are not our attitudes toward Islam, and even if they were we would not have the authority or credibility to address them.   

The proliferation of information on the web has proven a wonderful laboratory for social research, since you can see relationships, sometimes literally graphically. The web has shown itself to be a decent measure of non-web behavior, but so far is less useful as a driver.  Some of this has to do with us. Very often we are not present in the places where influence is exerted and if we are there, we are not authoritative enough to make an impact.

Influence and authority are not fungible. This is a bit of a change on the web versus earlier times. You used to have influence or authority because of the influence or authority of the sender. We listened to the official BECAUSE he was the official.  Here the USG is acting from a position of disadvantage. Most of the people we want to influence don’t respect our authority in the subjects at hand. Star power has also greatly diminished. A celebrity can draw a crowd, but influence only follows from having something compelling to say. Now the power lies in the reception of the audience. And it is not only how many listen to you, but more importantly WHO.   Most people are not influential.  You want to get the respect of those who are. You have to appeal to the influencers and to do that you have to have something THEY will consider new or useful. 

Technologies can help us identify the influentials and the links among them. We can see the content, topology (links) and dynamics of networks in ways and detail we never could before.  LES (latent Semantic analysis), the stuff Google uses, does a great job identifying patterns. Language reveals biases and ideologies and so these systems are very useful.  But the computer cannot read.  It just sees a bag of words and sorts them based on their proximity. We need to see or create useful taxonomy and there is no structured or permanent taxonomy, so we just cannot let it go by itself. There is no garden w/o the gardener and nobody has yet invented a perpetual motion device.

Once again we come back to the human factor.  Humans influence humans. Our systems can supplement and enable human expertise, but they cannot replace it. We still have to set the goals and monitor the progress because if we don’t know where we are going, we probably will end up someplace else. Our technologies will help us get to the wrong place faster.

March 05, 2010

Volunteers, Philanthropy & Cultural Policies

Americans are generous people when it comes to both charitable giving and volunteering.    You can find some of it in our cultural roots. Philanthropy and volunteerism are prominent in what you might call the British diaspora. But there is also something in the structure of American society.  Some of it has to do with the absence of the types of government programs we find in many other countries and there is the effect of our tax system. 

American flag at WWII MemorialThe absence of government argument cuts both ways. You can argue that individual Americans must step in because of government neglect, or you could argue that aggressive government intervention crowds out of preempts charities by individuals or groups. Both have some validity. Some of the same things get done everywhere but who does them is different.

Many things done by volunteers in the U.S. are government functions, even government monopolies in other places. Around my house, citizens do a lot of the work to maintain the local parks. In some parts of Europe (and even some American cities with strong unions) they are not allowed to do that. It is a government monopoly and no volunteer or free effort is wanted.   That may be a trivial example, but it also extends to things like volunteer fire departments, hospital volunteers, community watches, after school programs and lots of other things.  

Governments in the U.S. allow or encourage volunteerism in ways many others don’t.   This may be changing, as I will discuss below, but first let’s talk taxes.

I heard a lecture entitled “Why doesn’t the U.S. have a cultural policy?” The speaker from the Smithsonian explained that the title of his lecture was meant to mislead, because American DID have a very strong and effective cultural policy. It was our tax policy.  The citizens put up their own money, demonstrating their own real commitment and the government partnered with them by “spending” through tax breaks.

This kind of arrangement is entirely consistent with the workings of a democracy, since it decentralizes decision making and funds those things citizens throughout the country find most valuable. He contrasted this with the system used in a country like France, where a Paris-based elite decides what, where and who is worthy. This produces great fine arts, but tends to neglect non-elite projects as well as non-established artists and places that are not established cultural centers. In America, some of the most interesting cultural offerings are found in what would be called “provincial” places in other countries. In France with its centralized system, you find great culture in Paris and it tapers off drastically after that. Washington is not the cultural capital of America and, despite its own pretensions, neither is New York. The best orchestras, artists, dance troupes, theaters etc are distributed widely across the country. This is because American cultural policy allows for decentralized decision making and allows funding to follow the preferences of the people.

There is much gnashing of teeth about this cultural policy, but there is even more trouble with the centralized versions. The National Endowments for the Arts, for example, funds some questionable art.  The one I remember best is the "piss Christ" where the “artist” submerged a crucifix in a cup of his own urine. Whether or not you think this guy will go to hell and whether or not you think it is art, the idea that some government official decided that your tax money should go to something like this is odious. However, it would be significantly less controversial if an individual donor had paid for it and then wrote off part on his taxes. In the latter case, it would just be an example of piss poor art rather than pissing on the taxpayers' leg and telling them it is raining.

Our decentralized system allows for a wider variety of offering, even the bad type mentioned above.  It replaces the bureaucracy with volunteers and makes much of the funding part of a public private partnership. In short, it is a great American system.

In some Eastern European languages, the word volunteer has a not entirely good connotation. I know that because I was corrected on several occasions when trying to explain volunteerism in the U.S. It seems that during communist times, the government would force people to volunteer and would organize them into work details. Sometimes they were doing exactly the same sorts of things our real volunteers do in America, but they were under the harsh lash of the communist officials. Governments have a history of commanding “volunteers.”   

The American difference has been that volunteers often “command” government resources.   The people are the senior partner in the government-private partnership.  The people drive the policy, in other words. This is usually good and should be protected.

February 28, 2010

From Where You Sit

A person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality.   That has certainly been true for me ever since I found out about my assignment in Brazil and I think this is very good.   I have been much more aware of the consequences of our Washington actions and products on our posts overseas and on our ultimate audiences there.   It is very easy to get cosseted into the Washington mind-set.   But so much of what we do here never really gets out.   We meet with each other and discuss our own urgent issues.  We sometimes provide wonderful products and services that nobody can use. 

It is very easy to be sure you know how to do something when you know you won’t really have to do it. I was aware from my past experience in overseas public diplomacy.   But my future as a public affairs officer – where I will have to USE the kinds of things we talk about here in Washington – has focused my mind on the more pragmatic aspects.    

I don’t have much confidence in the “new media” as a disembodied force.   It has to be tied to programs, people, goals and content.  But it is so easy to seek the immediate gratification of reaching large numbers of people.   It is similar to video games in that way & it is no coincidence that gaming is one of the driving forces behind new media.   The games give you immediate feedback and seem to show immediate results.  But this can be true whether or not you are making legitimate progress.   You can easily have the experience of achieving an online goal and then wondering why you spent all that time to get there.    There is a good South Park episode on World of Warcraft.  Watch it to the end. 

The combination is the key. A live speaker program, along with Co.Nx, along with Facebook or other social media, announced on twitter, with a blog about the speaker’s journey, and followed by the posting of online materials, that would work. I would also add that we would need to prepare the ground by making contacts in advance and reinforce the results by keeping up and following up later. 

Public Diplomacy is not rocket science, but it does require a diligence and a holistic approach that is continued over time and adjusted to local realities and changing conditions.  This is simple to say, but really hard to implement.    It is much easier to shortcut with social media, claim you have reached thousands and have some kind of automated response follow-up.    The short term results look great, it probably looks better in the immediate term than the holistic approach which takes time to bear fruit.   That is the seductiveness of these kinds of short cuts.

Our system encourages the short term by demanding prompt reports.   We generally write up the report of an event the next day.   What information do we have at that time?  We can count numbers of participants and the reach of the immediate placement, but we have no idea whatsoever if anybody actually thought about the program or if it opened some minds.   And our reports never follow up because the next urgent report pushed all thoughtfulness aside.    And assessing public diplomacy requires thoughtfulness.   Much of what we accomplish is indirect.  A person not at the event might have heard from a friend and that provoked an important idea.  

And time is the major factor.  It takes time for an idea to develop and mature.   I wrote about how I was influenced by a public diplomacy contact twenty-five years ago.  No measuring system would ever catch that, yet it was lasting and profound.

I know that it is a tough balance especially because in the present, you live off the work others did before you.  In the future others will benefit from what you created.

February 17, 2010

Empowering Posts

I was cleaning out my old files and I discovered this.  I wrote it last March, but it makes sense still.  In fact, it makes more sense to me now that I have experienced Washington's reach and as I anticipate going overseas again.  I post it in unedited (since March 27, 2009) form.

We inevitably have a Washington perspective when we live in Washington, but we have to work to get beyond it because it is more dangerous than ever.   The new media gives us tools that can reach anywhere in the world in seconds.  We can bypass gatekeepers and some of them deserve to be bypassed.  But we can also bypass friends.  I am thinking of our colleagues in posts overseas. 

It is temping to just get it done; pass that information; make that connection.   We CAN do it and in making a direct connection from Washington to the journalist or blogger in the field we undoubtedly improve the short term efficiency and effectiveness of our information operation.  But this short term success comes at the expense of damaging the system that makes us effective in the long run.

When you look at the whole system, you quickly realize that the main product of a public diplomacy operation is not information.   Information is nearly free in today’s interconnected world and there is very little that we can give anybody that they cannot get somewhere else.   If information is not the key, what is?  The answer is relationships.  We are working to build relationships of trust and reliance.   Our relationships are what makes our information stick and helps put it in the proper contexts.   Our relationships are the basis of our reputations.   The connections count.

From Washington we can build electronic relationships and a type of customer base, but at best we have a relationship akin to a book lovers’ relationship with   It is not multifaceted and may not be robust enough to endure really hard challenges.   When Barnes & Noble offers a better price, I abandon Amazon. 

Most of the effective long-term relationship building is done on the local level, i.e. our posts.   We can help them from Washington by providing backup and materials.  We can help coordinate our programs among posts.

But we can also harm and uncut the post and we will probably do that with the best of intentions.  When we bypass the post and reach directly into their audience, we are weakening their ability to maintain their contact network.   The worst case scenario is when powerful Washington directly provides important local media outlets with information, interviews or editorials.   It makes the people at the post look ineffective in the eyes of the recipients.   They want to eliminate the middleman.

We can also do similar things with our electronic programming.  That is why we have to be especially careful to involve posts.  I don’t believe that there has been a problem so far.  In the case of a CO.NX program, for example, we get participants from all over, but we are careful to keep the posts in the loop.   It works like a cooperative and I am convinced that IIP programs to date have enhanced and expanded the reach of our posts overseas.  But as the new technologies and methods develop, this coordination may become more difficult. 

Web 2.0 presents lots of challenges of management, coordination, communications and control.  The spontaneity, inclusiveness and reach are strengths of the new methods but also its weaknesses.  We have made a very bad trade if we create a Washington-centric network of relationships at the expense of those based around out posts in the host countries.   We have to always be aware of what we are doing and sometimes choose to be “less effective” in a particular transaction in order to maintain and grow the effectiveness of our total system.

February 07, 2010

Bright American Future 

The big Washington blizzard didn’t make AEI cancel the session on new American demographics and the discussion of “The Next 100 Million: America in 2050” with the author Joel Kotkin and a panel of experts chaired by Michael Barone.

Decline overdone

Experts have been saying that America is in decline since - even before - we became an independent nation. Kotkin acknowledges that someday these critics will be correct, but not today, and he paints an optimistic picture of our American future. America has a lot of advantages going into the next generation. It starts with demographics.

Americans still remember how to have kids; it is evidently no longer a universal skill

The U.S. is unique among developed country since we have a positive rate of natural increase. It is not very much above replacement level, but that is more than others, some of which are almost in free fall. America is also an anomaly in that in some of our suburbs wealthy, well-educated women sometimes have three or more kids. (I recall reading an article about the big families in affluent Loudon County next door to us.)  

We also still get millions of immigrants. That means that the America is growing older slower than other developed countries and the American labor force will continue to grow through 2050, while others suffer greater or lesser proportional decline in their productive populations relative to their dependent ones. The interesting thing about his data was that it also shows that the world's most populous country - China - will begin to suffer labor shortages (at least for skilled labor) very soon.  The Chinese labor force will start to decline as early as 2015 (yes, five years from now) as a result of their perhaps necessary but draconian one-child policy. (Long term predictions are always tough, but by 2050 the U.S. labor force is projected to rise by 42%; China’s will drop by 10% and Japan’s labor force will decline by an astonishing 44%).

More old people, fewer young workers 

This labor force decline will be accompanied by a big growth in the elderly dependent population, both in relative and absolute terms. The world has never experienced anything like this before and our lack of models will require adaptions we cannot fully anticipate. We are truly going where no human societies have gone before.

But America will suffer these declines later and less severely than most others. In addition, the U.S. has a very robust & adaptive economic system. National power is based on economic strength, innovation and demographic clout. Among the great nations of the last generation, only the U.S. will still have these elements in abundance in the next generation.

Managing genteel decline not the same as planning robust growth

This U.S. outlook contributes to disagreements with old allies. For example, the Europeans can also make demographic projections. They see that their populations will decline and their economies will grow much slower than ours. When your population will get smaller and your economy won’t grow much, you don’t worry very much about promising cuts in CO2. You need different policies if you are managing a genteel decline than when you are planning for robust growth.

The U.S. will change internally too. The growth of the last fifty years went mostly to the coasts.   The next fifty years will see a return to the heartland. Kotkin doesn’t say that all the little praire towns will be back, but space and affordable housing will draw people away from the coasts. He says that the whole idea of suburbs has become meaningless. There is more a blending of suburbs, cities and rural areas. Kotkin foresees what he calls an archipelago of villages. More people would be connected by new media in greener and less crowded communities. It sounds a lot like the Loudoun County communities mentioned in the article I linked above.

Today's ethnic & racial categories will not mean much in 2050

Much has been said about the changing ethnic composition of the U.S. population and in 2050 the white native born population is  projected to drop to around 50% of the labor force.  But how significant will this be? Kotkin pointed out how foreign the large immigration of Irish seemed in the 19th Century.  We just forget how different earlier waves of immigrants had been and how completely they have been integrated into our society. When my grandfather and his brother Felix came to the U.S., they spoke no English and probably had never seen an American before. There is probably no population on earth today that is so "foreign." 

The younger generation doesn't really care very much about race, with vast majorities in favor of interracial marriage, so by 2050 today's categories will be as meaningless as some of the national and religious distinctions made in our grandparents' childhoods. In other words, by 2050 nobody will care. 

Still some challenges and skills mismatched

The road to this bright happy future is not necessarily certain. We have a challenge of education, not so much college but technical. We might, in fact, be pushing too many kids into college when the more appropriate skills might be technical. Our community and technical colleges should be given a bigger role as providers of final or working degrees rather than way-stations to four-year colleges. Kotkin thinks it is just a problem of incentives. We reward careers in finance and law more than we do those who actually make useful things. If that changes, so will our career paths.

We have been able to import skilled labor, but that might be slowing. We have some competition now.  Places like Canada & Australia are also pleasant and welcoming like the U.S. They are also "countries of aspiration" and they drawing in some of the skilled immigrants.  There are also now more opportunities in many source countries, as people around the world reap the benefits of market liberalization reforms of past decades. Indian engineers, for example, now may have good opportunities at home.

The general pool of attractive potential immigrants is also shrinking, as birth rates drop even in those place that traditionally had very high rates of growth, such at Mexico and parts of Asia. A good example of what this pattern can look like comes from South Korea, which a couple decades ago sent millions of immigrants to the U.S. and now absorbs its own population growth, which is now much lower than that of the U.S. 

We need more Engineers & plumbers and fewer leaf blowers & Lawyers

We Americans screw ourselves, however. Canada or Australia favor the skills their countries need.  An immigrant with skills has a better chance of getting into those places. Our immigration policies give too little weight to the skills and education we can use in our economy. We are too "fair". We don’t need to import any more unskilled labor or even worse - people who don’t plan to labor at all.  We have the right to ask potential immigrants what they will contribute to our country. Besides the relatively small numbers of bona-fides refugees, we have no moral duty to admit anybody. As long as we will limit total numbers and we have a choice, we should choose the best and the brightest, not people we need to train before they can operate a leaf blower.

Unfortunately, unskilled labor can create its own demand.  My personal complaint is against leaf blowing. That is usually a job that just need not be done at all and if unskilled labor wasn’t so cheap maybe we wouldn’t do it very often. You can learn to use a leaf blower in about thirty seconds.  We don’t need more of those things. We are better off with people with useful skills. Some jobs - such as leaf blowing - are worth less than zero. I have discussed the value of doing nothing (with specific reference to leaf blowing) here & here.

Anyway, the AEI event gave me something to think about.  I will have to buy the book and read the details. I have to say – once again – that we are really lucky to have these kinds of events offered free or cheaply to anybody with the inclination to listen. 

February 04, 2010

Rumors, Conspiracy Stories & Disinformation

My colleague and friend Todd Leventhal has written a paper about conspiracy theories and disinformation, which I include at this link.  I recommend you read it.   Todd is one of the foremost experts in this field and unlike many who study it only academically; Todd has been in the trenches. 

I first became aware of Todd in the 1980s when I was assigned to Brazil.  Those were still Cold War years and despite – maybe because of – glasnost the KGB was particularly active in spreading lies and planting stories in media worldwide. I  had to address lots of Soviet disinformation in the my local media.  Todd’s information helped me smack down at least some of the silliness.  

Especially troubling and pervasive was the story cooked up by the by KGB that the U.S. had created the AIDS virus as a bioweapon. The story still resurfaces from time-to-time.   It was fairly easy to debunk, since there were so many inconsistencies in the time-lines and the biology involved, but most of those who pass along conspiracy theories are not very bright or they are malicious, so that facts have less impact on them than you might imagine.  Nevertheless debunking these things early and often limits their spread.  It is like pulling weeds in a garden. It is not much fun and you are never done, but you have to do it.

Read the paper.  Todd discusses why and how rumor spreads.   Of course, false information often proliferates in the same ways that accurate information does and we have to be self-aware enough to understand that much of what we believe at any one time is not accurate.  So just thinking about these things in the way Todd does is a useful therapy for the hubris that we self-designated smart guys (wise guys?) often suffer.  It is also useful to recall that false information often seems to make more sense than truth, since the lies can be modified to make a more coherent narrative.

There is a consistent human tendency to believe that big results must have had big causes. When a great leader is killed by a lone-gunman, we almost instinctively inflate the assassin to the size of his target.  This kind of mental matching is usually unwarranted and it is not harmless, since it elevates little villains to iconic status and helps make political violence more successful.

Anyway, I will pass along to Todd any comments you want to make.   It is worth reading his paper.

Talking to the Dead

Shadow in the snowI am listening to a great “Teaching Company” series on Western Literature.   (BTW – you never have to pay full price for these things.  They always go on sale.)  Western literature traditions are a little out of style these days, which is a shame because the great literature really does speak to us across the centuries.   A good education has to include some knowledge of the classics and nothing can become a classic until it has been well-known enough for a long enough time to influence thought and literature in a broad sense.   In other words, no matter how great something written a couple of years ago may be, it cannot have the power of older literature.   Maybe it is a future classic, but it is not a classic yet.

Literature extends influence beyond the grave

The guy giving the lectures explained that literature is a way of talking to the dead and getting an intergenerational perspective.  I was thinking about that as I drove down to the farm last weekend.   I was listening to “Infotopia,” by Cass Sunstein.   He was talking about markets, in the broad sense to include markets for attitudes and ideas and how they aggregate the opinions and attitudes of many minds.  Literature is like that.    He mentioned that the great economist Fredrick Hayek had contended that traditions are a type of market too and you have to be careful changing established relationships, since they are essentially long-term distilled experience, a record of how people adjusted and adapted to problems over the years.   Edmund Burke made a similar observation about morality.   I did too.  When I wrote my note Found in Translation I didn’t directly recall my literature professors or Hayek or Burke, but don’t doubt that is where the ideas originated.   One of the benefits of a liberal education is that you learn all these things and if they sink in early enough and deep enough you come to think of them as your own.   There not any really new ideas; just restatements of and new compilations. 


The funny thing is that those w/o the “useless” liberal education often believe they thought them up for the first time.   And they often get away with it.  Many best-selling authors and highly paid speakers recycle old stuff.  I suppose they sometimes do it consciously, other times not.    You tend to get the classics in the watered down version.  I remember reading the science fiction “Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov.  I recognized it back then as a allegory of the fall of the Roman Empire.  What I didn’t get at the time was how closely the second foundation tracked with Boethius on the consolation of philosophy. Asimov was an educated man, so I think he did it on purpose.   Generations of Sci-Fi fans have essentially read Boethius.    

BTW – I first came met Boethius way back in 1975. You can go through college w/o ever coming into contact with him at all, since he has largely "fallen out of the cannon."  I got to know him when studying Chaucer.  Boethius was a much bigger deal in the Middle Ages than he has been more recently and if you study the philosophy surrounding Chaucer's writings, you run into Boethius. I mostly forgot about him for the last ... oh thirty years. I was reminded of the details of his death by the audio program.  It was dreadful, but I guess it helped secure his position as a martyr.  After he fell afoul of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric and was executed by having wet leather straps wrapped around his head. The straps contracted as they dried and crushed his brain. It must have been very unpleasant and it is an example of man’s inhumanity to man. What kind of guy even thinks of that?  I mean really, was there a bunch of guys sitting around thinking of novel uses for wet leather straps and ones gets the eureka moment?   Well, hey, we can use these leather straps to wrap this guy’s head.

Old literature and new persuasion

I am thinking of “new” media and the arts of public diplomacy persuasion in my last couple of posts, since I am doing the FSI course on that subject, but I think this fits right in.   Consider the persistence of influence of great literature and how it is so useful to have a compete repertoire of literary images, motifs and metaphors.   After all, not only are they time-tested but they also lurk in the subconscious of our culture waiting to be revealed.  It is a good lesson in this ostensibly fast-changing world that some things move slowly but have profound influence and create sustainable structure and technologies of the mind.

And the delivery mechanism is very much new media. I get these lectures over the Internet and download them onto my I-pod.  This I-pod is smaller than a matchbox, yet can probalby hold a full college curriculm of courses and lectures, along with suplimentary texts. Sweet.  But how does that delivery method change how the classics are received and how about who receives them?  An old guy like me is unlikely to get them from a college professor standing in front of him.  The whole relationship to knowledge is changing.  That is new media.

Geographically Local and Dispersed Local Communities 

Our communication goal is to reach targeted audiences with content and delivery methods appropriate for them. This often conforms well to what Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said about all politics being local and local has usually meant geographically local. Far reaching media made a dent on this localism long ago, but more recent developments have the potential to essentially erase localism in geography. However, it may be replaced by an even more homogenous localism of habits and ideas. 

Diasporas & international chattering classes

Supra-national groups have always played a disproportionate role in international politics.   Diaspora communities of Jews, Greeks, Chinese, Armenians and many others have often had more in common and identified more strongly with members of their diaspora communities in other countries than they did with the phyically closer people in their countries of residence. There has long also been an international chattering class, made up of intellectuals and expatriates who see themselves as part of a wider regional or world community. This has been going on for a long time and we have adapted well in many cases to reaching these groups. 

Local need not mean nearby

The new media has facilitated the creation of new “local” communities very much like diasporas or international intellectuals, but united by less abiding characteristics and more by sometimes transient common interests and socials media.  No matter how esoteric an interest, you can usually find among the billions of people in the world a sufficiently large number of likeminded people to form a community.

Let’s take the example of a surprising community.    “The Big Lebowski” was released in theaters in 1998 to a lukewarm response.   It barely broke even in the U.S. and had it been released a couple decades earlier, it would have fallen into the memory hole and been generally unavailable except on a few college campuses.  But in the Internet age nothing is unavailable and “The Big Lebowski” acquired a cult following.   Now there is a Lebowski community.  You can market to that community and you can reach them with particular phrases.   No geographically local community could sustain this, but a media local community clearly can.

If a nation is a group of people who have common experiences, believe common myths and share common stories, what does it mean if virtual communities supplant geographical ones?

Yeah, well. The Dude abides.

Geography has not become unimportant.   On the contrary, people are often sorting  themselves geographically based on their habits, lifestyle preferences and even their political beliefs.  Fairfax, County Virginia is separted from Montgomery County, Maryland by a about a hundred yards of river water.  The topograhy is similar.  They same sorts of plants grow in both places.  They are part of the same metro area. Median incomes diverge very little.  They have similar distributions of minority populations and the educational attainments of both populations are almost identical, yet people notice signficant differences in attitudes and behaviors and these factor into some home buying decisons.  But geography is no longer the destiny it was in the past.   There is another layer on top of the physical geography (although I bet Macs sell relatively better than PCs in Maryland than they do in Virginia.)  It is possible for someone to live in one place but have most of his friends and most of the things that influence him spread all over the world.   These are also local communities that we can identify and benefit from addressing.   

February 03, 2010

Re-defining the Human Space

My colleague Bill May made a good point during our recent talk at FSI about Edward R. Murrow’s fabled last three feet when he explained that his kids have virtual friends that they have never met in person and may never meet in person.  But they are still friends.  They still influence each other.  They have entered Edward R. Murrow’s three feet range but they have done so electronically.   

Putting the human space in context

Let’s update Murrow and maybe put his statement in context.   Of course, the social media didn’t exist in his time as it does today, so he was talking only about broadcast media when he said electronic media.  He was right back then and he is right today – if we talk about broadcasting.   

The three feet idea refers not to physical presence but to human engagement.   Engagement w/o physical presence was nearly impossible in Edward R. Murrow’s time; it has become easy to do today.  So we should modify the three-foot-theorem, but not abandon it.   And Murrow’s admonition about overestimating the reach of electronic media still applies.

You can't have a two-way relationship with a million friends ...

The key is engagement and engagement still requires human interaction.   I have previously written about the Dunbar number, which postulates that individual human beings cannot maintain meaningful contact with more than something like 150-250 people.  There just is not enough time in the day and we don’t have the cognitive power to do more.   Even if you could keep millions of relationships straight, the recipients might object.   Most people like to think that their friends care about them.   How much can a guy with a million friends care about any one of them?   There has to be some kind of sorting.

... but maybe machines can

There is a qualification, however. People are increasingly comfortable interfacing with machines and artificial intelligence.  For example, I feel I have a relationship with something like, even though I am certain that no human at knows my name or cares about me as a person. has a very good algorithm which figures out what I like by comparing my previous purchases to those of others. Google does a similar thing with search.   

Kids love their teddy-bears

They are just making comparisons and projections based on the past behavior and revealed preferences, but it sure seems like human intelligence. And just like the kid who personifies his teddy-bear, I have to admit that I have personified, Charles Schwab, the Nature Conservancy and many of the other organizations that play these kinds of personalization games with me. I like to think that there are humans behind all this, but I don’t think there are.   Or more correctly, the humans are also part of this personalization machine.  If I call an actual person at Charles Schwab, they are very friendly and they know a lot about me – BECAUSE of the relationship we both have with the algorithm.  This is not real human contact.

Does human interaction have to be with humans?

The implications are both comforting and frightening and public affairs professionals have to pick up both ends of this stick.  Some “human” transactions can indeed be put on autopilot and the interactions may actually improve.   I prefer to do my banking, travel arrangements and much of my shopping online and would rather interact with a computer database than with a person.   But that goes only for things I already understand. I still trust humans more when I am making unfamiliar decisions.  We need both.

The test of artificial intelligence is how long it takes before you know that there is not another human on the other side of your conversation.  As technology improves, it takes us longer to know and we care less when we find out.  The machine has an advantage over us: it never forgets.  That means it can recognize long-term trends and patterns we might miss in ourselves and others. They say that a good friend is someone who sometimes knows you better than you know yourself. Welcome to the new world.

February 02, 2010

Second Draft of History

cobra statues in Egypt 

If journalism is the first draft of history, some of the stuff that appears on the new media is like notes jotted on the back of a napkin.   How can anybody make sense of this cacophony of contradiction?   You can’t, actually.  Events don’t make sense until they are put into a narrative.   It is true that journalists usually get the first shot at constructing the narrative, but their perspective is limited because they don’t know how the story will end.    They usually don’t even have all the current parts and don’t understand the interrelationships.   But you have to start someplace.

The first ones to get the story out often have an advantage in shaping narratives because once you have heard a story with facts arranged in particular ways it is hard to see it any other way.   And sometimes the facts can be influenced by an information cascade, where each subsequent person is influenced  with the one before until everybody thinks everybody else agrees on a formulation that might not be true in detail and sometimes not even true in general.   That is why pressure groups and politicians are so enthusiastic about getting their talking points accepted early.

But it doesn’t end there.   Subsequent events often change the interpretation of earlier ones.   Time may be linear, where causes must precede effects, but memory is not and so perception is not and history is not.   Beyond that, truth matters and investigations and comparisons help find more truth (although I don’t think we ever arrive at THE truth, we can get closer if we work at it.)

So what is the second draft of history?  It traditionally consisted of memoirs & the results of academic seminars.  Henry Kissinger's "White House Years" or the various Bob Woodward books are other examples.  I think what we are seeing more and more today are television documentaries setting at least the intermediate narratives.   Programs like PBS Frontline are the obvious example, but lately more pervasive are the kinds of things you see on “History Channel” or “The Military Channel.”  These are often appreciated by specialists of those really interested in the facts in question, so they have greater staying power than things aimed at more general audiences.

I have been watching what I think is a rewrite of the Iraq war narrative.   The “first draft” featured U.S. troops suffering confused in a confusing environment in a war they couldn’t win.   The truer narrative that I see coming out in specialty publications and some military documentary programs is that the Iraq experience was difficult but ultimately successful counter insurgency campaign.  It doesn’t discount or overlook the mistakes, but accounts for them in context.  My guess is that MOST people still believe the old narrative, but most people really don't care that much.  The people who really care enough to find out are the ones that understand the revised one and ultimately, that revised narrative is the one that will stick after the ephemera is passed.

So in the end it is not only numbers or precedence that counts but also intensity of interest or maybe demonstrated accuracy and consistency with other contemporary and subsequent events. When we want to find out about past events, few of us go to old newspapers. We look for near contemporary analysis and this second draft of history becomes what we (a little loosely) call primary sources. And those sources shape the narrative ... usually.

Around 1274 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II fought a battle with the Hittites at Kadesh, which is in what is now Syria.  The Egyptians wrote the history and Ramses left an impressive monument to his victory.   It is the earliest example we know of an attempt to set a narrative.   Most historians don’t believe Ramses, but archeological evidence is inconclusive.   The Egyptians subsequently pulled back from the region.   So even more than 3000 years after the event, the precise narrative is still in dispute. The bottom line is that no matter who won that day, the Hittites got to keep the region.   Of course, you don’t find many Hittites around anymore.  There are still Egyptians, but they have little in common with the Ramses variety.  Astonishingly, some of us still care.

January 31, 2010

Snow in the Virginia Woods 

It has been cold again this year but this year we are also getting more snow. They got a lot of snow in southern Virginia & North Carolina, so I wanted to go down and look at the snow on the farm.  Well, it wasn’t a lot of snow by Wisconsin standards and it will melt in a few days, but there was more than usual and it created a different look for the place. You really wouldn't guess that you were looking at southern Virginia. 

I saw a couple cars in the ditch on the way down and I didn’t dare take the back roads, as I usually do.  Instead I went down I95 all the way down to Emporia and then went over on 58. I also didn’t dare drive down the dirt roads on the farm.  You can see that 623 was good in the spot above, but look near the bottom and you can see why I didn't want to drive up the farm road.  It is harder to walk through the snow but it is nice to feel it underfoot. There were a few animal track, but it was otherwise undisturbed. It is nice to have land. 

It was a long trip to see it and it took longer because of the adverse weather conditions. I finished almost the entire audio-book Infotopia, which I found very interesting and useful (I hope) in my job.   This was one of the three audio downloads on that Mariza gave me for Christmas.   It was a good gift.  Audio books make long drives bearable and even beneficial. I lose my NPR a few miles outside Washington.  I don’t like music radio or those silly talk shows that purport to give advice that will solve problems that I don’t have. Audio books do the job. 

Another good audio program is “the Teaching Company”.   Alex likes them too because they are around forty-five minutes long, which fits his workout schedule.

Anyway, take a look at the nice pictures. 

Complete set of photos are at this link. 

(Re)learning Languages

I got my “welcome to post” notification from Brasilia.   It is still more than a year in the future and it seems sort of ironic as I watch the snow falling outside my window but the future has a way of becoming the present faster than you think.  

So much advance notice is unusual.  I had my boots on the ground in Iraq about a month after I first even thought about volunteering for the job, but usually we get around a year.   Two years is unusual unless you are assigned to hard language training. 

Portuguese is an odd language when it comes to our training.  It is a “world language” and it is a fairly easy language to learn, but it is not as common as other “easy” world languages like Spanish or French.  Since it is not a  not a “hard language” like Russian, Arabic or Chinese, the FS sometimes doesn’t build in enough time to learn or relearn it as it does for officers assigned to posts with hard languages.   This system can work for French or Spanish, since there are lots of people in posts with those languages, Portuguese maybe not so much.   I don’t know if I explained that well, but it makes sense to me.   Suffice to say that for this PAO assignment they really wanted someone with good Portuguese, so this time they built in enough time to make sure of it and I am the beneficiary.

This is very exciting.  I learned Portuguese at FSI a quarter century ago and I got to be fluent when I was in Brazil for a couple years.   In those days you had to use the language all the time, since English was not that common in Porto Alegre.  But fluent is not necessarily the same as good.  You can speak very fast and fluently but not get the grammar or the words exactly right and I never felt really confident.   Diplomats should be really good at the languages of the countries where they are assigned and this additional training - with some consistent work - will put on the polish.   I hope so.

I don’t expect to speak like a native, but I want to get very good.  We have numbers from 1 to 5.  I want to get to 4 before I leave for Brazil, but the numbers don’t mean much.  I think of it in terms of foreign actors.  I want to get to the equivalent of Ricardo Montalban, but I am afraid I had only reached the sophistication of Sergeant Shultz on the old Hogan’s Heroes in my previous time.  I am not starting from zero this time.  I have been reading the WSJ in Portuguese.  I don’t get all the details, but I can understand most of the articles.  I also bought a dozen of Brazilian movies.  W/o the subtitles I would be out of luck, but even in the short time I have been doing it; the language is starting to come back.

Technological advances make it a lot easier to learn languages; at least it has become a lot easier to get the materials.  I can read Brazilian newspapers online and listen to radio and TV.  And of course Brazilian-Portuguese movies are easy to find.  There is almost no comparison to how it was twenty-five years ago.   I remember being happy to get those old newspapers and having to copy audio tapes.

Look below at what I just did   I used Word to translate the paragraph above into Portuguese and then back translated into English.  It did a decent job.  I would have to make a few minor corrections.   The strangest thing is that it translated the word Portuguese into English.   It also left out some of the subtlety, such as “I want.”  The Portuguese translation is better than the back translation to English, it has the “I want” (quero) for example.  This is understandable, since it is like making a copy of a copy.  But the translation certainly still makes sense and is a thousand times better than I could do on my own - the wonders of modern technology.  

Desta vez, quero aprender a escrever português.   Temos de aprender a falar e ler-se nos nossos cursos de língua, mas nós não aprender a escrever, pelo menos não como escrever bem.    Aguardo com expectativa a obtenção de muita ajuda a este respeito de Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word é muito bom na fixação de palavras que estão escritas quase corretamente.   Ele faz isso em inglês, parto do princípio de que é possível fazê-lo também em português.

Back translation

This time, I learn to write English.   We must learn to speak and read in our language courses, but we do not learn how to write, at least not how to write well.    I look forward to getting a lot of help from Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word is very good at fixing of words that are written almost correctly.   It does this in English, I assume that it is possible also in English.

It is really interesting the way that the machine can translate in seconds.  But somehow I am staring to understand how John Henry felt when he saw that steam drill rolling up.

January 28, 2010

When Confidence outruns Competence (or a Man's Gotta Know His Limitations)

There are times when my confidence outruns my competence. I cannot easily detect those instances beforehand, since blindness to the problem is essentially included in the definition. But years of painful experience have taught me how to recognize the general conditions, sort of the weather of error.

With all due modesty, I have a gift for quickly assimilating information and expressing it well to others.  With all due concern, this is a dangerous gift when not properly managed. There are two big pitfalls. The first is that it tempts the possessor not to prepare sufficiently for engagements. If you can “wing it” there is strong temptation to do just that. This is a clearly defined fault and while it is easier identified than address, it is simple (although not always easy) to manage by larding in “extra” time and care. The second pitfall is harder is more of a stealthy problem.   It is too easy to extrapolate from what you know into things that seem to make logic sense but are not really supported by the data.

The reason the extrapolation trap is so dangerous is that you MUST go to places where you may fall in, since you must make decisions and draw conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory information.   It is embedded in the very nature of decision making. If all the facts are clear and known, you don’t need to make a decision; you can just use a formula. So you have to extrapolate and there is danger in jumping too far as well as not jumping far enough.

The two bits of folk wisdom don't always work together.  You need to look before you leap (i.e. hesitate), but you cannot jump a chasm in two hops (i.e. be bold).

If you are waiting for a solution, I will disappoint you. IMO, it is a problem that can be managed but never solved. Two things have made me think about it a little more recently.  

The first is my investments. I studied stocks ten years ago and got reasonably good at investing in my small way.  Of course, it was easy to seem smart back then when things in general we headed up, but I did better than the averages.  But I don’t really pay attention any more.   One reason is that with the kids in college and forest land to pay for, I don’t have much money to invest, but the bigger reason is that I am just not interested.  When I was moving some money in the kid’s college fund, I just realized that I should not buy any individual stocks.   I just don’t know enough about it.   So I am defaulting into index funds. That will guarantee that I will not make big money, but it will also protect against catastrophic loss. That might seem like a no brainer, but it hurt my self-concept to realize that I just don’t know enough anymore and I probably will never again learn enough to go back in.   So in this case, I take refuge in mediocrity … and forestry, which is slow but steady investment. A man has gotta know his limitations.

The second problem is more serious because mediocrity is not an option. I am talking about my job. Over the years, I have studied  the components of my work, such as negotiations, leadership and communications, and tried to integrate them into a continually improving and developing performance.  Of course, I produced some failures as well as successes, but on balance I made significant forward progress. As you can see from some of my blog entries, I have tried to stay in the forefront of applying new technologies of communication to public diplomacy. But I have recently had some serious doubts about my continued prowess.

I think we can learn lessons from the past and I reach back for analogies and lessons all the way to the dawn of history.  That is why I think it is good and useful to study and think about things like the grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire, among other things.   My trust in these things is based on the implicit assumption that fundamental human relations are constant, so there is something to be learned by looking at how things worked in a variety of places, times and circumstances. Not everybody agrees. My extrapolation comes from believing that things that Thucydides wrote 2500 years ago apply to our modern age communications, albeit with greatly accelerated connections.  What if this is not true?

The new media is creating a kind of global consciousness that may be a discontinuous break with the past, a “novus ordo seclorum” to steal the fancy phrase (I am still the historian and I have a dollar bill).  Discontinuous change invalidates previous experience.

I have helped design an FSI course on the social media and it has a lot of aspects of my personality are fixed in the structure and this goes beyond the fact that I am personally giving the keynote and handling one of the big “learning organization” modules.  Although it is about the NEW social media, the premise I embedded is that social media is more an anthropology or human relations question than a matter of technology. To me the actual technologies are superfluous.   I realize that this is the thinking and design or a classic historian. Not everybody would be so dismissive of the latest and greatest techno-wiz (BTW – I use the word wiz in both its slang versions) and I fear that it might be me who is out of line.

I recognize the weather of error, but it doesn’t tell me what to do.  It could be that my anthropology paradigm is a good one, or it could just be all wet.   I will do a couple of interactive talks at the new FSI social media seminar next week.  Maybe that will give me better insight.

January 08, 2010

A Learning Organization and the New Media

IIP is consulting with FSI to produce a course on new and social media. I am doing the keynote plus and intro. Below is what I plan to say.  Here is a link to the PowerPoint presentation on social media.  

Memorial Bridge on the Potomac River in January 2010 

Not a “how-to” course

You will learn to use new/social media more effectively in this course, but this is not a “how-to” training. The beauty of the new/social media is that it is fairly easy to learn how to use. The challenge is how to use it in the context of effective public diplomacy and the new/social media’s ease of use and very ubiquity complicate the challenge. We are tempted to just start driving down the road, but it is a good idea to look at the roadmap first to figure out where we want to be and how best to get there

For our next trick

We used to ask “what are the parts of the new media?” We identified Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and others and figured out how to use them. Some of us got very good at sending out tweets and finding friends on Facebook. It is very impressive to reach thousands of people with the push of a key, but what are you accomplishing? When we first got into the new media, just getting there was hard and it was accomplishment enough. But we have moved beyond that. If we used to ask about the parts of the new media, the question now is, “what is the new/social media part of?” You will not learn a “Twitter strategy.”

Public diplomacy professionals should no more have a Twitter strategy than a carpenter should have a “hammer strategy.” Like the carpenter, we want a toolbox filled with the best equipment available and we have a building strategy that uses the appropriate tool or combination of tools to get the job done.

The human equation

This is the place where I genuflect toward public diplomacy’s patron – Edward R Murrow – who said that our technologies can bridge thousands of miles, but that persuasion takes place in the last three feet, i.e. the human space. We are always talking to humans and must consider human behavior, preferences and limitations and there are many that affect us. They will differ in various cultures and in various times. We also have to understand that our own actions may fundamentally change the challenges we face.

It is a kind of public diplomacy game theory. The very fact that we are acting changes the environment where we do our things.

A learning organization

This is why we need you and this is why I need you to participate in the talks. There really are no experts in this field, or put differently the actual practitioners, i.e. YOU are the experts. Unfortunately, none of you, none of us, has the complete picture. But we all have some pieces.

How this course is designed to be a little different

We want to pick up some of those pieces. We want to help make State more of a learning organization. Individuals learn, but in order to become a learning organization we have to harvest and synthesis the knowledge of our individual members. Tomorrow Bill May and I will lead a discussion session. I am sure many of you have been in “open discussions” where you know they have a particular goal where you will reach the received wisdom. Less devious trainers sometimes even have the final conclusions written on the flip chart, to be revealed when the group reaches the correct gate at the city of knowledge.

We will try to guide the discussion but we REALLY do not have a goal in mind; more correctly our real goal is to facilitate the learning among all of us. AND we anticipate changing our approach and procedures on the basis of what we learn. If you take this course again, it will be different. And I will write up a synthesis of the results and post it on InfoCentral’s wiki platform. All of you will get the URL and all of you can continue to comment and contribute.

The picture at top, BTW, is Memorial Bridge over the Potomac.

December 24, 2009

Running in Circles

I don’t think that life runs in circles, but we kind of follow trials, maybe more like a bloodhound following scents.   The scents can be stronger or weaker.  Sometimes they are washed away completely, but more often it only seems that way.   Naturally the course of your career is often determined by your core competencies and talents.   You tend to circle around the places where you have expertise.   That is why it is so important to start along a path with lots of options, since you may be travelling that way a long time.

The natural circle

Forestry was probably my biggest circle. I have always loved nature and studied forestry in college, but abandoned it as impractical.  I believed that was the end of it, but I didn’t know myself as well as I thought.   While my conscious mind was not paying attention, under the surface I was always paying attention to the opportunities and – in the Chicago term – when I saw my chances, I took them.   I became a forest owner.   People wondered not only why I wanted to do that, but also how I knew what to do.  I just did.  I had learned to identify forest types and assess forest land, not in the professional sense but enough to know what I was buying because that program had been running in background for thirty years.

Bookending Brazil

Now I may well be bookending my career with Brazil.   Brazil was my first post and Portuguese was the first language the FS taught me.  That was a long time ago, a quarter century ago.  Besides my sojourn in Iraq, I spent the rest of my career in Europe.  But I wasn’t so completely out of it.  In 2000, I went to the EU Summit in Lisbon.  Their Portuguese is very different from the Brazilian variety and for a couple days I couldn’t say anything.  But then it came back, mostly.  A couple years ago, FSI offered an online Portuguese reading course.   I had no reason to take it, but I did.

I went down to Sao Paulo and the State of Parana in May of this year.   Brazil surprised me.  I guess I should have known that it would change in twenty-five years, but it had changed a lot.   The country of the future was finally catching up with its vast potential.  So when they advertised for the PAO in Brazil, I applied for the job.   Yesterday I got it.

Foreign language is hard and you tend to think you sound better than you do

It is well in the future.  The job doesn’t start until summer of 2011.   I will finish the job here in IIP next summer, so I will have to find something for a couple months before I start the area training and language again.   I want to get my Portuguese as nearly perfect as I can and that takes effort and training.   I was easily fluent in the language when I lived in Porto Alegre, but I know that at my best I sounded like the equivalent of Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes.   I want to move up to the Louis Jordan or Ricardo Montalban level.  

FSI has language proficiency levels.  IMO - the 1 level is like those Japanse fighter pilots on old movies,  You can say just enough to make a few exclamations.  When you approach the 2 level, you can ask where directions to the bathroom or the train station, but you might not understand the answer well enough to find it.  The 3 is Sargeant Shultz.  People understand you, but it is often comical. You have to get at least 4 to approach Louis Jordan or Ricardo Montalban, but they are probably closer to 5.

Once more around the track

So it looks like I will be doing another lap around another circle.  Brazil is a very good post.  The PAO seemed like a real big deal when I was looking at it from the junior officer perspective.   Now, maybe not so much, but it will be a good and rewarding work.  It has a big budget and a lot to do.  This time I will be able to see the country and appreciate it more.  Last time we were so poor that we couldn’t afford to go anywhere unless the government sent us.  We were paying off student loans, car loans and then the expenses of the kid.  Mariza was born in Brazil.   We should be on easy street this time. The verse from TS Eliot seems appropriate.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

December 18, 2009

Freedom is Just Another Word for Nothing Much to Do

It is like the man who has been locked up for a long time.   Suddenly the door swings open and after years of dreaming about it, he is free.   But he really doesn’t know where to go or what to do.  The social media has done that to us in public affairs.   We always said that we would be on easy street if we could just reach people, if we could just overcome the filters of editors and government controls.  To a great extent we now can, but there is less than we had imagined.

A poor workman blames his tools

I am disappointed in the social media in spite or – or maybe because of – our success.   We (State, IIP etc) have succeeded in reaching out directly to millions of people through the new media but the results have been astonishingly banal.   A poor workman blames his tools.   The fault lies not in the social media tools we are using but in our own lack of imagination in using them, coupled with unrealistic expectations.   Social media is what it is.  We can use it well or poorly, but we cannot change its fundamental nature.   So what are some of the things we might try to do differently?  Or maybe, what are the misconceptions that are keeping us from doing as well as we could?   To use the 1990s B-school jargon, how can we shift our paradigms?

Our reach exceeds our grasp

Our minds still inhabit the old world of mass one-way media.   Despite all the protestations to the contrary, we still think in terms of television, where one announcer reaches millions of people and it makes a difference.   We CAN still reach millions with new media, but so can lots of other people.  The power of television was not that it could reach millions.  Its power centered on its capacity to dominate the attention of millions of people.   

The wealth of options creates a poverty of attention. That means that “reach” is not what it used to be. Those who just want to reach more people don’t understand the realities of social media. Reaching a million people is easy. Grasping them and holding their attention, that is hard.      

It is like yelling “hey” at somebody.   He looks in your direction.   If you say nothing or just say “hey” again, all you will end up doing is annoying him.   Social media is very good at saying “hey” (we tend to call it building awareness) but the follow up is often not there.

You find your keys in the last place you look, because after that you stop looking

Reaching audiences and “Building awareness” w/o follow-up is usually worse than nothing because it allows you to stop at that.   There is a good chance you can fool people with the good numbers.  It sounds very impressive to say that your message reached a million people and you may be encouraged to think that your work is done.   All you need to is repeat this success tomorrow and the next day and you are on easy street. The most devious way to hide something from someone is to make him think he found it already. Let him go happily and ignorantly on his way.   We fool ourselves when we settle for reach. 

Less is more?

Of course the opposite end of this bull crap continuum is the contention that you didn’t reach more than a couple people, but that they were really important.   This may be true, but it almost never is.   You can test it by asking for names.   If your expensive program reached only a dozen people, you better know who they are and be able to give a creditable reason why they are so important.   

I will admit it.  I have fallen back on both these subterfuges on occasion; of course well in the past.  Sometimes I have even done it on purpose.   It is possible that your boss just doesn’t understand what you are trying to do, so you do something that you know will generate a big crowd to make him happy so that he will be happy and you can get on with your important work.   Other times, you just mess up. It is easier to claim that you got the small number of key players than these were the only guys you could round up down at the train station.

Now that I am sometimes in a position to be the boss on these sorts of things, I know enough to ask the proper questions.  Sometimes I am polite enough not to, although I usually follow up with an “amusing anecdote” so they know not to try it again.  

Getting it right more important than just getting it

My disappointment with the social media has just made me more enthusiastic about getting it right. We really will need to change some of the ways we do business.   We really do have to think about a new “community manager” role for online communities.  This person has to be like a diplomat in many ways.  That means that he/she need more than technological skills or the ability to “reach out”.  He/she also need some substantive knowledge.   If you are going to participate in a science community, you better know something about science.

We also have to get more into the human-interface.  Real social media requires real social engagement.   We cannot be social media broadcasters and we have to resist attempts to expand our social media community reach beyond what we can reasonably handle.

Many Distinct Niches Better than a Big Blob

Being overly broad is also not usually desirable or successful in building a community.   You are better off working with many niche communities made up by people really interested and committed to a topic than trying to reach a big general audience.   A niche audience allows each individual to get what he/she is looking for.   As the community develops, members begin to feel a sense of belonging.  They value the community and protect it.  A community like this will usually be self policing, since individual members will have the expertise and perceive the interest to discipline bad actors and correct bad information.

Knowing your audience is important but identifying topics rather than audiences is the key to success.   Naturally topics have to be interesting to somebody but audiences will form around topics.   Identifying audiences and then trying to find topics to attract them not only nearly impossible to do, it is also borderline silly.   It means that you abdicate leadership and allow your priorities to be set by what you think you can easily sell.   Presumably we have some of our own priorities and some of them must be advocated whether they are popular or not.

Wisdom of crowds

I still haven’t figured this out and I am pretty sure I never will.  But I do understand some parts of the puzzle and in true social media fashion I will rely on the hive intelligence.  I think most of what we need to know is already known or can be found by somebody in the State Department.   We just have to find each other and go from a bunch of learning individuals to a learning organization.   Social media can help figure out social media.   It is fitting.

The gate is open wide and we can see the far horizons but none of us knows where to go.  However, all together we might pick the right direction.

December 08, 2009

Negotiation 101 and Climate Change

“When you say you agree to a thing in principle you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.”* I have limited confidence in the efficacy of big global agreements, but I understand the usefulness of participating and we hope our team will be very forthcoming and aggressive in the COP 15 climate talks.

Forget Kyoto

The Clinton Administration never had any intension of implementing Kyoto. The Senate rejected it 95-0 before even being asked to ratify it. This was a unanimously bipartisan rejection of the climate treaty.  Kyoto was dead on arrival, as the saying goes and it  was indeed a seriously flawed agreement but Clinton was clever. He understood the dynamics of the public relations around climate change.  Nobody really intended to carry out the terms of the treaty beyond the extent to which it was convenient. Most of the climate lobby was perfectly content if the U.S. went along rhetorically.  Most of the major players were going along with the mendacious program.   Bush didn't understand how to play that deceptive game well enough and openly rejected the agreement  & the U.S. got eight years of international crap as a result.

Take credit for what will happen anyway

Kyoto was meaningless. Developing countries got a free ride on the misplaced guilt of the more productive and hence more energy consuming nations (energy consumption is closely related to output). The former Soviet Empire was in the process of shutting down the horribly polluting - and without strong state protection – unprofitable industries built up during the benighted communist era.  Countries in both these camps knew that nothing much would be asked of them and they might even be able to make a little money selling carbon they would not have produced anyway. The Russians were in the now even more enviable position of having been so horribly dirty and inefficient that any approach to normal would be rewarded with unearned credits and cash.

BTW – Russian carbon credits are one of the reasons ostensible carbon reductions in Europe were so cheap and ineffective.The Russians are now lining up to milk what they can out of Copenhagen.

Our European friends also came to the game with a few aces up their sleeves and a lot reductions already cooked into the pie when they signed on to Kyoto. In the British Midlands, they were in the process of converting from dirty coal to much cleaner and less carbon intensive natural gas. The Germans had recently acquired the outdated industry of communist-East Germany.  They were shutting down these inefficient and very polluting industries anyway.  It was sort of like a cash for clunker industries program. 

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was a significant ecological benefit all around. Just bringing industries up to non-communist standards resulted in a big reduction of all sorts of pollution. Beyond all that, they understood that Europe’s generally slower rate of economic growth would slow demand for new uses of carbon.

The U.S., in contrast, didn’t have any big shutdowns on the way and our economy was growing about twice as fast as those in continental Europe which would mean a growing need for energy. 

Progress is on the way; revel in it and don’t sell it cheap

We are now in a better position in relation to many others.   We can plausibly promise real reduction in CO2 emissions, but it is very important how we sell reductions.  You don’t give things away in negotiations because you get no credit in the international community if you just do the right thing w/o making a big deal about it.  Multilateral negotiations are a kind of kabuki play.  You have to scream and grimace at the proper times or else nobody pays attention. You have to call attention and claim credit for good things that just happen.  You know that you will be blamed for the bad things. 

The free market is remarkably adaptive. When the price of gas rose in 2006, Americans used less energy and emissions of CO2 dropped. This is the only time this happened in a major country during a time of robust economic growth. Did we get any credit?  Did anybody even notice?  I had to look hard to find it in the media.  WITHOUT the hyperbolic rhetoric you don’t even get credit for what you REALLY do. WITH rhetoric you can even get credit for things that just happen even if you do nothing.  It takes a little dose of hypocrisy to make the world go around.

Now we’re cooking with gas

U.S. CO2 emissions going down

It gets better.  We will soon be able to reduce carbon emissions w/o working up too much of a sweat. Technological advances in only the last few years have made available vast amounts of natural gas within the U.S. Our recoverable reserves have gone up by 39% in the last two years alone and gas is getting very cheap. As the economics of gas improve, we will switch from coal and oil, which emit much more CO2, to gas in many situations. This will reduce our emissions.

Natural gas is also abundant in areas of the U.S. much in need of jobs and investments.

There is an even better good news story. Last year the U.S. displaced Germany as the world’s largest producer of wind energy. Wind is still no big deal as a % of energy consumption, but the trend is continuing and abundant cheap natural gas can play a role. Wind is unreliable. You have to have a back up capacity. Gas is perfect for this. Unlike a coal plant, a gas generator can be easily turned on and off. On windy days, we would get electricity from wind. When the wind wasn’t blowing, gas would fire up to fill the demand.

Other alternatives plus better quality nuclear power is also coming on line. Match this with the generally slower economic growth we expect to suffer during the next couple of years (there is a silver lining to every black cloud) and you see that U.S. emission growth will slow and we may even have some actual drops. If you look at the chart nearby, you will see that the trend started down in 2006. We expect another huge drop of 5% in 2009.  Notice from the chart that our emissions were a bit lower in 2008 than they were in 2000, w/o the benefit of Kyoto, BTW.

That means we can promise AND the United States can deliver. Delivering is important, but it is the promising that is the key to UN success. You need a lot of sound and fury in the international climate game. If we just deliver, we get no credit (cf. carbon reduction under GW Bush).  In the international negotiating arena, especially international public opinion, what you say and how loudly & passionately you say it is at least as important as what you do.

We don’t have to take it anymore

The U.S. also needs to be in a stronger “moral” position to resist unreasonable demands by less developed countries. In fact, we can turn the tables on them. They always said, or at least implied that they were waiting for us, that if we (the U.S.) reduce our emissions they would do likewise.  We are now holding the cards we need to call their bluff. We doubt  most others will actually come through, but it will at least take some of the wind out of their sails when they make unreasonable demands on us. With our emissions dropping and those from places like China (the world’s largest CO2 emitter since 2006) and other developing countries on the rise, we can throw some of the stink in the other direction for a change.

The U.S. will be a leader in the effective use to climate change technologies

This is potentially a real game changer. With President Obama’s smooth rhetoric and proven ability to promise “change we can believe in” hitched to the real potential of the American market to take advantage of favorable energy trends and the unexpected bonanza of natural gas in the short term, we can cram a sock in the anti-American rhetoric on this topic. Yes we can.

Go boldly; no need to apologize

So let’s play hardball by “playing nice.” No need to apologize or send too much money to contribute to kleopocracies in developing some countries who use the poverty of their people and bad weather as bargaining chips. Instead, shift our weight and do a little international style jujitsu. We have little to lose, since we are on track to succeed anyway in reducing our emissions relative to the rest of the world, if we use the cheap natural gas we have found and ride the wave of innovation already coming our way.  But none of it will count unless we make a big deal of promising.  Posturing, promises & procrastination, that is how they roll at these kinds of international conferences. The rules of the game do not require and do not always even encourage actual success anyway, but we can both talk and do in this case.  

Let’s do it and let’s also be seen to be doing it.  It will benefit neither the environment nor us to allow another Kyoto to be hung around our necks.  But with the proper nudge, maybe something can actually get done ... even really about the environment maybe.

* The saying is attributed to Otto Von Bismarck

November 25, 2009

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

monument to children of 1944 Warsaw uprisingIt is great to reach out to adversaries and open a dialogue even with enemies, but in our zeal to make friends of those who have never much liked us, let’s not forget the ones who have stood with us in the past.  Good relationships also require maintenance.  When it is all said and done and when our overtures & concessions to those who don’t like us have produced what results they will, I hope we don’t look around and find we have fewer dependable good friends left.

On the left is a monument to the children of the Warsaw uprising of 1944.  Stalin encouraged the uprising, but then paused to give the Nazis time to destroy the Polish resistance.  The Soviets also interfered with relief efforts mounted by the U.S. and other allies.  As many as 200,000 were killed and 700,000 expelled or escaped, many moving through the sewer system to avoid Nazi patrols. The Nazis systematically destroyed Warsaw in retaliation.

I am upset about a little thing.  I got an email from a Polish friend about an obscure museum in rural Virginia is installing a bust of Joseph Stalin in a place of honor along with those of Churchill & Roosevelt in the D-day Monument.   Friends in Poland have noticed.  It might not matter much ... usually, but it comes on top of some recent events and missteps on our part. 

In September, we announced we were backing out of our agreement on missile defense with Poland and the Czech Republic.   Presumably, this would help with outreach to the always sentimental Vladimir Putin and the decision is justifiable on many grounds.   But we announced it on the very day – the 60th anniversary of the day – when Soviet Armies invaded Poland in 1939.  The next month, it was announced that President Obama would not attend ceremonies marking the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Although that took place in Germany, the fall of the Wall was a big deal for Poland and Poles feel justifiable pride in what they did to hasten the destruction of the Iron Curtain.  The fact that the President travels so frequently to foreign destinations made the absence in Berlin seem more calculated than it was in fact.

Below are pieces of the Berlin Wall.  I got them when I was in Berlin in 1990.  Of course, they could have been any clunks of concrete, but I got them near the Wall and there seem to have been lots of chunks from the Wall available so I figure it was real enough.

Pieces of the Berlin Wall 

Then a couple days before the Obama-free Wall ceremonies, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Poland would not be eligible for the visa waiver program any time soon.   This is a bigger deal in Poland than it would seem to us. I would hasten to add that Napolitano’s decision is sound by the criteria of the program, but if you are looking at this sequence of events from Warsaw or Krakow, it might seem like your old American friends are turning their backs.

That is why the little Stalin thing is so big.  Stalin was indeed a truly odious man.  He was our ally only because Hitler attacked him – reneging on a deal the two dictators made to jointly rape Eastern Europe. While there can be no doubt that we could not have defeated Hitler w/o the Russians, it is also true that w/o our material aid and the second front, the Nazis could have conquered the Soviet Union.   Stalin gave no more than he had to protect his own power and at the end of the conflict he gobbled up as much as he could and imposed a tyranny on Eastern Europe that long outlived him.  The murderer of tens of millions and the architect of a nefarious system that subjugated almost half the world for almost fifty years is not just another interesting and important historical figure.

This is a case where public diplomacy and the perception of events makes as much differences as the events themselves.  Objectively, our decisions were sound and need not have engendered any practical problems.  The perceptions were different.

I have been Poland-centric in this post, but I have seen similar patterns with other old friends.

“Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold” That is a rhyme I learned in second or third grade.  

It is easy to be beguiled by the possibilities of new relationships.  But dealing with countries is not the same as kids making new friends on the playground.  For one thing, there are no “new kids”.   Every relationship already has a history, usually going back generations.   There may well be a good reason why we don’t get along well.  Sometimes we have conflicting goals.   Often our aspirations do not mesh.   Sometimes it is an identity problem.   There are leaders in the world who derive much of their personality and power from their stance of being opposed to the U.S.   If they couldn’t blame us for their troubles, the blame might fall on them.

King's Palace in Warsaw 

Above is the King's Palace In Warsaw.  The Nazis destroyed it and all of Warsaw in 1944.  The Poles rebuilt.  It was in front of this Palace that President Clinton in 1997 announced our support of Polish NATO membership. Poland formally became a NATO member in 1999.

On the other hand, we have shared interests and shared identities with many countries.   Our allies in Europe, for example, remain our strongest cultural, security, trading and investment partners.   Things generally proceed so smoothly among us that we pay little attention.   Remember our good friends the Japanese and recall when we were not so good friends.   It is a lot better now, isn’t it?  How about our border with Canada?  Good thing on both sides that it is secure and peaceful.  I could make a longer list, but I would inevitably leave somebody out and feel bad about it.  But as I said up top, good relationships do not maintain themselves.  It is a lot less exciting and you cannot do something unprecedented by maintaining the familiar paths, but you often have to pay MORE attention to your friends than your foes. 

It is sort of like the unglamorous job of maintaining underground infrastructure.  It doesn’t seem very important until the water main breaks washing away your car and drowning your cat.

Another childhood story pops to mind.   Remember the Aesop fable about a dog holding a bone in his mouth?  He sees his refection in a pond and thinks there is another dog down there with a bone as big as his own.  He wants that bone too.  So he jumps into the water to take it, only to lose what he had and just come out boneless, frustrated and all wet.

November 23, 2009

Meta-Purposes & Why Measurements of Public Diplomacy are Usually Flawed

Teatro Sao Pedro in Porto Alegre 

Something of Lasting Value – A Community

I knew an interesting woman called Eva Sopher who ran the Theatro São Pedro in Porto Alegre.  She helped me understand the meaning of cultural treasures.  The Theatro was being refurbished and put under the direction of a foundation to conserve the building and protect its traditions.  They weren’t doing many plays, so the “output” was low.  If you wanted to put on plays, you could have much more efficiently done so in many other locations or built a new theater.  Donna Eva explained why we should in a different direction.

The plays actually performed, she explained, were just a small part to the output of a cultural institution.   From the cultural point of view, the preparation, rehearsals, production and venue were probably more important.   The Theatro created a cultural community that included not only the theater goers and actors, but also the myriad of others who supported the enterprise.  This was part of a tradition that stretched back centuries and with any luck would continue for centuries into the future. It was a task that was never done and could never be done.  There was no finish line.  She didn’t use the tired cliché, but I will.  The journey was more important than the destination.  In fact the real purpose of the “product” – a successful play - was to support the other parts of the community that made it happen.

Eva Sopher was impressive and it was her force of personality that drove this lesson home to me.  It takes year to develop this kind of personal integrity.  That too is a cultural output.  Her personal story was compelling.  She was born in Germany to a well off Jewish family.  They wisely left Germany and took refuge in Brazil when it became clear that the Nazis were literally out for their blood.   She embraced the country of her choice and enriched its culture.

“Objective” Measures Don’t Capture Unique Value

Imagine trying to measure Eva Sopher’s effectiveness with “objective measures.”  What did she really do that you could capture in numbers?   Twenty-five years ago she spoke to a first-tour American diplomat and convinced him to give her a very small grant and sponsor a musical program that drew less than thirty attendees.  Yet she gave me something I could keep and remember.  Her influence on me was never manifest in any way a bean-counter could capture. My subsequent influence on others is completely out of the picture.  I don’t remember what kind of grant we gave her, but it as within my discretionary money so it could not have been more than a couple hundred dollars and that is all the research would count.

How about from my side? Did I waste my time having tea with this old lady?  I would be hard-pressed to show a concrete public diplomacy outcome from having her as a friend and having the Consulate reach out to her and ensconcing us as an honorary part of her community.


What Good is a Speaker?

I was talking to a researcher about our speaker program.  I was a consumer of speakers when I worked in posts overseas and used to run the speaker program in Washington, so I know something about it.    The idea is the measure the effectiveness of the speakers we send overseas.  It costs a fair amount of money to send someone overseas, so it is good to measure, but the measures are inadequate.

They talked about measuring the number of people who listened to the speaker.  Moving a step up the sophistication pyramid, they also talked about estimating the number of people who may know the direct listeners, a secondary audience.  Of course, they would measure any media that came out.   What is wrong with this? Time.  It doesn’t measure the effects over time.  Refer again to my Eva Sopher example. 

But there is a bigger flaw in this sort of measurement.  It doesn’t account for the meta-purposes.   When I gave the grant to the Theatro São Pedro, I really didn’t care if they did a performance or did anything “useful” with the money at all.  My grant was a kind of an ante-up or earnest money.   I was buying my way – the Consulate’s way – into the game, making us a part of that community. 

This is how good public diplomacy folks use the speaker program.   Bringing a speaker to an event is a way of opening a door to a community.  We cab piggy-back on the speaker’s expertise.  Bringing an expert on architecture, for example, makes us honorary experts too.  It puts the Embassy’s public affairs into the game.  Frankly, the message delivered on any particular occasion is usually the secondary effect.  The primary goal is relationship and community building.   So if you measure effectiveness by number of people who received a message, you have problems.

“Who?” May be More Important than “How Many?”

And that doesn’t even account for the “who” question.  If I shout out my window I may reach 100 people with my message. But if they don’t care or cannot do anything about what I am saying, it is a complete waste.  We often fall into the numbers trap.  It is seductive but pernicious.

Is There a Better Way?

You might be expecting me to say something about what we should do.  After all, I made such a big run up to it.   But I can’t.   I think that we should indeed measure numbers, reach, output etc.  But we have to recognize that there is a very big area of unknown and objectively unknowable stuff out there.   It is like the dark matter of public affairs.   It is the place where we have to apply judgment.  So I have no universal fix.  You have to use judgment in particular cases.

Indispensible Judgment

Judgment – now that is a slippery term and not a very popular one.  We like to get every process down to close detail so that we can be perfectly fair and consistent.   But the world doesn’t work like that.   We can program something only to the extent that we completely understand it and with the expectation that things will happen in the future as they has in the past.  Human affairs don’t work that neatly most of the time. So let’s indeed gather information and analyze it.   But then trust the judgment of the people we have trained and educated to make the right choices.   

Otherwise we will go with today’s tabloids and ignore the Eva Sophers. 

November 18, 2009

Powerful English

It is LESS important for a speaker of English to learn another language than it has ever been.  I am aware that this statement will sound backward and xenophobic to many,  but as a person who spoke three languages fluently (Portuguese, Norwegian & Polish), one “enough to get by (German) and two with decent reading ability (Latin & Greek), I feel I have some standing about this subject.

Let me bring up the caveat right at the start.   If you plan to live in a country or stay there a long time so should learn the language.  Learning a second language is also a hallmark of a good education. Not to do so is indeed backward and xenophobic.    What I am talking about here is the usefulness of“general” foreign language ability.   This is the one that pundits fret about and scold Americans for not doing.  Their criticism actually stems from their own ignorance and/or not having thought through the problem.

Which One?

There are hundreds of languages spoken around the world.   Even if you limit yourself to “world languages,” those spoken by lots of people in several countries*, there is too big a choice.   I know from experience that learning a language well is very hard and a monumental commitment of time.  KEEPING a language fluent is perhaps a greater challenge.   You really cannot just collect languages and pull them out when you need them.  So if you don’t have a specific plan to go to a region, which language should you learn?

The question is easy for a non-English speaker.   English is THE world language.  There are You can find English speakers everyplace you go.  No other language is like that.  We Americans think of Spanish as widespread because we see so many Spanish speaking immigrants and live near Mexico.  But try using Spanish anyplace outside the Americas or north of the Pyrenees in Europe.  Even in Spain itself you may have trouble in Catalonia if you learned your Spanish in Latin America. Chinese is spoken more people than any other language, but almost all of them live in one place.  Fluency in Chinese in non-Chinese communities is uncommon. 

BTW - the Chinese are finding their relative lack of English a problem in their international relationships.   Generally Engish is the key to economic success and all over the world people are climbing over each other to learn it.   There is no more useful language.  

The Power of the Network

I could go on.  Suffice to say that if you were to be located in a random inhabited place on the earth and asked find somebody within 10 miles whose language you could understand, ONLY English would give you a significant chance of success. You might not find a native English speaker, but you would almost certainly find an English speaker.

The power of English is kind of an open secret. It seems arrogant for Americans or Brits to talk about it openly.  Language is tied up with culture and identity, so people have strong emotional interests in pushing their favorite languages.  But no matter what people say, the REVEALED preference is clear. And I don't think it will reverse, even if the relative political and economic power of the U.S. and other English speaking countries declines. 

The "network effect" is strong and self reinforcing.  BTW - the network effect refers to the accumulating advantages of adding more people.  If there is only one telephone in the world, it is useless.  The more you add, the better it gets. At some point, it becomes almost impossible to NOT join the network.  This doesn't mean the network is objectively the best.  English is not the "best" language in the world; it is just the most useful.

Switching is Hard

The power of the network is increased when it is difficult to switch and it is very difficult to switch languages.  Most people really do not have the talents to become multi-lingual in any meaningful way.  I know I certainly do not.  And even if you do have the talent for learning languages, if you don't have the opportunity for constant practice, you cannot keep them.

I think many people underestimate the difficulty in REALLY learning a language and/or overestimate their own language skills.  If you studied really hard and took four years of French or Spanish in HS, you have probably NOT learned that language. If you took a summer course in Chinese, you have NOT learned that language.  Being able to ask direction to the train station or ordering dinner is nice, but unless you can have a nuanced discussion about an important subject, you really are not there.

If you want a rough guide to how well you are speaking a second language, see how long it takes for a native speaker to compliment you on how well you speak their language.  Generally, the faster they praise your skills, the worse you are doing.  Think about that.  If you run into a person with a foreign accent who speaks English well, do you feel the need to compliment him on his English?  We only notice if there is a struggle.  I have observed this in my work.  When I first get to a country, everyone tells me how well I speak the language.  I am happy to report that the compliments become less common the longer I am there.

It takes an FSO six months to get to a basic level of an easy language like French or Spanish.  That means six months of full-time (i.e. all day, everyday, all week), small group instruction.  For a harder language like Polish it is almost a year, two years for languages like Chinese or Arabic.  And that gets you only to a MINIMUM professional level.  And then if you don't practice, it goes away.  Really learning a language is essentially a life-long effort.

Since we probably cannot learn more than one second language well enough to call it learned, or we cannot maintain it even if we manage to learn it,  the world is de-facto stuck with choosing one "network language". What will it be?

Much of international English today is exchanged among non-native English speakers.  A group of international business people from from Germany, Japan, Brazil and Egypt will almost certainly have to speak English among themselves. 

This is a great thing for native English speakers.  I remember talking to a Norwegian a long time back.  He spoke what seemed to me perfect English, but he told me that Americans were lucky because they were "never foreigners."  I didn't understand what he meant, so he explained.  Most international conferences featured English, even though most participants were not native speakers. Americans could just jump in.  Others had to do so in a second language.  I felt his pain.  I have spoken other languages fairly well, but it is never the same. 

Language Does Not Mean Identity

I understand that some people reading this might take some offense at what I say about English and the others. This is illogical and based on the idea that languages define or "belong" to particular groups and deserve respect or deference as a part of identity.  (None of my ancestry is from English speaking countries. Should I have learned Polish or German before English?) That makes language choice a value judgment.  It need not be that.  You can still study languages and cultures for their intrinsic value (defined as you like).  I studied Greek and Latin and feel I benefited greatly from getting to know the the cultures and traditions of the past.  But for as a practical matter, we are much better served by English, because that is the one we will have to use now and in the future.

So which language should an American learn if he has no plans to live or work in a particular part of the world?  It would be good to get those math skills in order.  

*    World languages would include Arabic, Chinese, English French, Portuguese & Spanish.  We used to include Russian and German too.

November 16, 2009


Espen playing gamesWe have been admonished to make sure our public diplomacy products appeal to a broad gender audience (i.e. also are relevant to women, for as long as I have been in the public diplomacy business.  Our plans always include a section about reaching out to women, as they should.   But our stuff appeals less to another key demographic – boys and young men. 

If you consider who does what to whom, young men are certainly the key.   But the more “inclusive” we make the material, the less it is likely to appeal to young men.  This is not only a gender issue.  It impacts anything where people are different and that means that it impacts everything we do.

I was thinking about this during a presentation on video games and persuasion.   The most popular games – and this cuts right across cultural divides – involve something blowing up.  The only things that come close are car races and sports, and even in these games something often tends to blow up or at least give that sort of visual impression.   Somebody asked if the games could emphasize peaceful cooperation and inclusiveness.   You could do that, but then the game would appeal to a different demographic.  The general rule seems to be if a mixed gender group of bureaucrats likes it, young men won’t. 

All good marketing features segmentation, since no product appeals to everyone equally.    The more something is loved by one group, the more it will probably be disliked by others.  This statement approaches a tautology.  As you specialize and tailor to a particular set of needs or preferences you by necessity remove or modify the traits that appeal to other needs and preferences.    That is why a product that appeals to very large and diverse groups is usually bland.   It can survive and prosper as long as there are no easily obtained alternatives, but given different choices people will make … different choices.

Public diplomacy does a poor job of segmentation.    In fact, there is a significant disincentive to segmentation.   We are asked to be inclusive.   We often get the question, “Sure, this appeals to people in this particular group/region/circumstance/age/gender/income but how does it address the needs of that particular group/region/circumstance/age/gender/income.”   The proper answer is “It doesn’t.”   The things I mentioned above are ways to segment a market.    You cannot design a product for everybody.  Let me modify that.  You cannot design a SUCCESSFUL product for everybody.

If I could point to one impediment that causes us the most problem in public diplomacy, I would say that it is the lack of ability to differentiate our products to appeal to different market segments. We often got around it in a de-facto way at overseas posts, but it is not a new problem and since it has persisted for at least a quarter century, through a wide variety of different challenges and political masters, I have to conclude that the problem is systemic.   It is just very hard to be against something that is inclusive, fair, and comprehensive with a world-wide appeal.  The trouble is that no such thing exists and the search for this chimera not only distracts but actually impedes development of appeals and products that appeal to discrete segments of the audience. 

You just cannot have a club worth being a if anyone can join.

October 31, 2009

America Lags Behind ...

We hear that all the time. Today I read an article saying that America lags behind THE WORLD in processing e-waste. I heard on the radio yesterday that American higher education is at risk. You would think we lived in the worst place it world.  Yet anybody who has lived or especially worked anywhere else knows that America is one of the best places in terms of almost everything people really want. 

Is everybody just stupid for not seeing this?  Is it anti-American propaganda?  Do “they” hate us? Are we betrayed by the opinion-making elites in our own country?   I think the answer often is simpler and structurally-based on a few factors that seem neutral in themselves but produce the negative buzz we have come to expect from the chattering classes in the American and international media. 

Doom and gloom industry

There are definite concrete and often money advantages to looking at the negative side of life.  Various NGOs have organized to solve the world’s problems.  They depend on bad news to fund raise.  What are the chances they will announce that the problem they have been fighting for years has been substantially solved?  This incentive system goes double for lawyers, who can often get courts to use their coercive power to get money directly.   Of course, this doesn’t apply only to America, but it applies especially to America where the money going to NGOs and lawyers is by far the largest in the world.  It makes sense to go after the deep pockets.

Cherry picking comparisons

One of my jobs was to give talks about America to foreign audiences.  I used to start with the statement, “Everything you have heard about America is right.”   This is true because the U.S. is so big and diverse.  We have the some of the best schools and some of the worst.   We have the fattest people and the fittest people.   We also have fifty states, each with its own problems and personality.    We like to make lists and it is very easy to pick the comparison you want and usually those comparisons are negative.

The U.S. is a continental country.   In many ways, it can be compared only to other continental units, such as China, Russia, Brazil, India or maybe the ENTIRE EU. Otherwise we get inappropriate unit comparisons of the whole U.S to whatever are the best performing countries in any particular category.   It would be like comparing the average of 1000 people in various categories against the best individuals – different ones depending on the need.  We could do the same with states. For example, the relatively poor American state of Arkansas has a per-captia income about that of Germany.

There are also problems of scale.  A country like Norway has only around 5 million people and they are relatively homogenous.  Many things can be done on a small scale that cannot be scaled up. I lived in Norway for four years and thought it was a great place to be but I understood that the institutions that work for them cannot be scaled 60 times, even if all the 300+ Americans wanted to do it.

What they say, not what they do

Surprise.  Not everybody does what they promise.  This is especially true among leaders of less democratically oriented countries, since they have less of a domestic check, but it works for everybody.  My personal indicates that America promises less than many other places, but delivers more. Many countries declare the RIGHT to things and may even assign a government bureaucracy to deliver, but they don’t.  Citizens get stuck with long waiting lines or defacto rationing.   For example, I observed that people found it very difficult to get day-care in Norway.  It was a RIGHT, but there was a long waiting list.   Sometimes the problem was solved when the kid got old enough not to need it.  We have fewer official social rights in the U.S. but we can often GET things easier. 

One problem is that REALITY in America is compared with promises or aspirations elsewhere.  It is always easier to make plans and promises than to deliver results.   But it gets even worse when the promises are compared.    We lose whenever we get into a rhetorical bidding war.  Reality is more important but harder to measure.

Government v private & theories of history

The government even today has a smaller role in American society than it does almost every place else.  This goes back hundreds of years.  Alexis de Tocqueville described it in 1831.  We Americans rely much more on self-organized groups and volunteers.  No other country has such a large charity and volunteer sectors.

Related to the role of government is a deeply embedded theory of history and storytelling.  Stories have heroes and villains.   Actual events often do not.  The American system is decentralized and much more self-organized than the average country.  But people still look for some human agent even when something happens for diffuse and impersonal reason. They always find one.  That is why conspiracy theories are so popular.  It is usually not true, but we get blamed anyway.

The Katrina Effect I was listening to NPR as I was writing this an on came Daniel Schorr with a tangential example.  He was talking about the shortages of H1N1 flu vaccine and how people were blaming government incompetence. People get very high expectations that government can control natural disasters, he said, and when things work less well than can be imagined, they get angry.  It was a similar problem with Katrina. I was a little surprised that Schorr used the Katrina example. I guess as we get farther away from it, it becomes less politically charged. 

Improvement actually makes things look worse

I wrote about this in a previous note. Continuous Improvement Makes Everything Look Bad Looking Back

Anyway, these are a few of the thoughts that came to me after seeing those articles.  I am not saying that there are not bad guys out there that want to give us a hard time, but even absent ill will, we still face structural challenges.  The sad part is that there is little we can do about them.   In many ways it would be better if it was the work of our opponents. We might be able to identify them and contain their propaganda, maybe even change some minds.  With structural problems … we just have to live with them.  I would say that we can slowly change them, but I am not sure we can.  Sometimes you have to choose between actually doing something and seeming to do something. Promises are great, but it is usually better to get something really.

October 27, 2009

A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations

Vista of Cairo 

The article I read about education in the Arab world was depressing.   There is controversy about the evolution debate in the U.S., but even in the most evolution-hostile fundamentalist environment, there is a debate.  But only around a third of adults in Egypt have ever even heard of Charles Darwin.  There is no biological science w/o Darwin.  That started me thinking about communicating with people who not only disagree with us but may not even share fundamental facts and assumptions.  

We tend to assume that our public affairs programs will resonate if only we craft them right or that a good policy will get the support it deserves.  These assumptions are not justified, overambitious and probably unnecessary.  Let’s do some reality checking by putting the challenges into familiar terms.

We have the controversy within America about bias on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC among others. Some people disagree strongly with people like Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann, accusing them of bias or not being “real” journalists. But let’s put them in the international perspective.  I chose examples from right and left of the spectrum and we would expect much disagreement among them, but the differences among these guys are small potatoes when put in an international context.   And their journalistic ethics and commitment to accuracy would certainly put them much above the international average. 

Alex in Lazenki Park 

We have to look at the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

So before we tear our hair out about what the world thinks about us, let’s be clear.  Overall, the world information environment is not open, not fair, not balanced and not friendly to us.  The problem is worst precisely in the places we have the most trouble and this probably is not a coincidence. It is useful to keep in this in mind when we talk about lack of popular international support or approval of America and its policies.   Or let’s put this in our own context.  Glenn Beck would get a fairer shake on the Rachael Maddow show (and vice-versa) than we get in the media in much of the world.

The world is a big and diverse place.  Of course it is true that parts of the world enjoy standards of living & openness similar to ours, Democracy, prosperity and freedom are more widespread now than ever, but the blessings of liberty are still a minority proposition among the world’s people.  The Index of Democracy estimates that only half the world's population lives in some sort of democracy, but only 14% live in full democracies.  Despite advances in democracy, more than a third of the world's population still lives under authoritarian rule.  Economic freedom is about as widespread (The most democratic countries with the freest markets also tend to be the richest and most competitive.)  And according Freedom House’s press freedom report, in 2009 only 17% of the world’s people live in places where the press is free.    In one of our key areas, the Middle East, there are NO countries with completely free media and the region has more to worry about than that.   

Let’s again take this back to our terms.  Imagine a fundamentalist polygamous community living someplace in the remote mountains.  They spend significantly more time teaching religion than science or math.   They inculcate a general impression that the outside world is vaguely hostile or at best out to cheat or disrupt the community.   We have all seen such communities in the news.  Get the picture in your head.  Now imagine that your job is to convince them of the fundamental goodness and trustworthiness of the Federal Government.  This would be a daunting task.  Now imagine that most of them don’t speak English and a significant number cannot properly read in any language.  

Much of the world's population presents a challenge like this, or worse.

That is why it doesn’t make particular sense to try to reach the WHOLE world or even very large numbers.  Most people don’t really care very much about our issues.  Others don’t really understand them.  Some are hostile to the messages or have contrary interests.  That is why it makes more sense to target carefully and make our interventions transactional. I don’t really care if people love me in general if they cooperate with me on mutually important specific issues. 

All that requires, however, that we understand our audiences, our goals and our own limitations. 

I spent a lot of time learning not to blame other for my failures. I tried to be proactive and figure out what I could do, no matter what others were doing.  This is a useful and valid outlook.  I have not abandoned it, but I have moved beyond it.  I now understand that sometimes my problems are indeed caused by others. I still have to be proactive, but mostly in ways to avoid the obstruction.  Some people cannot be brought around and it is not my fault.  There are even some people who you DON'T want as friends.  Lay down with dogs and you come up with fleas. The same goes for public affairs. Some people & groups cannot be reached - for all practical purposes - and some shouldn't be reached because of THEIR characteristics.  There are things you just cannot have and if you look carefully you find sometimes you don't want them need them.

October 26, 2009

Unlearned Lessons

Kayaks in Lake Michigan 

I participated in a seminar led by guy who had been on a CORDS team in Vietnam. CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) were supposed to do some of the development and coordination activities done by PRTs.  I was aware of CORDS but through talking to some older guys who knew about them. You cannot find much about them otherwise. It is the forgotten war and maybe the forgotten victory.

The professor pointed out that the insurgency in South Vietnam was decisively defeated after the TET offensive and CORDS cemented the victory.   After that, it became a problem of invasion from North Vietnam.  The popularly held idea that a bunch of insurgents, living with the people in the countryside, overthrew the South Vietnamese regime is just wrong.  We all remember the fall of Saigon, but we often forget that it was conquered by the armies of the North; big armies complete with armor and air support.  It wasn’t little guys in black pajamas.     

The successful counterinsurgency, including CORDS operation, was linked with the disastrous fall of Saigon and because we got the history wrong, usually w/o even thinking much about it, we were unable or unwilling to learn the lessons.  

The strategy associated with the surge worked in Iraq. We went from near defeat in late 2006 to a clear success (call it victory) a year later. I personally saw the change and felt its effects.  It was literally a matter of people dying or not. You can do all the academic analysis you want and round the words until they fit into square holes, but I am morally convinced that thousands of people are alive today because of what we did. PRTs were part of the surge and people like me contributed to the victory in Iraq. 

Our work at the PRTs may be following CORDS down the memory hole. It just doesn’t have many powerful champions and there are detractors. Some people are almost embarrassed that the surge worked, since they had so vociferously predicted its failure. Others have convinced themselves that success would have happened anyway.  Still others deny that we were successful at all since the situation is not a perfect as they could imagine. And then there are those who imply that victory or defeat in Iraq were/are just irrelevant.    

Some of the participants in the seminar asked me how State Department had taken advantage of the unique experience I had gained in Western Anbar. How had we absorbed that knowledge as a learning organization.  This is what they wanted to know.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.   The Marines invited me to Quantico to discuss my experience, several times, I told them. An independent scholar contacted me.  He had read my blog and wanted to see if I could tell him anything else.  At State Department … well, FSI asked me to present to classes of PRT folks going to Iraq.  I was on a panel with four other people and collectively we talked for about an hour.  That was good.  I sponsored my own brown bag lunch to discuss Iraq.   Five people came, all of them my friends just trying to be nice. I wrote a few entries on our State Department wiki, Diplopedia.  I don’t know if anybody read any of them, but information gets stale anyway unless it is converted to knowledge.

The follow up question was something like, “then how do you all learn?”  I mumbled about “reading in” to the cable and reports.

It is hard to be a learning organization because it is hard to turn experience into information and even harder to turn information into useful knowledge. We too often content ourselves with information on paper, or these days on computers.  We can gather all the numbers, metrics, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be converted to useful knowledge and categorized by human intelligence.  Creating useful knowledge usually means putting it into understandable context.  It usually also requires that the person digesting the information is also someone who can make decisions.  You cannot outsource your brains.

As a PRT leader, I had first-hand, primary knowledge. I sometimes didn’t know the significance of my information or how it fit into a bigger picture. It was helpful when someone had the secondary knowledge to evaluate and figure out what my information was part of. That is why a learning organization is stronger and smarter than the individuals in it.  If the information contained in individual minds remains un-harvested, the organization doesn’t learn.  It can be full of smart people who are adept at learning and improvising solutions, but it will lack the synergy of a learning organization. This is our problem.

I have been observing organizations for a long time.  You have to look at the organization as a whole with its own behaviors, not only at the separate individuals because groups are more than a the sum of individuals.  They develop a culture. We all know that individuals can learn, but so can organizations under the right conditions.

I see that many can be episodically learning organizations.  Much depends on characteristics of individuals in charge and the culture they engender. People have to talk and exchange information informally and non-judgmentally. The learning episode stops if anybody gets in trouble for being wrong, stepping out of line or presenting information that contradicts a agreed upon course of action.  But it is clearly a lot harder than just letting people talk and engage.  There has to be a way to evaluate information. Someone might be 100% honest and open, but still lack the perspective to create accurate or useful knowledge.  On the other hand, the old saying applies that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so you have to listen to everybody. 

The Marines in Iraq had become a learning organization.  I wrote about it at this link. Parts of State Department have been learning organizations during some periods.  I have been involved in some. It was exciting but those flashes of lights tend to flicker out when personnel or priorities shift. 

Maybe both personnel and priorities have shifted concerning PRTs in Iraq.  Maybe its just me.  Maybe the State Department has moved along.  Maybe the old Arab proverb applies, "The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. I don’t suppose my banana index translates very well anyway. It even stopped working in Iraq before I left

October 19, 2009

Business-Government PR Partnerships

SU symposium on public diplomacy 

The keynote speaker at the SU symposium was Keith Reinhard, founder and president of Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA).   This is an advertising professional with an impressive resume.  You can read about him at this link but you already know his work.  He wrote McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today” and “Two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun,” as well as State Farm’s long running theme, “Just Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There.”

Mr. Reinhard said that American business is uniquely placed to lead in burnishing the U.S. image abroad, pointing out that Coca-Cola alone has more than ten times as many employees as State Department.  He also made some good points about travel to the U.S.  It is hard to get visas; we don’t welcome tourist well when they get here and the U.S. does little in the way of travel promotion.   All these things are true. People have been complaining about visas and trying to improve the travel situation for many years. 

(IMO, the single best thing the USG could do to improve our image is improve how potential visitors are treated, from the minute they inquire about a trip to the U.S. until they put their foot back on their home soil. Most of the components of this are within the power of the USG, but this is a complex issue fraught with conflicting interests and priorities.  I won't even try to address them in this space. Smarter people than I have tried.)

U.S. businesses are indeed very important in shaping the way the U.S. is seen abroad.  We have worked with businesses overseas and there are many venues for cooperation.  Business can help sponsor July 4 celebrations; they can be part of seminars and symposiums; business leaders often make great speakers at events. But cooperation can be oversold.  The notion that business will become involved in partnership with government to improve the U.S. image is one of those great ideas that seems always almost happening, but never quite arrives.

Buildings on Syracuse University campus 

Business-government PR enterprises don’t go as smoothly in practice as they do in concept for some good reasons.  Most people employed by Coke, for example, are doing things like bottling or distributing the product.  This is similar for all businesses.  Businesses do business.  We cannot expect them to devote much of their time or money to helping the U.S. government do image building. They already pay taxes.  They create jobs and build prosperity.  That is their role.    

Getting too close to the U.S. government can be a problem for businesses.  Government’s embrace can be suffocating and dangerous for business and business connections can difficult for government.  

Let’s say it plainly.  If business and government form partnerships, they both hope to gain something from the joint enterprise.  Unless everybody thinks the relationship through, much of what they expect might give the impression of impropriety and sometimes might actually be unethical.

It can be too easy for particular local firms to become the “go to” places for U.S. officials.  Pretty soon it looks like the U.S. is endorsing or backing their products.  Even though nobody says so, foreigners might treat them differently because of this.   When working in Poland, I found that many people assumed that they could get better treatment for things like visas if they worked with firms somehow associated with the Consulate.   We would sometimes have to distance ourselves from a firm that was in fact actively implying such useful connections.

You can easily envision situations where closeness to the USG would be a negative.  Unfriendly foreign authorities might not be able to effectively harass our diplomats, but they can take out their frustrations on U.S. firms or their local employees.

There is also a little disagreement about how much the general image matters anyway.  The numbers seem soft and volatile.  IMO, any opinion that can change week-to-week based on external events is not firmly held or predictive of behavior.  Mr. Reinhart mentioned an article in the NYT that questioned the efficacy of a being ostensibly popular.  (He did not agree with most of it, BTW, and the extrapolations in this paragraph are mine, not his.)Things like cooperation with U.S. policies and sales of U.S. products seem unaffected by the vicissitudes of popularity.  I have come to believe that public diplomacy can be very effective in specific areas and subjects, but is less useful with the general. In fact, I think that the general questions re favorability or approval of the U.S. are almost useless, especially when done across cultures that have a variety of ways of answering questions and interacting with researchers.

All things considered, I think the best things American business can do to improve America’s image is to make quality products, lead their businesses ethnically and respect local laws, culture & customs.  We can cooperate where appropriate, and we do all the time, but business is not going to become some kind of PD auxiliary and neither business nor government should want it to. 

I know that I am giving a negative accounting.   Let me mitigate that a little.  We already have succeeded.  USG cooperation with U.S. businesses is brilliant.  I know that from personal experience. I have worked with American firms since my first post in the FS.  They sponsor many of our events and in the process build their own images and get exposure for their products.  U.S. businesses participate in our symposiums and share their experience.   We all benefit. Of course, American businesses directly sponsor exchanges, investments, technology transfers and all tolled they certainly make a much greater impression on the world than our comparatively underfunded and understaffed efforts.  They do these things for good business reasons.   

Cooperation is good and where it makes sense it has been going on since before the founding of our Republic.  Ben Franklin, our first diplomat, combined representation of government with business. John Adams was less successful as a diplomat because he couldn’t really grasp the interconnections.  Read any of their biographies and you will be struck at how similar things were so long ago.  We have been doing it.  I just don’t see how business-government cooperation can be significantly expanded in the PR area.  We in government would have to ask ourselves what business hoped to get from the expanded partnership (i.e. influence).   Business leaders would have to ask what government wanted (i.e. money). And if all of us were thoughtful and honest the answers might make us rightfully cautious in pushing too hard for more. Some things you shouldn’t do, even though you can and some separate things should not be too intimately mixed.

Stone bridge arch along the Erie Canal  

BTW - that is not Mr. Reinhard in the picture at top.  I just got a nice angle on the podium to show both the room and the nice day outside.  The middle picture shows some of the building on the SU campus. On the bottom is an interesting arch along the Erie Canal route.

October 18, 2009

Lane Change Needed in the Climate Change Debate

We talked about the public diplomacy surrounding climate change at the Public Diplomacy Symposium at Syracuse University.  Karen Akerlof from George Mason based her talk on a report called Global Warming’s Six Americas, which segmented the American public by their belief in global warming and stated commitment to doing something about it. 

 Traffic circle in Syracuse NY

I will let you read the report at the link above. Ms. Akerlof pointed out that these diverse groups had more in common in their actions than in their beliefs. For example, those who were dismissive of global warming were MORE likely to do things like drive fuel efficient cars, weather-strip their houses and conserve energy in general.  You could speculate that they were more motivated by the desire to save money than save the earth, but this reveals the biggest challenges in public relations/public diplomacy – people often do NOT act on their expressed beliefs. 

Public affairs professionals like to think that if we can convince people of the righteousness of our positions their behaviors will change in favorable directions, but the relationship between good will and good deeds is not strong.   In fact the gap between what people say they want to do and what they really do is probably the single most common inspiration for literature, myths and self-help books. 

People are Perfidious 

This is the gap between what people SAY – i.e. their stated preferences – and what they DO – i.e. their revealed preferences.  People don’t tell the truth to opinion pollsters when talking about complex issues.  I won’t call it hypocrisy or dishonesty because it goes deeper than that simple explanation.   

People often don’t know what they really think because they haven’t thought through all aspects of most issues.  When asked, they to follow along the familiar ruts of what they think others approve.They might even claim that they feel strongly about it but that doesn’t necessarily indicate their own commitment or their willingness to follow through.  It gets worse when we become more political.

Politics does not REQUIRE strong commitment or follow up among most supporters.   At a cost of about an hour of their time otherwise uncommitted individuals can convince themselves of their virtue once every two or four years and then do not much but complain and make demands in between.  Politicians figured this out long ago (read about it in what Tocqueville wrong in 1830), so they flatter and pander to the uncommitted by giving them an undeserved benefit of the doubt.  Focus on a one-time easy to do action works well campaigns.  The skill level required to make a mark on a ballot or pull a lever on a machine is not high.  But is not a good way to govern or get things done in general.

Old oven in Anthracite Museum in Scranton, PA 

A Slowly Warming Oven

Climate change is perhaps the place where the one-time, short-term rhetorical – the political campaign - commitment works LEAST well.  The diffuse, slow-motion unfolding of climate change is almost the opposite of a political process.   In climate change, you have to pay the costs up-front and personally.  However, you may never get a personal payoff and the results of your work and sacrifice may not come for many years, may not happen near you and may not be apparently connected to your actions.  In fact, I cannot think of situation LESS likely to inspire consistent action on the part of individuals. Mark Meisner, Another of the SU panelist, laid it out nicely.  He said that the climate debate is hard because of doubts related to complexity, distance, time, visibility, responsibly and consequences.  To me this just means that we’re cooked on this one.

Advocates for climate change action missed major inflection point in the climate debate that happened a few months ago.   Until this year, they had a politically based task.  They had to convince people to SAY they believed climate change was real and that it represented a danger. This task was facilitated by the easy identification of villains.  Global warming deniers (following the construction “Holocaust deniers”) could be attacked.  It was implied that if these guys would just recognize the truth, the problem could be solved.   But this is wrong. Global warming deniers did not cause the problem and they cannot fix it because global warming is a physical problem that requires real, as opposed to political, action.  AND it requires long-term commitment, not mere involvement.

The inflection point that occurred in the debate this year is that almost everybody now recognizes the problem, at least rhetorically. The convincing part of the public diplomacy worked.  Now we have moved to the “so what do we DO?” stage. This is harder. 

Easier to Identify a Problem than to Agree on Solutions

Let me lay it out.  We now agree on the diagnosis of the problem, but we strongly disagree about what we should do, when we should do it, who will pay for it and who is responsible of taking the needed steps.  We have moved beyond the political phase of the problem and are now in the governance phase. They require different skills and methods.

On the one hand, this is to the advantage of the U.S.  Other countries have sanctimoniously hidden behind the U.S. for too long.  We didn’t agree to Kyoto, but Kyoto didn’t work anyway. Those that did agree to Kyoto generally reduced their CO2 emissions LESS since 2000 than we did. It is the difference between the political and the operational paradigms.  In the political paradigm you get credit for what you say you are gonna do.  In the operational paradigm you only get credit for what you actually accomplish.  America has been doing much better in the reality than in the perception of environmental progress.  So as a public diplomat, my life has become a bit easier because we can more easily talk about our practical success.  Clearing away the cover, calling the practical bluff of our detractors will be satisfying.   

Good Decisions Require Good Information, Incentives

But my anticipated joy at rhetorical victories in the public diplomacy game is mitigated by the anxiety I feel as someone concerned about the real environment. I am resigned to the fact that there will be climate change.   We cannot avoid it.  How much it bites depends more on technological developments than on political will.  Politicians can do two things to help.  They can raise the price of carbon, which will encourage alternatives, and they can reduce opposition to nuclear power.   But both these things have political costs, so I expect less help from this sector.

The atmosphere doesn’t care if you say you are an environmentalist.  It doesn’t make allowances for the poor nor does it give credit for good intentions.   It is not impressed by celebrities.  You cannot make progress by changing accounting procedures, borrowing from the future or blaming the past.  You cannot get credit for what you didn’t do and your good works will often by obvious to nobody. In short, the natural environment is a very un-political environment. 

Fortunately, the American people are greater than American politics, or as l like to say, the American nation is greater than the American government. This is true of other countries too.  We are developing new technologies and new techniques. The imagination, innovation & intelligence of the people will produce good solutions if they have the right incentives and information. Environmental protection is one of the places where market-based incentives and information is insufficient because we are dealing with external costs and long term consequences.  Government's role is to make the needed adjustments in information and incentives, so that individuals and firms make realistic decisions.  But the authorities must resist the temptation to pick winners and losers and micro-manage.

Politicians & public affairs campaigns play indispensable support roles by creating conditions favorable to development, but they develop nothing by themselves.  

In the end, what you have done really is more important than what you say you are going to do.

Chicken & Pigs; Eggs & Ham

Bacon and egg breakfast at Denny's 

Do you recall the difference between involvement and commitment?  Look at this bacon & eggs breakfast. The chicken is involved.  She drops the egg and has nothing to do ever again.  The pig is committed.  His ass is right there on the plate.   Involvement can be painless and ephemeral.  Commitment is hard and permanent.  You can see why it is easier to get people involved than committed.

October 14, 2009

Social Media & Public Diplomacy at Syracuse University

I am on a panel about public diplomacy at the Second Public Diplomacy Symposium at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York on October 16.   Since it is a panel DISCUSSION I don’t want to say too much initially in order to let the discussion develop in ways favored by the participants.   The reflections on public diplomacy on the blog this week are some of the ways I am working through the issues.  Sorry for all the overlap.  I have to produce hours of thought to yield a few minutes of talk.  It takes a lot of preparation to be spontaneous.

Below is what I plan to use as an introduction.  The PowerPoint for the presentation is available at this link.

Social Media & Public Diplomacy

Construction on the US Institute of Peace on October 13, 2009

Above are workers constructing the new Institute of Peace building across from my office. They use a variety of tools for their work, choosing the most appropriate for the job at hand.  The TASK is the important thing.  The tools are just a way to get the job done.  A carpenter does not have a specific "hammer strategy."  We should not have a specific Facebook or Twitter strategy.  Our PD TOOLS should be used ... as tools - part of a tool box or portfolio.  Use the ones that work at the right place and time; don't develop a strategy for them.


You are catching me at a time of indecision.   I spent more than twenty-five years working in public diplomacy and have been a pioneer in State Department innovative use of the new media; at least they gave me a couple awards that said so.  But I have doubts.  Electronic distribution & the social/interactive media is not the game changer I hoped.  On reflection, I think we leaned too much about technology and not enough on the social and anthropological aspects of the social media. Technology has made it easy to reach large numbers of people, but it doesn’t mean they are paying attention, turning our information into useful knowledge or doing something new or different based on what they get from us.

We have to do a lot of rethinking but it is hard to think when we are beguiled and distracted by the promise of technology. So let’s set aside all the latest techno-developments and think about the SOCIAL media from the human and audience perspective. Since this will be a DISCUSSION and I have only a few minutes to provoke your questions, let me give you the seven truths about public diplomacy and social media.

1.   Social – less about technologies and more about social interactions with people. 

2.   Iterative - It is a continuous learning, iterative   process, not a plan and not something that can be delegated or finished. 

3.   Engaged – You want to influence others AND you are willing to be influenced by others.

4.   Community -based  - Build a community & be part of a community.   Figure out what you can contribute to the community.  People make decisions in the contexts of their communities.

5.  Simultaneously Inclusive & Exclusive – A community is both inclusive of its members and exclusive to others.   You attract nobody if you appeal to everybody.   You have to earn membership in any community worth being a member. 

6.   Personal - Editors and marketers have tried for years to homogenize for the mass market.   Niche markets – and the new media is just a series of niche markets – requires personality.  There is no such thing as a world product.  Even the ubiquitous Coca-Cola varies by region and country.   We engage a series of niche markets.   This means that we have to work through our country-posts, with people immersed in local cultures, politics and sensibilities and has obvious implications for a Washington-based PD messaging strategy.

7.  Fun - We underestimate the importance of fun & games.   People have choices in the new media.  They often engage because it is fun and if you bore them they will wander off.  

So these are the things that I think shape our use of social media.  Let’s talk.

October 13, 2009

IIP engages new audiences with social media

Below is a draft of an article we submitted for "State Magazine."  Regualar readers will recognize some of the themes I monotonously return to in this blog.  The text clearly has that bureaucratic feel necessary when writing for any in-house publication, and I did resisted the urge to put in some of my snarky comments, but it highlights some of the good work my colleagues are doing so I think it is worth posting and worth reading.    Below that is an article I wrote for the "Foreign Service Journal" way back in 2001.  Some of the cliche terms were just starting to be used back then.  In the intervening eight years, some things have changed but the basics remain the same.  We still have not really succeeded and we will never be finished, but there is some progress.

 IIP engages new audiences with social media

By John Matel and William May

Social media is, above all, social.  The increasing popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Short Message Service and podcasts gives public diplomacy practitioners unprecedented direct access to publics, opens doors to new overseas audiences and gives us the chance to engage people around the world in new ways.  It is a opportunity and a challenge to pick the right tools.

The Department has more than 130 official Facebook pages, more than a dozen feeds on the Flickr photo-sharing Web site, nearly 40 Twitter accounts and a growing list of blogs.  The Bureau of International Information Programs is taking the lead in employing these tools for international engagement, using cutting-edge technologies to reach people, remembering always that the medium ‑ the technology ‑ is not the message. We try to match the technology to the audience and the message.

At IIP we have found that using social media effectively often requires risk taking, creativity and a willingness to be on the cutting edge of these technologies.  Fortunately, the Department’s leadership is firmly committed to seeking out and implementing these new approaches that expand our ability to engage in exchanges with foreign publics. As Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale said recently, “[In] the right circumstances, the use of new media could be smart power at its best, as when employed in dialogue with wired constituencies.”

Global Outreach

An important aspect of the new technologies is the ability and the need to be where the customers are.  IIP’s Digital Outreach Team connects with online users in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Chinese, inserting the U.S. government’s voice into conversations on prominent blogs and forums and engaging an often skeptical audience on their own ground.  The Iranian government has labeled the team “dangerous and subversive” for its online discussions of the need for greater openness, the economic costs of Iran’s hardliner attitude and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. In fact, the team has engaged in a back-and-forth online dialogue in Persian with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s media advisor.  IIP’s blogging team gives Iranians an unfiltered look at a U.S. perspective on issues such as their nuclear programs and human rights.

“The blogging team’s willingness to address hard issues in an open and transparent way mitigates rancor and helps get our messages heard, copied and amplified,” said IIP Coordinator Jeremy Curtin.

IIP is also developing powerful new media tools for digital diplomats to allow them virtual personal contact with people worldwide.  The bureau has turned Adobe Connect business conferencing software into a multimedia-platform outreach tool that allows U.S. diplomats to cheaply and easily engage with publics via the Internet over high- and low-speed networks. 

Dubbed “Co.Nx” (, this tool integrates video, audio and print into a flexible platform that can carry the Secretary of State’s Town Hall meetings in Brussels to thousands of participants in Europe or, at slower speeds, transmit small interactive programs in Africa and Afghanistan.

New Meets Traditional 

Working closely with the White House new media team, IIP developed the first worldwide mobile Short Message Service-based event, which was used to engage audiences around the world to discuss the President’s speeches in Cairo and Ghana.  In Africa, where mobile phones are common but few have access to the Internet, the White House and IIP married Short Message Service with traditional radio broadcasts.  People across Africa and the world texted more than 17,000 questions and 50,000 instant messages to the White House in three languages.  President Obama produced a podcast that answered some of the Africans’ questions, and public diplomacy officers in Africa then took the podcast to radio stations, which broadcast it locally.

In another social media effort, IIP launched the “Democracy Video Challenge,” which attracted more than 900 video entries on YouTube (State Magazine tk.).  A second round of the contest began in September.

IIP’s Office of Innovative Engagement, in collaboration with eDiplomacy, has launched the Social Media Hub (, which contains user manuals for Facebook, Twitter and blogging. It also has best practices, an “Ask the Expert” section and news about training opportunities.  This gives the posts overseas the encouragement and information they need to work effectively with new media.  It also provides a platform to share their experiences with Washington and with each other so that the innovation, imagination, intelligence and specific knowledge of our colleagues around the world can be shared and engaged. 
By using these new social media tools along with more traditional media and outreach, IIP is enhancing its ability to tailor and target public diplomacy messages to specific audiences.   Even as it explores the frontiers of new media, IIP is keeping an eye firmly fixed on the fundamental social aspect of public diplomacy.  At the end of the day, the bureau is still in the business of relating to and engaging with people. 

The new technologies simply make doing that easier – and better.

John Matel is director of the IIP Office of Policy, and William May is director of the IIP Office of Innovative Engagement.


Below is the article I wrote in 2001.

Speaking Out
Public Affairs: Out of the Information Business

By John Matel

It is hard to recall a time before we could read today’s American newspapers anywhere in the world online, or watch coverage of breaking events on CNN or a host of other TV and Internet news channels. Yet until recently, it was enough for information officers to provide -- well, information. Sometimes we provided the latest news, or at least news that local media had not yet seen. Press attachés frequently thought of themselves as a species of journalist, faithfully furnishing unbiased, or at least evenhanded, information and official statements to host-country media. Overseas opinion-makers were often regular readers of our products and the local media treated them as supplementary news services.

What a change! Media organizations and the State Department’s own Internet sites now give our former clients 24-hour access to timely and accurate information. They bypass local public affairs officers, who cannot compete with Washington and should not try. Yet if public affairs sections can no longer be “honest information brokers,” they can be effective policy advocates by using the Internet as a public diplomacy tool. Or to put it another way: The Internet will not replace public affairs, but it will revolutionize its practice.

Strategic vs. Tactical

Despite its ubiquitous quality, the Internet has not lived up to its potential as a public affairs tool. A key reason is confusion over strategic versus tactical use of the new methods. Washington Web sites and most mission sites are almost entirely strategic in that they provide content to support general goals and messages, are directed to a wide, self-selected audience, and are independent of specific public affairs campaigns. They are excellent information sources that compare favorably with those of large private enterprises.

A breakdown results when strategic Web efforts are inappropriately applied to tactical situations. An effective tactical Internet campaign must be forward-looking, support specific programs, be interactively targeted to particular audiences and time-sensitive. It also requires active, sustained support by other public affairs activities; in other words, it is a fully integrated part of a larger public affairs campaign that no longer just informs but advocates a point of view. In many respects, Internet, e-mail and user-friendly electronic databases fulfill the promise of the old USIS Distribution Records System: identifying and reaching the relatively small number of key opinion leaders and transmitters who shape the larger society’s attitudes. This is a necessary but not sufficient aspect of public affairs. To be effective, information must also stick with the consumer.

Making Information Stick

The biggest problem with information delivered via the Internet is that it is not “sticky.” Recipients either cannot recall the message or fail to integrate it into their outlook or behavior. The solution is not limited to making our information more exciting or relevant; what usually makes the real difference are the context of the message and the perceived character and credibility of the messenger. In other words, recipients must trust the source and know what to do with the information they receive.

Beaming data to Palm Pilots works for stock prices and sports scores because recipients are waiting for the information and know how to use it. They have context. The kind of information we disseminate as diplomats is more complicated than factual reporting, however, for we seek to influence, not merely inform. Public affairs events, personal meetings and media relations provide the glue, the context that renders message content relevant and makes it stick in the consciousness of opinion-makers. Without human and programmatic context, electronic resources are like encyclopedias. Without electronic resources, conversely, most programming falls seriously short of providing content. They need to be used together. Consider the following:

In a traditional scenario, we meet a contact at an event, promise to provide more information and maybe even remember to send it. By the time it arrives, however, the contact may have lost interest. We created an opening, but were unable to follow up with content. By contrast, the Internet can provide complete and timely information, but not required context. Thus, a contact browsing a State Department Web page might carefully read a piece of information and make a mental note of it, but quickly lose the “mental notepad” because he or she also read 50 other pages the same day.

Now imagine a combined strategy. The public affairs section organizes an event, with its own Web page offering links to information. Key contacts get e-mail invitations with links to the event page. They can browse the page and get a comprehensive idea of what they want to learn. As a result, we meet a fully primed contact at the event, and can concentrate on specific parts of the presentation. We can then follow up with more information provided by our Area Information Resource Center in an e-mail with Web page links later that day. Now the information sticks with the contact because of the additional context of the event and the personal attention. In fact, he or she may well share it with colleagues and friends, and perhaps refer them to the Web page or forward an e-mail. That is success.

Reaching the Right People

Obviously, the combined strategy is best. Beyond that, skillful use of databases and e-mail will maintain relations as long as the contact remains important. With these tools, we can fine-tune our efforts and maintain meaningful contact with a greater number of truly engaged people (opinion leaders) across a wider spectrum of issues, instead of dispersing our resources on a mass audience, most of whom are indifferent to the message or unable to act on it.

Without technology (or several personal assistants), an average person can maintain regular personal contact with 150 to 200 people during any particular period. This maximum is set by the limits in the number of hours in a day and human memory capacity. Working harder or longer will not significantly increase this number, but technology can, by creating the possibility of mass personalization. Targeted e-mail with Internet links can be very precise in creating contact opportunities, since databases are memory enhancers. Thus, using technologically enhanced methods, one officer can maintain meaningful targeted contact with thousands of individuals. Notice that I am not advocating that this contact work be completely automated, however. In the high-tech world, personal attention is actually even more important.

Toward A New Paradigm

Those who think that technology will make overseas officers irrelevant are as misguided as those who believe they can ignore technology. Information technology will never replace public affairs officers. On the contrary, technology increases the value of human interaction while providing tools that liberate public affairs both from the tedium of being a mere conduit for information and the exciting, but uncreative, experience of having journalists clamoring for the latest breaking news. Because the Internet has made information a free commodity, we no longer score points for providing it. We add value only by customizing information and making it recipient-specific.

Ironically, “hard” technology puts a premium on “soft” skills by devaluing rote, programmed procedures and making the product itself (raw information) less important than the channel of delivery (relationships) and customization (personalization). Also, by eliminating the external discipline of the urgent, the new technology necessitates more creative and self-motivated behavior. Making it all work together successfully requires a new paradigm for public affairs, one that blends our traditional communication and people skills with new communication and people skills.

Technology changes the terms of engagement, but our relationships are with people, just as they always have been, not with their computers or fax machines. Effective communication with people is still the only real business we are in.

Why have we applied these methods only sporadically to our public affairs? One reason is simple newness. Only recently has such communication become possible with a significant number of recipients. Everyone must get used to using the new system. But a more pernicious impediment to effective synergy of electronic communications with public affairs has been the structure of the State Department. New technologies mean different ways of doing business and challenge us to be flexible in everything from job descriptions to traditional perks. They cannot just be strapped on old management structures. The department’s hierarchical, sequential culture, where one step must be cleared up the chain before the next one can begin, is not well-suited to a new world where several problems must be solved simultaneously and hierarchy sometimes ignored. (Who should sing tenor in the choir? The ones who can, not necessarily the senior members.) Bosses are uncomfortable when they lack the requisite knowledge to clear the work of their expert subordinates and are therefore reluctant to trust decisions they make in response to uncertain circumstances. The commitment of State’s new management team to addressing this problem is encouraging, but convincing those who prospered under the old system is a tough challenge.

Nevertheless, it is a challenge that must be met. If an integrated approach is not applied, the department’s public affairs efforts will soon be ignored and irrelevant. If the State Department can’t explain and advocate American interests abroad in a timely and effective way, the task will pass to those better suited for the job or not get properly done at all. These are unacceptable alternatives. To succeed we must release the talent and energy we already have. Let’s do it.

John Matel, an FSO since 1984, has served in Porto Alegre, Oslo, Krakow and Washington. He is currently information officer in Warsaw.

October 12, 2009

Wasted (on) Youth

Disco John showing the bad taste of the 1970sIt is not surprising that an aspiring geezer like me would think that the “youth market” is overemphasized in public affairs, but let me give you some of my reasons. (BTW - notice the suspension of good taste characteristic of the 1970s in the youthful picture on the left  You can't see the platform shoes, very unpractical on the icy streets of Milwaukee.)

There is no Successor Generation, Just a Succession of Generations

We talk of a successor generation, but what we really have is a succession of generations, i.e. one after another.   Rearranging the words slightly as I just did almost completely changes the paradigm and drains a little of the urgency.   I really have to do the tedious digression in order to explain why we still view the world through this kind of generational prism.

The idea of the successor generation and the concept of generations on steroids in general is suited to a particular historical period that is now ending.   The “greatest generation,” the one that survived the Great Depression and fought World War II, is implicitly taken as the starting point.  The worldwide apocalyptic effects of this conflict and the economic depression preceding it, coupled with the never before reach of mass communication meant that people who experienced the war and its aftermath had a unique common experience that shaped them as a generation in a way not seen before or since. 

The end of the wars, both WW I and WWII that so comprehensively changed the world was a kind of a starting point for a new world. This created the idea of a generational personality and this impression was strengthened when people with the war experience ruled the world and set the pace for an unusually long time. Their numerous children were the baby boom, the largest and most affluent up until that time.  The Boomer conflict with GI-Generation parents played out as a clash of titan generations rather than normal piecemeal generational change.  This was also something very unusual, but since we grew up with it and in its shadow, we think of it as normal.  

When I joined the FS, we were in the stages of transition to the “successor generation.”  Supposedly, the new generations of leaders would be harder to deal with because they lacked strong direct memories of U.S. contributions during the war and American largess in helping rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan.   Worse, the heroic World War II generation was going to be replaced by the generation of ’68, with its formative memories coming from the riots, disorder and unrest of those days.  Some of the former radicals still talked the talk, but twenty years of experience had made them a lot more reasonable.  Our fears that the radicals would bring down the system were unjustified (unless you meant the socialist systems of the Soviet Empire.)

The Stone Throwers of ’68 Became the Capitalists of ‘88

If the youth that rioted to overthrow capitalism in 1968 – in Europe it was even worse than it was in the U.S. - could turn into the tranquil bankers and bureaucrats of 1988, maybe capturing the youth in their formative ages is not so crucial.  But think of the even greater challenge that history just glosses over. The bureaucrats and bankers, the staunch U.S. allies facing down those rioters in 1968 had grown up during the severe indoctrination of Nazi Germany. It seems that people grow as they mature and they change with changing circumstances. Of course, maybe it is self-selecting bias, as the most extreme trouble makers just dropped out. 

There is an old saying, variously quoted, that if you are not a radical when you are twenty, you have no heart, but if you are still a radical when you are forty, you have no brain.  As I said, it is an old saying, at least a century old.  Some changes don't change or put more elegantly - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Anyway, the big, lumpy generational changes that seemed have been the rule during our lifetimes were an anomaly.   It will not be that way going into the future.  Instead we will have more constant change spread across the generational spectrum. The need to make your impression on “the youth” in the first-formative stages of their lives will be less crucial, even if you still think it is crucial at all after looking at the history of the transitions between the self-consciously patriotic generation of ’45 and the self-described '68 radicals.   

For Everything there is a Season

kids in Istanbul 

Experience indicates that the best time to reach people is NOT when they are 18-20, much less an even younger age.  They just get bored. You are a lot better off if you wait until they are 28-30.   Few 18 year olds really care about politics, with good reasons.  They don’t have a real feel for what they want and they have only a vague idea of what directions their lives will take. It is like asking them to choose door #1, #2 or #3, w/o knowing what is behind.  They make better choices when they get better perspective, after experience begins to replace passion.

(BTW - I am not addressing basic tendencies and values, which seem to be established very early and may even be influenced by genetics.  Here we are talking about things that we might express in public affairs messages.)

People are very much subject to natural unfolding development.  There is a right time for everything.  You cannot teach a kid to talk or walk before he is ready and the same goes for a lot of things. It is possible to be too late, but it is more likely that you will be too early.  There are times in their lives when they are ready to hear a message or to make a change and a time when they are not.   

Most 18 year olds are not ready for serious public affairs messages.  I wasn’t.  My kids weren’t.  Reaching out to kids too early is like planting your flower seeds in February.   Most will not germinate and those you plant in April will easily overtake and surpass any that do poke up through the frost.  It is a waste to be too early.   Beyond that, you face the constraint of selection.  Only a minority of a generational cohort will be interested and/or able to act on any public affairs message.  Among 18-year-olds you have an undifferentiated mass.   To extend my garden metaphor, you are not only planting too early, you are also doing it indiscriminately, sowing seeds on rocks, sidewalks, sand and soil.   Seven or ten years later you can make much better choices since you can better see which among them are or will be opinion leaders.

Ephemeral v Enduring

Anyway, patience is a virtue and waiting until the time is right is wisdom.  Youth is overrated.  People are much more influenced by the realities of their own life cycles than by the skinny dipping they made into an ideological pool as callow youth.  If you are selling things that don’t last long, such as trendy clothes, cool games, fast food or various specific forms of entertainment, get those kids.  If you are “selling” ideas meant to last – and be acted on – for a lifetime, wait until the time is right.

October 05, 2009

Public Diplomacy Not Broken … So Can’t be Fixed

Tyranasaurus and triceratops at Milwaukee Museum

I attended another of those meetings on public diplomacy where earnest colleagues talk about what we can do to improve, reform or fix public diplomacy. I am not saying that we should not be seeking always to improve, but I have been hearing this same story ever since I started paying attention to such things more than a quarter century ago and I think it has been going on a lot longer than that.  When Ben Franklin returned from Paris, some people gave him a hard time about his activities there and complained that we just were not making the impact we should.   The pattern is that we decry the present or the recent past and then say how we have hope for the future.  

I don’t think we can succeed in fixing the problem because it is not a problem that can be solved.  It is an ongoing situation that will never end until we are gone, all gone – in that eternal sense. That which cannot be changed must be welcomed.

Maybe we cannot fix public diplomacy any more than we can fix the need to eat.  It is just an endless need.  If we eat a big meal today, being hungry again tomorrow does not indicate a failure or eating or the need to reform our consumption methods.  

We often assume if we just explained better or understood our fellow man better, things would be okay.  Experience does not bear this out.  In most of history’s truly monumental conflicts, the warring sides understood each other only too well.  It was not a failure to communicate that got Xerxes in trouble with the Spartans at Thermopylae.  Ghengis Khan was fairly clear about what he wanted but it was not easy to find a mutually agreeable compromise with him.

You can have some real conflicts of interests and real differences that do not represent a failure to communicate.   IMO, very often the more you talk about differences, the sharper they become.    Maybe simply ignoring them or kicking the can down the road is the solution, more on that below.  But let’s think about agreement first.

Agreeing about Most Things is Easy

First the good news.  The world is not a zero sum game.   We can get a lot when we work together and cooperate.  We agree MOST of the time and when we agree there are no controversies and not much scope for politics, persuasion or public diplomacy.    We have all kinds of non-controversial agreements.   On the local level, most of us agree to stop at red lights.  Although we have to persuade the occasional miscreant that the law applies to him too, there is no real controversy.   We have long standing agreements about very important things like telecommunications, navigation, air traffic control and postal services.   I can send a letter anyplace in the world because all of us agree that is a good thing.   

These agreements require constant maintenance, but it is more or less like painting your house or keeping your car tuned up – very little drama.  They work in the background, very much like whatever software is running your computer as you read this, and we rarely think about them.

Politics, diplomacy and violence are reserved for the places where we don’t easily agree.  It should come as no surprise that this relatively small subset of our activities gets most of our attention nor should we be too distressed that we constantly face new problems of this sort.   On those occasions when we succeed in solving one of these problems, it moves into the category in the earlier paragraph and we no longer pay any attention.  It is sort of like when you always find your keys in the last place you look and then you stop looking.  Human nature being what it is, after a problem is solved most people come to think that it was never really much of a problem in the first place and that it would have taken care of itself anyway.  Even really massive changes, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, start to look inevitable and easy as events recede into history.

Not Everybody is Nice

We are left with new problems and since yesterday’s solution is often today’s problem, we are also left with the impression that we are not making any progress.   In fact, we are NOT making progress because there is not end-state toward which we can progress.  I am not big on sports analogies, but one leaps to mind.   The Red Sox can never win an ultimate victory over the Yankees.    The Packers will never finally dispatch the Vikings.   A new season follows and the cycle never ends. Even if the players change, the general geography remains and familiar patterns persist. 

All this doesn’t mean you can do nothing or you should be complacent unless – to stretch my sports analogy – you want to become the Chicago Cubs of world politics.   In fact, eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.   And it is possible to have victories and good seasons.   We are not the victims of fate or mere random chance.  There just is no way out of the game until you are physically removed … and then it continues w/o you. 

To sum up, most of us CAN agree with others on MOST things. Those things you cannot agree about become the property of persuasion, politics, coercion and violence. They are problems by definition. It is best to keep as much as possible away from the politics, coercion and violence, but it is not always possible.  Of course peaceful, respectful persuasion is the best, if you can get it, but you can usually get it only in situations that are not the most severe and the others are always lurking in the background.   Just because you reject violence doesn’t mean it has been removed from the equation. Unfortunately, politics can be easier than working to create a solution, coercion is a very potent persuader and violence a very compelling public affairs message.

Sometimes it goes away if you ignore it

I once foiled a robbery attempt in the bookstore where I worked in Madison by not getting it.   A couple guys came in and hung around near the cash register.  When I asked them what they wanted, they said they wanted all the money in the register.  They didn’t brandish any weapons and they didn’t seem especially tough, so I just laughed at them and told them to beat it.   They went away.  I thought it was a joke until I saw on the news that police were seeking a couple of young men who had robbed a store down the street.  

I would like to put in a plug for avoidance & denial, when possible.  Don't go looking for trouble.  Call it pluralism if you like.   I simply mean that we don’t have to agree on everything and there can be a wide sphere where people can do different, ostensibly contradictory things.  We should constantly seek to expand the areas where we can say, “I don’t like what you are doing, but I just don’t care enough to do anything about it” or better yet, “It is just none of my business.”  This can flow from, “I don’t know very much about what you are doing, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem for me” or “I don’t care what you do, as long as you stay over there.”   We don’t have to resolve all our differences if we can create environments where most differences don’t matter.   

I understand that the attitude I describe will probably not make you famous and will make some people think you just are not paying attention but it makes most people happier and often works better than the more active and aggressive alternatives.   I am not advocating that we actually BE ignorant, as I was in my robbery example above.  I do advocate that we have enough self-awareness and humility to know that we cannot understand everything and may well be wrong in our judgments.  We don’t have to drill down and solve every problem.  I really don’t think the trouble is that the world hears too LITTLE from and about the U.S.  

Engaging is Easy

The latest buzzword for public diplomacy is engagement.   I like engagement.  It can be fun and you can learn a lot.   But it is not a panacea and it can be overdone if you start invading the pluralism “don’t know; don’t care” turf mentioned above.   Remember what Aristotle said about anger?   It applies to engagement too, so let me paraphrase.   Anybody can be engaged - that is easy, but to be engaged with the right people and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.

September 23, 2009

Politics + Science = Perdition + Tyranny

Back off Man; I'm a Scientist ...

Should scientists be politically active? Individual scientists should participate in debates as citizens. They should bring their knowledge and expertise to every subject, just like others do. But “scientists” as a group should not be political animals because there is a big difference between “A” scientist and “THE” scientist.

... Dr Peter Venkman

What is a scientist anyway? Do you have to have a science degree? Is BS enough or do you need a PhD? Do you have to do experiments? What kind of science qualifies as science? Sociologists and psychologists sometimes call themselves scientists. Political scientists even have that name in their titles. Some historians thought they were scientists. The term is very elastic.

Western civilization is based on the scientific method

Anybody who uses the “scientific method” in his work or to draw conclusions could legitimately call himself a scientist, but that would make scientists out of a lot of business people, most engineers, many farmers and almost everybody who works with actuarial tables. There is a field called "scientific management." For that matter, all those body builders at Gold’s Gym are scientists, given their constant experimentation with their bodies and familiarity with chemicals. Successful modern farmers, builders & business people certainly approach their work scientifically? Everybody could be included sometimes and any definition that includes everybody is not a useful definition. This is not what most people have in mind.

Science and politics are methods to address different problems

But even when we exclude sociologist, body builders, engineers etc, we still have a problem and the problem is that science and politics are almost polar opposites. Science is iterative. It never comes to final conclusions. It tends to narrow inquiry and make scientists experts on narrow fields. Science doesn’t permit extrapolation. Extrapolation is what politics is all about. Politicians are rarely troubled when they are not sure of the precise truthfulness of their statements. Scientists MUST be.

Science provides options, not decisions

Probably the most important impediment to science in politics is the very nature of decision making. You cannot “let science decide” because decisions are exactly what science does NOT do. Science provides inputs into decisions. Science can give you a probability that if you do X you will sacrifice Y, but somebody has to decide on the relative values. Maybe X just doesn’t matter to you. Science cannot make that decision.

Think of a decision about a medical procedure. The doctor can use science to tell you that there is an 80% chance the operation will be a success, but a 70% chance you will be incapacitated by the procedure. On the other hand, if you do something less invasive, you have only a 50% chance of survival, but you can make a full recovery if you survive. You could come up with a complete breakdown of the odds, but you still have to decide, based on non-science values, what you want to do. One person might choose the greater risk of death for the greater health later. Others do the opposite Science cannot help. Once it gives you the options and odds, the job of science is done unless new information comes to light.

BTW - when we reach a near certainty, we no longer have decision making. We all agree that we will apply the rule of physics when flying in an airplane. No matter what anybody says about alternative reality, he doesn't believe it when it comes to that. Decisions are ONLY needed in areas of disagreement or uncertainty.

Science informs; it doesn’t decide

Most “scientists” understand this limitation. Those scientists who want to be political might not get it. They want to use science as a trump card, but it doesn’t work. Decisions are made based on values. Science is value neutral. Therefore science cannot decide.

20th Century tyranny was "science-based"

When science becomes political, it stops being science and starts to become tyranny. In fact, science works a lot like religion when mixed with politics. It invests too much "certainty" into a human political process. It might start off “good” but politics corrupts it, because politics is not science, but politicians - especially bad ones - like to use science, as they once used religion - as a weapon to pummel their opponents into silence.

Stalin and Hitler had scientists working for them. Marxist and Nazi systems were “science-based” in the minds of their creators. Nazi science was chillingly precise. There was "scientific racism" and the eugenics movement was firmly rooting in the science of the time. We now tend to call them “pseudo- scientists” but they were trained and passed scientific muster at the universities of their times. They were pseudo BECAUSE they were political, not because they were not trained as scientists.

I would also point to the case of Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber. W/o his work literally half the world population would probably go hungry. Some of his other inventions were less felicitous. He had the most impeccable scientific credentials, but his political judgment was perhaps not so good.

Leave the lying to the politicians

This broad political road that leads to perdition is posted and brightly blazed all the way. Scientist should stay on the steep and narrow trail to truth. Leave the lying to the politicians. That is what they are good at.

September 19, 2009

Good Polish Friends

Statue of Kosciszko in Milwaukee

I think it is more important to stand with your proven friend than try to curry favor with adversaries who have shown little inclination to cooperate in the past.  America has few friends as steadfast as Poland.   Polish support for our country goes back before the revolution, when Kosciuszko and Pulaski came to fight along with George Washington just because they loved liberty.  

Yet Poland was devoured by its neighbors, Austria, Prussia and Russia, and it remained an imprisoned nation for 123 years.  Rebirth came in 1918, at the end of World War I, but it was not an easy time.  About two decades later, Nazi armies invaded Poland from the west and the Soviets stabbed them in the back from the east. This happened on September 17, 1939. Remember that date. 

Although Poland was conquered again devoured, partitioned by the two extremes of revolutionary socialism, Poles fought back.   The Nazis lost more troops invading Poland than they did conquering France in the next year and the Poles never gave up. Great heroes like Jan Karski and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (I had the privilege of meeting both these heroes) warned Franklin Roosevelt about the holocaust and what the Nazis were doing in their conquered territories.  Although Poland was under the Nazi jackboot, Polish soldiers fought in all the allied armies.  Polish pilots were crucial during the Battle of Britain.  Poles served with Americans at Monte Casino and Arnhem.  They always took heavy casualties, fighting bravely and – frankly – being used more freely as cannon fodder. Had Polish soldiers been counted, they would have made up the fourth largest army in the Allied camp.

In September 1944, the Polish home army rose against the Nazi occupiers. Stalin halted his advance, hoping to allow the Nazis to kill off Polish patriots.  He thought it would slow him down for a couple of days.   The Poles held out for months. The Nazis completely destroyed Warsaw and murdered hundreds of thousands.  But the Red Army was halted on the Vistula long enough to lose the campaigning season. This had the unexpected effect of holding Stalin back, allowing American and British troops to advance to the Elbe. Had Stalin not slowed, he may have reached the Rhine, making the post war Soviet tyranny much more powerful and dangerous.

After World War II, Poland fell into the Soviet sphere and they suffered in that communist purgatory until 1989.   The iron curtain cracked in Poland. Solidarity pushed the communist to the wall and then the Poles elected a non-communist government. But they still didn’t feel secure in their new freedom. They wanted to have friends and allies. They became NATO allies in 1999 and proved their worth. Polish troops served in the Balkans and they fought and died along side us in Iraq.  They also agreed to support us with missile defense on their land. I suppose not everyone is as grateful to them as I am. Maybe some actually hold it against them.    It is a fault in our system that we sometimes identify America’s friends as connected with particular American leaders or their policies.

Remember that September 17, 1939 date? On September 17, 2009 we decided to pull out of an agreement to deploy missile defense in Poland.  

We made a big effort to help secure Central Europe. It was a success of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Security is as often about perceptions as it is about capabilities. If an adversary believes the cost of aggression will be great and he refrains from aggression you win w/o spending the blood and treasure needed to fight the real war. 

We sometimes think the age of aggression is over. The Poles have a more tragic history than we do and they are not as certain as some of us might be. 

As I wrote at the beginning, it is better to stand with proven friends. You cannot make friend with everybody.  Some people and some regimes are just playing a zero sum game with us. If we give; they take and ask for more.  They are “satisfied” only when they reach the limits of what they can grab. If you give you can be asked to give again. It is not impossible to reach agreements or to live together in peace and mutual respect. But that respect must be mutual. One-way respect is just for chumps.

I recommend a good article by Ron Asmus, one of President Clinton's smartest advisers in the Washington Post. 


September 10, 2009

Pseudo-Experts Protect their Phony-Baloney Jobs

Arab Coke and Pepsi

It is hard to overestimate the value of precise, current information and the understanding of local conditions when talking about almost anything, but especially concerned with persuasion and public affairs. Remember that when hearing from experts who purport to know a lot about really big and widely dispersed cultures or countries.  Even Coca-Cola tastes different in different places. There is no such thing as a global brand.

I was reminded of that during an unpleasant conversation I had with a woman who implied that she spoke for or at least understood Muslims.  She didn’t really specify, but she left the strong impression that she was talking about ALL the Muslims. Last I heard, there were about a billion and a third of them. I don’t doubt that she had important insights, but it is clearly not possible for anybody to be an expert on that many people, living as they do in such diverse circumstances.   Nor is it possible to craft any message or campaign that will appeal to all of them. It is just stupid to lump a billion people together. Yet stupid is rampant. 

I goggled that transparently stupid phrase, “what do a billion Muslims really think” and to my chagrin found lots of people who claimed they could tell me the answer.  There is a whole book with that in the title, hundreds of articles, scores of opinion polls and lots of activity by think tanks. I guess I should not have been surprised.  It has long been a profitable racket for experts to set themselves up as spokespeople for large unknowable masses. I have met those who “speak for” the workers, the business owners, the blacks, the whites, the poor, the rich, the famous, the unknown ... I even met people who claim to speak for the animals, trees, rocks and for the earth itself.   I have even met people I did not know who claimed to speak for people like me. You just have to call them on this. 

One of the most important roles for a non-expert who is assigned to do something with experts is to keep them in their places.  This is hard, since they do indeed know more than you do in their area of expertise.  They can make you look silly for questioning them and most experts think their own field of endeavors is the most important or at least the indispensible link in the chain of effectiveness.   

But they do not know everything.  Developing real expertise is necessarily a narrowing process.   It is attractive to be THE expert and that means digging deep into something nobody knows, or maybe nobody cares, much about.  These kinds of experts may not have much grasp of the bigger picture, re how their part fits into the bigger whole.  They are so accustomed to intensifying the parts of their expertise that they forget to ask what their expertise is part of. The tricky tasks of the expert master is  to develop enough specific knowledge to ask the right questions,  enough humility to let the experts operate autonomously when appropriate and enough confidence and courage to stand up to them when necessary. Actually, a true subject matter expert rarely is a big problem for an experienced leader. They are like craftsmen, who do their job according to specifications. If you keep in mind that to a man with a hammer, every job looks like a nail, and you are sure that hammering is what you need, the main challenge is choosing the right people for the job in the first place.    

The problem people are the uber-experts, who extrapolate from what they legitimately know to claim all sorts of Gnostic knowledge that they claim to know but cannot explain to you because you can just never know it.  They tend to slither into places they don’t belong and develop a type of exclusive pseudo-expertise power that cows the timid, impresses the credulous and generally creates a pain in the rear for everybody else.  Anybody who claims to be an expert on Muslims w/o narrowing the category to something more specific is such an expert.   This goes for anybody who claims to represent any large group or have mastered any broad and complicated subject.  Little good can come from associating with them, apart from some passing entertainment value.  But the costs can be high in lost opportunities and misallocated resources.

Socrates warned us about people like that almost 2500 years ago. It is not a new predicament and it will not go away because it is too profitable for those doing it.  They struggle hard to protect their phony-baloney jobs and they are usually smart enough to put up a good fight.  The key to nullifying their power  is just to identify it for what it is and expose it to the light. Of course, that is easier said than done and sometimes even harder to explain to others.

September 04, 2009

Found in Translation

St Peter in Byzantine mosaic from Chora Chuch in IstanbulMeaning often lost is translation but you can sometimes find even greater significance in different interpretations if you look hard enough. I have long been interested in Taoism (the philosophy not the religion) and have been fascinated by the great variety of translations of the words of Lao Tzu.  Some of them directly contradict the others, so I have given up on the “true meaning” and rather go with the meaning useful for me. In other words, I take inspiration rather than direction.

I was talking to a Chinese translator who told me that Lao Tzu was not nearly so mystical in Chinese.  The translations had enhanced the mystic feel and may have created some where none was implied.  Lao Tzu, he said, was actually a lot like “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”  Consider the old saying, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Here is my reformulation, “He who is present at the dawn will come to know the robustness of fortune on the path of ancient wisdom.” 

I still go with the ancient wisdom, but I understand that a lot might be what the translator put there and what I am reading into it. This is really a good thing.  We improve it and make it more applicable to our circumstances. That is why it is impossible for something written just a few years ago to be a “classic”.  

To be a classic, a work has to have been interpreted and reinterpreted by at least a couple of generations, each accreting its own perspective and wisdom.   In other words, the wisdom of Socrates or Lao Tzu wasn’t as potent when it was first bottled as it became after being properly aged and filtered by subsequent generations.

Philosophy & literature, like fine wine, good cheese or even decent beer, require time to ripen.

St Peter Byzantine Mosaic in Chora Church, Istanbul

Writing good literature in translation takes a good writer in the target language, since it is much more than just substituting words. Nobel-Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf” is probably better than the original in many ways and we cannot say how much of its beauty is from the original and how much from the poet’s skill.   We have our pick of translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the great philosophers of the world.

I don’t remember much of the classical Greek I once knew, but I do recall the many possible interpretations of even simple texts and that some things couldn’t be rendered elegantly into English.  The most common challenge was a kind of framing (µεν …. δε), which we translated as “on the one hand … on the other hand” but it didn’t really mean that in most cases.  It was just a kind of notice that a comparison was on the way.  Sometimes it was used ironically, i.e. in the sense of saying no comparison was possible.   If you translated it faithfully, you might create the false impression that a comparison was made when none was implied.   If you were merely inspired by the meaning, i.e. did not try to be too literal, you could be accused of putting too much of your own personality into the translation.   If you read Plato or Aristotle, the translations are full of decisions and compromises made by translators, so never tether yourself too closely to any particular turn of phrase. 

My job has often involved foreign languages, supervising translators and/or using translations.   I am not sure that most people are aware of the types of considerations I mention above.    More and more I am going with the inspirational rather than the literal idea.  I know the pitfalls.  Whenever you lard anything with your own judgment, you change it.  But every choice is a judgment.  Should we leave a literal translation that we think be interpreted incorrectly by the listeners or do we go with something that might change the meaning? 

I recall hearing about a Russian who complained that the translator got it wrong.   He asked the rhetorical question, “Can a hunchback change his hump?” which was translated as, “Can a leopard change his spots?” There is clearly a difference.   A hunchback, in spite of the nobility of the hunchback of Notre Dame and the lovable subsequent Disney character, is vaguely creepy and menacing and the condition is usually the result of an accident.   A leopard is sleek and wild and his spots are a natural condition.  We don’t have that hunchback metaphor is English but the translator should have stuck with the clumsier literal translation.

The best translated speech I ever heard was when President Clinton announced support for Polish NATO membership in Warsaw in 1997.   But Clinton’s speech was not really very good.  The Polish translation was much better and delivered better (with sequential translation) by Victor Lipinski, who had a knack for the dramatic perfectly tuned to Polish sentiments, which Clinton lacked as an outsider.   Even though English is my language and I understood all the words (something I cannot always do in Polish) I could appreciate that the Polish was better.  But then it had the advantage of being enhanced by the emotion and the symbolic lifting of generations of oppression by Czars, Nazis and Communists.  That meaning was FOUND in translation floating on the aspirations of millions of people.

BTW - If I may digress on a spectacular memory involving a beautiful translation, I still remember that day in Warsaw in July 1997.  It had been rainy and overcast with black clouds all day.  The sun came out as if on schedule when Presidents Clinton and Kwasniewski came out in front of the Royal Palace to make speeches.  As President Clinton (and Victor) reached the crescendo, promising that Poland would never again be conquered, they released thousands of red and white (Polish national flag colors) into the sky.  They rose into sunlight and danced against the ominous dark clouds now receding into eastern sky.  No special effects artist could have planned it better.

BTW 2 - The pictures above are St. Peter and St. Paul from the Church at Chora in Istanbul.  They actually require significant translation & explanation.  Although I am not expert enough to give the whole story, let me do the basics of what I remember the guide telling us.   The images of these two saints were more or less set in the first centuries AD and these two representations are typical.  Paul is balding and intellectual; Peter a big burly guy.  Since there are no contemporary pictures of the two men, the representations developed and scholars study how they changed over time as artists learned from each other.  They also draw on older, even pre-Christian models and the depictions are also dependent on the technology, i.e. mosaic used to create them. 

Notice the symbolism.  Peter is holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  The Popes in Rome made a big deal about being the successors of Peter and so the holders of the keys.  The Greek Church was less interested in that particular, but kept the same symbolism. From these mosaics and others around town, you can also see how the ethnic mix changed.  Presumably, the artist made portrayed people as he knew them around him. All of what is now Turkey was part of Greco-Roman-Christian world ethnically, linguistically and culturally.  To the extent that the native people living in Istanbul (then Constantinople) looked like Peter as depicted before the Turkish conquest, they were significantly different from the people living there today.  A guy looking like Peter might be mistaken for a German tourist in today's Istanbul, although Paul could probably pass unnoticed on the streets.  So in these mosaics, we see tracks of the changing religion, culure, ethnicity and interpretations of history.  There is a lot of meaning beyond the pretty pictures.

Anyway, these mosaics are true classics, since they incorporate ideas and personality of generations long past.  They need explanation.  We may never get the meaning "right" but we can find the meaning nevertheless.

September 03, 2009

New Media's Reach Exceeds It's Grasp

Measuring success in public affairs is hard because we don't control all, or even most of the key factors. Beyond that, we are essentially trying to measure a cascading set of conditional probabilities, each more fuzzy than the one before.  First we are trying to measure attitudes that nobody really understands.   Then we are asking where those attitudes come from.  After that we want to know the strength of the conviction and how attitude make practical differences.   Do they change behaviors or outcomes?    Complicating analysis is that effects may be significantly separated from the causes in both time and space and you have to account for the effects of temporary circumstances and random chance. 

You begin to see the problem?  All we really need to care about is what people do, but to explain that adequately, we have to consider all the things mentioned above.    

Does the Rooster Make the Sun Rise?

It only gets worse. Public affairs can be a little like peeing in the Pacific Ocean saying it caused the rising tide and practitioners, me included, can sometimes strut like roosters taking credit for the sunrise.  In other words, we are not sure how the attitudes affected behavior, nor are we sure where those attitudes came from or the strength of conviction.  On top of that we are trying to figure out how our small input created a big output.  

Not that we are always merely mendacious when taking credit, BTW.  Public affairs is indeed all about leverage.   Very small input can often create monumental outputs using leverage of the public affairs environment as it pulls in outside resources.   Even this good thing, however, is just another problem for measurement.  The equation would look like this. 

Our input + lots of other resources we don't control + luck + time = output, which MAY grow into a useful outgrowth.   We cannot control most of the factors in this equation and often cannot even know what they are, so instead we measure the reach (not the effectiveness) of OUR own inputs. Let me illustrate with one of my usual examples, not surprisingly an oak tree 

Mighty Oaks From Tiny Acorns Grow - But a Bushel of Acorns is Not an Oak Forest

If I plant an acorn, it may grow into a mighty oak.  How much credit do I deserve?  Maybe a squirrel would have planted an acorn if I didn’t.  Maybe one would just grow by itself.  Besides that,  I didn’t make the acorn.  I didn’t create the soil.   I cannot control the rain nor can I anticipate every destructive storm nor control all the bugs.  The oak tree will grow according to its form and DNA.   I cannot demand that it become a pine tree. In fact there is little I can do expect remove obstacles to it becoming the best it can be.   But if you come back 100 years later, maybe some kid will say, “My grandfather planted that tree.” 

In public affairs we are not dealing with acorns.  Our analogous measure is reach.   We can get a reasonably good measure of the number of people who COULD have received our message.   It doesn’t mean they DID receive our message or that they paid any attention.   So reach is a problematic measure. 

Don't Count the Same Guys too Many Times

A look at Facebook shows examples of opportunity, challenge & problems associated with this kind of measurement. You might have a thousand friends or a big rock star might have a million fans.  But how much are they getting the messages?  We also habitually overestimate the connections.  If you have 100 Facebook friends and each of them has 100 friends, you do not have 100 x 100 or 10,000 friends because the sets overlap.  If your friends are also each other's friends you may have only 100 in total. Overlap is usually not 100% and the real number is probably more than just 100, but it is far less than 10,000.   

Reach is not a very useful measure, but we like it because it is a relatively easy number to find or estimate AND it tends to be the largest number we are can get, especially if we engage in some willful ignorance about human attention spans and math 101 concepts of overlapping sets, as above.    

Reach Exceeds Grasp

And reach is relatively easy to astro-turf, especially in the new media.  There is an interesting article talking about how you can BUY Facebook friends and fans for as little as $.076 and $.085 respectively.  What reach!  If you have big bucks you can reach the all the world in theory.  Who can you blame if your reach exceeds your grasp, if you have a million fans who cannot remember your name or hear your message? 

Hey, the numbers are good, even if they probably overlap and may represent meaningless relationships.  We might become a little suspicious if our extrapolated fan bases (i.e. our estimate of our own fans to the exponent of their fans & friends) exceeded the total population of the earth, but achieving that might take a couple of months anyway.   

I am not saying we should not rejoice at successful numbers, but let's not try to fool others and let's not fool ourselves.  Reach provides ONLY the opportunity to engage and engagement provides only the opportunity to communicate and communication provides only to opportunity to make a difference.  You need to start with the acorns, but that doesn't mean you automatically have a grove of big oak trees.

September 02, 2009

Continuous Improvement Makes Everything Look Bad Looking Back

Here we are again in the spasms of self-flagellation about how we treat (or mistreat) people who have planned and sometimes carried out the murder of many of our citizens. We worry that revelations about harsh tactics used to get information from some of them may have damaged our international reputation and there are calls for a full scale investigation to uncover and reveal additional details. As long as we do such things - the argument goes - we cannot hold the moral high ground nor expect cooperation from others.  The ends don't justify the means.  Actions speak louder than words. 

But actions must be framed and interpreted, and that requires words and analysis. Sometimes the reason something is done does make a difference and the some ends can justify some means. I believe we make a big error in framing our actions by demanding, and letting others demand, a measure of perfection not attainable among humans.   In those terrible times after 9/11, I think the U.S. showed amazing restraint, even after we captured soem of those who planned the attacks that killed thousands of Americans.  Under passionate circumstances, and even under normal ones, mistakes are made.   Humans overreact, over respond and overreach, and things done in the passion of one situation may seem stupid or even evil after those circumstances have passed. 

We go over and over our mistakes, often very publicly, and say that it is a sign of strength to do so.  We allow a successful program to be “ruined” by one mistake or even one insensitive action or even one remark that could be interpreted as insensitive. We may be acting honorably or we may be overlooking the fundamental nature of error and improvement. Maybe we are doing both.  

You have to refine and re-refine what you do to minimize the scope of errors and also - of you really want improvment - you have to minimize the finding of blame.  Even a very rigorous system cannot eliminate all error.  And we have an additional caveat. While this total quality approach is great for physical processes and assembly operations, it still doesn’t work as well in emotion or politically sodden human affairs and it especially doesn’t work when you have adversaries.  Focus on your errors gets to be like trying to understand a contact sport from only from one perspective.  Every contestant is going to make mistakes, get hurt and inflict pain.  If you fail to look at the whole picture, even the champion will look like the loser by those criteria taken in isolation.

We justifiably complain that we don’t live up to our own high standards.   But that is in the nature of complicated systems, especially human systems.  An after-action analysis will always find flaws.    Mistakes should be identified and corrected and then we need to move on, avoiding the twin errors of glossing over mistakes or being blinded by them.  Learning and improving only takes place in that middle ground between treating errors as terrible sins and ignoring them as inconsequential.

I want to be very careful to underscore that I am not advocating lowering our standards.   America should and does hold to the highest standards and we can only improve setting the bar higher than we can presently achieve.  But I think we open the door too far for criticism when we allow some of the nastiest despots and terrorist to assume the high ground of victimhood.  It is the old problem of moral equivalence.  A man who takes a pencil from his office and the one who embezzles a million dollars are both stealing from their employers. But they are not really the same.

Every judgment needs to include the “compared to what?” question. If we allow the frame to be a comparison to some theoretical perfection, we will always come up short. We can always imagine something better than we can achieve.  And ironically the more we work to improve - i.e. the higher the standards we set - the worse we look in relation to our own every rising goals.  The more postitive achievement you make, the worse everything else looks.

August 23, 2009

Big Mac Index

Big Mac IndexWe are always trying to measure things and make comparisons.  Our measurements should be accurate but more important is that they are useful.  Sometimes we study things for the fun of it, but that is a luxury.   For practical professional business we should not bother to do research unless we can and are willing to use the resulting information to change our behaviors.

It is often true that large organizations do research that they don’t use. Sometimes it is because what it measures is just too big or impossible to influence.  We often prefer to be involved with the big things rather than those we can really do something about. Beyond that, something consultants would prefer not become generally accepted is that Some of the most useful research is really simple and often free.

The Economist publishes a “Big Mac Index”.     The idea is that Big Macs are sold similar all over the world and available pretty much worldwide.    It is not scientific but it is useful.  You can guess about how much it will cost you to visit the city and how much local currencies are overvalued or undervalued in relation to the U.S.

Now they have a variation. Instead of the cost, it shows how many minutes an average worker has to work to afford the big Mac in his city. It turns some of the relationships around.   America is the cheapest in terms of time spent to earn the Big Mac because Americans are well paid in relation to what they buy.  It takes an average American just over ten minutes to earn enough to buy a Big Mac.  Interestingly, Tokyo is second cheapest.  Everybody knows that things are really expensive in Japan, but the Japanese make a lot of money and Big Macs are relatively cheap.   

Take a look at the article.   You get a different idea when you just look at how much the Big Mac costs.  See the article about that here.

The whole idea of the Big Mac Index is based on purchasing power parity.   For those unfamiliar with the concept, it measures how much you can actually buy with a particular currency.    Supposedly, you should be able to buy the same things in each currency with the equivalent amount in another.   If 1 Euro = 1.40 dollars, in theory you should be able to buy $1.40 worth of stuff for one Euro.  In fact you cannot, which indicates that the Euro is overvalued compared to the dollar.    That is why it is expensive to travel in Europe and it explains why the Brits can usually save money (when you consider hotels, food etc) flying to Disney World in Orlando instead of crossing the much shorter distance to go to Euro Disney.

We created a “Banana Index” in Iraq, inspired by the Big Mac Index.  It was meant as a measure of security and progress rather than currency values, but it also had the virtues of being simple, inexpensive and useful.   I wrote a post about that and other forms of measurement we used.  

August 18, 2009

The People - United - Will Often be Shortsighted

Protest in Frankfurt Sept 2008

I got a taste of direct democracy when we lived in New Hampshire. Our little community still used septic tanks, which required regular maintenance and were leaking sewage into local waterways.  It made sense to connect them up to a larger municipal line.  After about five years, the change would pay for itself and after that it would yield consistent cost savings. 

The problem was the five-year payoff.  Some of the older or more mobile residents figured that they would not be around long enough to reap the benefits, which were far in the future but knew that they would be stuck with the upfront costs of the investments today.   So you get the picture right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  Old Mr. Parker, wearing his simple red plaid shirt, stands up in the town hall meeting to oppose the plan.  Nobody wants to be rude to the old guy and – besides - he is right.  Very likely HIS costs will outweigh HIS benefits.  

The fact is that reaching consensus on many hot issues is almost impossible. That is why they are hot issues.  The frustrating part is that everybody is right from his own perspective. There are no villains. People have figured it out right.

We see this in all large scale reforms and many small ones.   The most recent big examples were the aborted attempts to reform Social Security a few years ago and the probably truncated health care proposals we see today. The dynamics of the situations and even many of the participants (many now opposing health care reform opposed SS reform) are the same.  In both cases, opponents had correctly figured out that the changes would probably leave them net losers. Everybody saw the need to reform in general but everyone could also find places they would suffer in the details of any real world proposal. 

We don’t think rationally about gains and losses.  A loss generally causes a lot more pain than the pleasure we get from a similar gain.  That is why most people would act quicker to avoid the loss of $100 than they would to take advantage of the opportunity to gain it.   From the accounting standpoint, the two are identical. In both cases the subject has $100 less than they would have.  But it sure doesn’t seem the same.   Researchers have consistently shown this happens even in very serious situations and even the semantics makes a difference. People are much more likely to accept the need for an operation that has a 95% success rate than they are one that has 5% failure.   This aspect of human nature plays into every debate about political changes.  It is always powerful and it is always irrational.

Frankly I don’t think it is possible to make sweeping changes that are at the same time effective and popular, which is why Social Security reform failed and why health care will probably not achieve its objectives. Unfortunately, I think the same goes for climate change. Current benefits must be perceived to be significantly higher than costs, especially costs in the future or the logical choice is stand pat.   It might also make sense just to be caution. 

When you think about it, most change is potentially harmful. I can think of very few changes that would make me immediately much healthier, for example, but lots of things could happen to make me worse off.

That is why I think you have to go with incremental, imperfect and differential change.  Change a few key things at a time and see how they evolve.   It is a kind of iterative change where you learn from each step and then incorporate the learning into your next move. It takes a longer time and it is not as exciting.  Probably most problematic is that it is hard for any politician to get credit.  But it tends to work better.

It is really hard to get all the people, or even most of them, to do the right thing all at once.  All serious change starts with a small group of innovators and then spreads more widely. The people – united – will often be shortsighted.  (BTW, you have to chant that like the old student protestors used to)  But they are pretty good at making good individual decisions about what really matters to them and these add up to a lot.  Maybe they are right to resist the big changes.  A variety of ideas is better than one big one.

August 12, 2009

Anti-Isms & Bogus Assumptions

We fret a lot about anti-Americanism in my business.  And we watch every up and down blip in America’s image abroad.   But I have suffered a crisis of faith.  I no longer have faith that the GENERAL attitude U.S.  really matters very much and my years of weighing every permutation were as useful as charting waves on the surface of a lake.  I don’t believe the measures of the attitudes measure real attitudes, since they bounce around so widely and I don’t see that it translates much into any actual specific behaviors apart from gnashing of teeth and shouting. 

According to recent surveys, our national image was edging up before last year, but now it has surged, but it doesn’t seem to have changed what is happening in a practical sense. No surprise. Most people just do not act out of general beliefs, even if they really know what those beliefs are, itself a questionable assumption.  You also have to understand that people think about us a lot less than we think they do. Let me give you an example about others, which will take away some of the bias we might have from looking at ourselves.  

Let's put the shoes on the other feet.   Take a look at question # 20 and see what Americans think of various foreign countries.   Only 4% view China very favorably, but this is twice as much as the 2% who favor the Russians.   We like the Brits, but even they get only 41% very favorable, although if you add somewhat favorable you top 77% and only 4% are very unfavorable.    A majority of us even like the French (54% very or somewhat favorable).  So what does that mean to these countries?  Would you pay more for a computer made in France or UK (presuming you could find one) than you would for the Chinese-made model?   Would you favor a British over a Chinese job applicant for that reason alone?  I don’t think so.

You would base your judgment NOT on the GENERAL reputation, but rather on the SPECIFIC one you were considering.  Anything else would be ... stupid and bigoted.  Why should we assume that others would be that way toward us that we would find so odious in ourselves?  They say that all politics is local and so it is at least most public affairs.   Of course we know our reputation varies in the countries of the world, but also is variable in within every place, situation and individual based on specific circumstances. 

I remember seeing this paradoxical mix of emotions and reason in Iraq. The people said they wanted the U.S. to leave Iraq right away, but they wanted the Marines specifically guarding their homes to stay essentially forever. I think the wisdom on this is “Be careful what you wish for because you may get it.” That is why general sentiment often does not translate to concrete results.  People sometimes don't say what they believe and/or they question with their intellect what they know in their hearts. And sometimes they really just haven't thought it through.

I thought about all these things when I was reading this article.   We hear that the Chinese are moving money  all over the world and buying love in the developing world with their investments in infrastructure  and public works.   These investments often come with fewer strings attached (i.e. fewer demands for economic or human rights improvements) than similar investments from the U.S. or the EU. This makes the Chinese ostensibly more attractive partners to some sorts of governments and leaders who view democracy and humans rights with less enthusiasm.  We are exhorted to do something about this, although rarely specified is how, what or why.

But how’s it working for them, image wise? And what are the practical ramifications?  That’s hard to say about the image, but what you can do is count is the rising numbers of Chinese being attacked, targeted and even killed in places as disparate as Algeria and Zambia.  Ten years ago in Indonesia as many as 1500 Chinese were killed in race riots.   This stuff happens.  We just don’t read about it very much.   Both the Chinese investors and local authorities have some interests in not making a big deal about it.  Imagine if 1500 Americans were killed in anti-American riots.  It would be a big deal.   I bet we would pay attention and beat ourselves up with questions about “why do they hate us?” 

In places like Indonesia or Malaysia they have a long history of these sorts of ethnic tensions and periodic pogroms, but when you are talking about Algeria or Zambia you wouldn’t guess there were even enough Chinese around to provoke attacks.  Certainly they have not been around long enough to permit the development of deep-seated ethnic or national animosity. 

The evidence is that these troubles resulted from specific, local situations and events that got out of hand, not a general Chinese image problem that stretches from Algeria, through Zambia and Indonesia to Papua New Guinea and beyond. Properly addressing them would mean lots of local responses, none of them exactly the same. Causality regarding a practical overall image would probably run in the direction from the local to the general, not the other way around.   I think the wisdom on this is “watch you pennies and your dollars will look after themselves.”

So my faith in my profession is not gone, but I am zooming down more to ground level, maybe down to the dirt level.  Gone are the beliefs in sweeping transformations.    Sweeping rapid changes are ephemeral and episodic attention is probably pernicious.   What Aristotle said about anger (Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power, that is not easy.) also applies to public affairs.   You have to identify the specific issue and audience at the specific time and in a specific place. 

August 11, 2009

Practical + Theoretical = Useful New Stuff?

Franklin Statue at FSI 

I would like to bring together people for a conference including those who “do” public diplomacy using the new techniques and technologies such as augmented reality, social networking, text mining & mobile together along with those who develop and study those things in order to discuss practical applications.  

We need to discuss which technologies can be best used to deliver public diplomacy messages and that we and the larger public affairs community can use.  Integral to addressing these issues are our organizational and mission imperatives, which directly affect the extent of use and acceptance of new methods.  Not every new technology is useful for our work and not every useful technology can be used by us.

Subject clusters, along with notional times

8:30 – 9:00

Registration & seating

9 – 9:30

Introduction – new technologies and the new public diplomacy.    A discussion of what has worked so far and what is in the works for the next six months and beyond.

9:30-11:45 (with 15 minute break in middle)

The next big ideas - I envision a panel with an expert on each of these things giving a 15 minute explanation.  Following is a discussion among the panelists with questions from the floor.   We would ask what are the next big ideas and whether or not they are useful in public diplomacy. 

·         Augmented realty – what is it?  What does it do?  How might augmented reality augment public diplomacy?

·         Gaming platforms/virtual realities - what are they?  What is our public diplomacy experience in their use so far?   What are some future applications?  Will “holideck” functions come to dominate online collaboration?

·         Social networking systems - what are they?  What is our public diplomacy experience in their use so far?   What are some future applications?

·         “Old” new techniques (blogging, webpages, outreach) -- what are they?  What is our public diplomacy experience in their use so far?   What are some future applications?


Content – how much do messages matter?  Can a content neutral or content free social network long endure?   Is such a network worth cultivating?   How can it be used to further public diplomacy goals?  Where will content come from in a post-MSM world (this one is for the journalist and journalism professors)?  Can user-generated content replace professionally crafted material? 

12:45- 1:30



Putting it together – Panel session format as above

·         Integration/technological models – can one model encompass all/most forms of new technologies?   Can we understand the new technologies w/o an overall model or framework?  How can we determine the appropriate mix to use in various situations?

·         Integration/anthropological models – how do new techniques fit into and alter existing human networks & relationships, both inside and outside organizations?  

·         Integration/information management – can wikis function as information conduits and knowledge generators?  How will dispersed decision making change power structures and priority setting?   Can a series of tactical decisions become strategy?


Where do we go from here?  What is the future of public diplomacy?  Does public diplomacy need to be run by, or mostly run by, governments?  Can public diplomacy function successfully as only one voice among many? 

August 10, 2009

Is Viral Video Marketing Like Retirement Planning Based on Buying Lottery Tickets?

DC Lottery adverts on August 10, 2009 

Marketing firms (and some of us) are trying to crack the viral video code. To the extent there is a solution, it is like buying lottery tickets. You cannot win if you don't play. If you buy a lot of tickets, you increase your chances by a little, but any system for picking the right combination of numbers is just superstition.  And the only way to guarantee a win at the lottery is not to play. 

But people win just enough to keep the suckers piling in the cash.  The winners always have a plausible story to tell.   They often report that they were sure they were going to win that day, or at least they had a feeling.   Many have some kind of lucky number system, some quite complicated.   If you look at a group of lottery winners you can indeed find (or create) patterns among them.    (This is “survivor bias.”   In any kind of random event, somebody is going to win.   It doesn’t mean anything, but people will impose reasons ex-post facto.   The winner may even write a book explaining his system.   People following his precepts will have the same chances the lucky winner had of winning before he won.)

Besides the usually urgent need in need of dental work & gym memberships, most lottery winners are regular players with some sort of system.  Statistically this makes sense.   Regular players buy more tickets so they have a greater chance of winning as a group and most of them develop some sort of system.   But the group odds often don’t make sense when reduced to the individual level.  The odds of winning the big jackpot are so small that the actual difference between a person who buys a thousand tickets and the person who buys only one doesn’t add up to much for any individual.

Anyway, the chances that you can create a video that goes viral are a lot like your chances of winning the lottery.  And the odds will only get worse as more people enter the contest.    Millions of people are trying to crack this code because it would mean millions of dollars to any individual or firm that figured it out. But if they did, others would quickly pile on and pull the odds of success back up to astronomical.   The system is reactive & self-correcting.

It gets worse.  Most successful viral videos are – in a word – dopey.   Let me make a few distinctions.  There are three types of viral videos.   The first results if you happen to be on the spot to get a video of something truly spectacular, such as a plane crash or meteor strike.  The second involves celebrities, who command attention because of their fame.  The video rides on them, not the other way around.   The third type is the miscellaneous or the manufactured, which is the only kind available to non-celebrities who don’t happen to be near a plane crash or meteor strike. 

If you are trying to manufacture the viral part, you increase your odds mostly by doing something silly, humiliating, prurient or shocking.    This is not something most individual or organizations want to do.  It might be better to remain unknown than to be known for your ability to pass gas to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. 

So let’s treat the great viral video quest the way a reasonable person treats the lottery.  We should do it because it is fun.  Almost everybody has bought a lottery ticket.  You are buying a little piece of a dream and it is a good thing.   But if you are spending too much, even neglecting other things & taking out loans or planning your retirement around your lottery winnings, you are unlikely to have a happy ending.

August 08, 2009

Final End of USIA

Old USIA building now empty 

The United States Information Agency (USIA) was absorbed by State Department in 1999.  I was there when they took down the USIA eagle and prosaically renamed the building State Annex 44 (SA 44).  There was and still is a palpable feeling of loss among some of my colleagues and I miss some parts of my old agency, but not much. By the time of the anschluss with State, there was not much left of USIA worth saving. USIA suffered truly horrible top-leadership through the 1990s and they wrecked the place.  We closed our libraries, shut branch posts, let our contact networks atrophy, laid off experienced FSNs and the director seemed actively hostile to hiring new public affairs officers; by 2000 there were only around half as many of us as there had been ten years before.  

Our fearless leaders were under a general impression that since we had won the Cold War we didn’t need relics like public affairs anymore. After 9/11/2001 we found we were wrong and suffered mightily from our compromised ability to communicate with foreign publics.  But all that is history.   

I think we are better off integrated into State Department. But I still remember with nostalgia and pride coming into the USIA almost a quarter century ago, so the final closing of our offices in the old USIA building makes me sad. We are moving out next week and my group is the last to go. It is finally finished.

Old USIA building clearing out 

Tim Receveur took a few pictures of the end of days at SA 44 and you can see them on this post. There is a kind of Twilight Zone feeling to the old place.  We will be moving to a new building across from the Harry Truman Building.  The offices are nicer, but the location is worse. SA 44 is in a great place. The Orange Line is nearby and you always get a seat on the way home since you board before the big crowds get on after Metro Center. Gold’s Gym is a few minute walk. We are near the Mall, as well as restaurants.  Our new building is near nothing. The State cafeteria is not very good and it is a little expensive for what you get. I will adapt. I just need to find a place to lock my bike and take a shower.  

USIA has been gone for ten years, now the building is recycled and all its denizens scattered and relocated. I guess that's all there is.  Move along. Nothing left to see. Only a vague rememberance of past glories.

August 04, 2009

The Four Ps of Marketing (and Public Diplomacy)

Jet stream in the sky above Balston 

I was talking to some marketing guys the other day who told me that we should market America like a brand.  We should listen to our customers and make sure we create products the market wants.   I understand this, but there are a few problems with this formulation, not least of which is that America is greater than any brand.  We are something special and we should not prim and trim ourselves to win ephemeral popularity. But that aside, government, especially the U.S. government has fewer "marketing" options.    

Marketers used to talk about the Four Ps: product, price, promotion and place.  Executives supposedly control those four things and can deploy them and rearrange them to maximize the attractiveness and sales of their products.    As a government “executive” I control none of those things. 

Our “product” the U.S. and its policies, is determined by forces way beyond our small ability to add or detract.  I don’t have the ability to alter it to suit changing or local conditions and probably would not want to.   Our product will not always be popular and sometimes very unpopular.  People engaged in actual armed conflict against us or our interests are probably signaling that they are not happy with the "product" on offer, which illustrates the other important difference in the product category.  A marketer never has to appeal to everybody while government is stuck with everybody in the marketing universe.  The private sector supports many options and people can choose.  If you don’t like Coke Zero, don’t drink it. Opting out of government is not so easy.

How about price?  We don't have one.  We usually think of price as something that limits or stimulates demand, but its most important function is the information it conveys about relative scarcity and attractiveness of the product and its components.  People can easily lie to pollster and often deceive themselves, but when they have to put down the cash, they tend to reveal their true preferences.  Price is a better indicator than polling but we just don’t have that information and have to look to proxies and polls, which are always imperfect and usually behind the curve.

Place is determined by policies (above) and geography.  Conditions and adversaries often determine where we have to engage.  But we do have some flexibility in location.   We can choose to emphasize particular things in particular places.  Of course, we suffer significant leakage.    Information markets are not separate and we rarely have the luxury of being ignored by those not in the target audience.    We also have the problem of having actual enemies who refuse to stay in the places we would prefer of them.    In fact, a significant amount of overall governmental energy involves fixing some of these guys in place (often followed by neutralizing them, but that is not my department).

Promotion is what is left most for us and that is closest to what we do.  Of course, we are not unconstrained even here, but this is the area of greatest freedom of action. Public diplomacy could be included as a subset of national promotion.   

So we are essentially left with two of the four Ps (place & promotion) and not even in firm control of either of them.  Next time you hear somebody talk about the the American image as something that can be branded or marketed as a product, remind them of how real marketing works and the real marketing constraints.   Despite it all,  we still manage to produce some successes. It reminds me of the Samuel Johnson saying about a dog walking on two legs.  It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

July 29, 2009

Hierarchy & Order

Totem pole at SmithsonianHierarchy has long been unpopular - even among those who benefit most and enforce it most enthusiastically on others - and it is especially loathed by those who see themselves as low men on the totem pole (and even high men feel like that sometimes). It violates our fundamental feelings of fairness and equality. 

Besides, none of us really likes being told what to do or when to do it and that is what hierarchy implies.  Being against hierarchy also brings with it the appealing opportunity of “sticking it to the man.” 

We all enjoy that, since even the most timid and conventional people think of themselves as free spirits or rebels. Hierarchy is easily abused, easily ridiculed and easily hated, but you have to have some of it because we have to choose priorities and we have to set standards.

The establishment of a type of hieratical order is part of all human & natural systems.  After some kind of disturbance or radical change there is a lot of chaos and experimentation.   It is an exciting time.   It is also full of uncertainty and waste, since many of the experiments will fail and many of the paths chosen will lead to dead ends.   After a while, a pattern asserts or reasserts itself.   Some patterns may be very persistent, lasting a long time until knocked down by outside forces or sometimes they just kind of wear out on their own.   I won’t go into the principles of natural succession or various theories of historical dynamics.  Suffice to say that this is what happens and this is what we are now experiencing.

I have written a lot about the new media being applied to public diplomacy because we are currently in one of those exciting transition times.   Lots of people are trying lots of things and even more people are talking about, pretending to or “going to” try lots of things.   We are reaching out in many directions and in many of those directions it is becoming clear that our reach is exceeding our grasp.   And as the management guru James March wrote, “The protections for the imagination are indiscriminate. They shield bad ideas as well as good ones—and there are many more of the former than the latter. Most fantasies lead us astray, and most of the consequences of imagination for individuals and individual organisations are disastrous.”

Now comes the hard part of trying to create some patterns and order in the chaos w/o chocking off the imagination and initiative that fuels all this innovation.

This is a rough and narrow path to walk, especially for us.  Government is not especially relaxed about innovation but is exceedingly comfortable with hierarchy.  Government, after all, is hierarchical by nature because its main function is to determine who is in charge with the power to set priories and limit options.  If you don’t believe me, think of why we have laws, rules and regulations and what institution is the final legitimate authority in creating and enforcing them.

Anyway, I hope that we (and I am referring very broadly.  I don’t have much overall influence on this) have the wisdom to pull off this important transition change and can expand the use of new media to promote our country’s interests, but I fear that there will be less total life in the system a year from today than there is now.

July 23, 2009

New Media: Exceeding the Carrying Capacity

Zebra and Lions have the repetitive task of trying to find the various types of new media outreach. The constant change means the job is never done and it is getting bigger all the time.   But it is like the expanding area of a balloon as you blow it up.  As we expand the area we cover, we are simultaneously thinning out coverage.   This goes for any kind of new media and, in fact, for any media in general.   It is a broadly applicable formulation.  But I am observing this most with wikis, so I will talk mostly about them, with the stipulation that it is more broadly related to any attempts to aggregate knowledge. 

Everybody seems to have discovered the wiki concept and is trying to put this useful model to work in the service of aggregating their particular knowledge and making it useful to the members of their organizations.   But there is a problem with the proliferation of wiki style systems.  A wiki exists in a kind of ecological relationship with its customers.   In order to be healthy, each wiki requires enough interested and knowledgeable people to contribute their experience.    If the population of potential contributors is too thin, or there are too many wikis competing for their attention, wikis will be unhealthy.    (It is like too many zebras eating the too little grass & too many lions trying to eat them) Articles will not be updated.  Not enough will be contributed and the advantages of the wisdom of the crowds will be lost.

Most people are passive consumers who do not contribute to wikis and the smaller number of contributors passes through stages of enthusiasm and burnout.   Even if they retain their desire to write, they may exhaust their store of useful knowledge they have to share.  That is why you need a much larger population of potential contributors than most parts of any organization or even most entire organization can provide.   

Of course, we are assuming we even have passive consumers.   Many wikis are imposed by a boss who has just read some management literature about the necessity of becomes a learning organization or by someone trying to impress that boss.  They may start out well, with a few good postings, but w/o the large community using them, they quickly atrophy.     A wiki is a network good that increases in value as more people sign on.  If users wander off after a few visits, or never come at all, there is no living wiki. 

I don’t think we should try to eliminate little wikis or interfere with their proliferation, but we should break down the barriers among them.  Some people might prefer to contribute on a specialized platform.  This is okay, as long as there are no difficult walls to climb walls that keep some participants out and others in.   In this case, I believe that wikis will merge.  The specialized ones will not become extinct, but rather be subsumed into the larger ones. 

One of the most formidable walls is mere ignorance.   It may be that a specialized or small wiki doesn’t actually wall out potential users, but others just don’t know that it exists.  I frequently find that smaller groups boast that their wikis are so great but unnoticed … that exist for a time in splendid isolation and soon pass, still unnoticed into oblivion.

It is like that doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove.   You have to tell people about it or it doesn't work.

July 22, 2009

New Media: Common Sense & Walled Gardens

Walled garden in Istanbul  

Lots of things are easy when you don’t have to do them yourself.  In theory it is easy to lose weight (eat less/move more), save money (just say no) and be reasonably successful (work hard/avoid bad habits).Nobody should be fat, sad or poor, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The same is true of using the new media.It is really easy, as long as you don’t have to produce results.As with most good v bad habits, the solution to all our problems is simple, just not easy.

I include the caveat paragraph since I am about to proffer some of the advice and lessons I took away from the new media workshop and everybody will know it already.  They are actually about all communications.   The new media just amplifies them. (To err is human, but to really screw up you need computer or government support.  We have both.)  Like the good advice about eating less and moving more in order to lose weight, these are not profound thoughts, but they bear repeating because they are the simple things that everybody knows we should do, but not many people really do.  Here are a few.  They overlap. 

·    Engage before you explain.  This is the simple idea of tuning in to your audience. I talked about it more extensively in my post a couple days ago. I don’t think I have ever met anybody who doesn’t “know” this, but most communications efforts remain inwardly driven.   We are telling them what we (or our bosses) want them to hear in the manner and on the media that we like best.    

·    Use information you gather about your audience or don’t bother to gather it. This is a corollary to the first point. I have observed that organizations often do not fail to gather information, but the fail to gather useful information.  If you cannot or will not change your approach based on the information you obtained from research, it is worse than useless, since you have wasted the time and money you spent on the study AND lulled yourself into a false feeling of security.

·    Connect all the parts of your organization, but leave them autonomy.  This is a variation on the “In Search of Excellence” formula or simultaneous loose and tight controls in a learning organization. It is made more relevant in the new media age by the various technologies, such as wikis and blogs that leadership can use to communicate with a light or heavy hand. 

·    Don’t build walled gardens. It is tempting to create your own systems or groups using technologies and techniques perfectly suited to your own unique situation. Don’t. You are probably less unique than you think you are and beyond that you almost certainly cannot keep up with technical improvements that will make even the most exquisite made-to-order system obsolete in a few months. Besides building a walled garden will almost certainly keep out other ideas (see the first point above.) 

·    Leverage existing systems and products. You can still have a great garden w/o the walls.  There are always existing communities where you can participate and after you have participated maybe invite others into your own system to participate with you.   Remember that there are always more smart people outside the organization than within it.

·    Be platform flexible.   Your message is important, not the medium it is delivered on. You have to be flexible enough to choose the appropriate delivery mechanisms and not fall in love with any one of them. They pass quickly.  Just ask Jeeves. 

·    Give up some control.  If you want to influence others, you have to be prepared to be influenced by them.  My way or the highway works only in rare instances and if you demand what you think is perfection; you may soon find that you have that perfection all to yourself, since everybody else has wandered away from you.   

·    Try lots of things and know that most of what you try will fail, usually publicly, sometimes spectacularly.  Revel in it.  Embrace it. It is impossible to predict outcomes in the new media. Even if you had perfect knowledge of the current situation, it will change in unexpected and unknowable ways. The best strategy is a statistical one of spreading your bets and then responding to changes as they happen, rather than try to set out with certainty in advance. Those who try nothing, get nothing and it is small consolation that they are never wrong.  

Have I written anything that wasn’t simple or that you didn’t know already?  Why don’t we do it? 

July 20, 2009

Engagement: Seek First to Understand is habit # 5 of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective people and it is highly effective when communicating with others. Seek first to understand and then be understood.   We need to be reminded of this simple rule and encouraged to apply it to different situations.  When trying to communicate in the new media, it is especially important because the age of the semi-captive media audience is over. People have options beyond three channels and the hometown newspaper.   

Organizations and individuals accustomed to wielding power are particularly likely to forget the necessity of seeking first to understand. Government organizations can compel attention and we usually think our messages are so important that we have the right to interrupt and just start telling our story. This can bring short term results in terms of notice and attention, but it just doesn’t work for long term persuasion. People learn to filter out what they don’t want. We have to get into the subjects & venues where our potential audiences are already interested in participating. After we build trust, or at least after they get used to us, we can make more useful & credible contributions. 

As you can see from my recent posts, I am back thinking about on the new media. This time it is because I just finished a very good course on new media at FSI. We discussed some practical how-to topics like how to properly use hash tags in Twitter or the strategic use of key-terms. I also learned a few fascinating things about commonly used technologies such as Google. For example, I had no idea that there was a function called “wonder wheel” where you can see the types of subjects associated with a term you Google. I did myself and found that the associated terms made general sense.

All this is related to search engine optimization that makes it more likely that your information will come near the top of a Google or Yahoo search.   No matter what you think of the social media, most people probably still find you based on search engines. Google is the most successful search engine – for now – but it keeps it algorithm for determining ranks a secret and changes it when anybody starts to figure it out.   The basic structure, however, is that it is a kind of information market mechanism.  As in a market, not all the inputs are equal. In Google it matters if a lot of people read your posts, but it is much more complicated. It matters more who links to your posts AND who they are.   So if you want to be high on the search engine, you need to be popular and credible (or notorious) enough that people link to you. 

Anyway, it was more a seminar than technical training. You can figure out how to do most of the new media by yourself, so you don’t really need “hands-on training.  You mainly need to discuss the appropriate mix of media and what they are good for in public affairs and that is what we got. this was the first rendition of this particular course and it was one of the best FSI courses I ever attended.   We had a very good instructor called Eric Schwartzman. Do click on the link and read about him.   He was passionate about the subject, engaged and very interesting, and he brought some insights from the private sector to our government mindsets, as you see above, but I also think he was impressed with how much we in State Department have been using the new media.

The more I see what others are doing (or not) I really think that State is a leader in applying new media to public affairs. We did a live webcast of a presidential visit from Warsaw in 2001 and I know others were there before us.  (We were probably TOO early on this one and it went largely unnoticed.)  We have been building our social networks using webchats and outreach for several years and we got into Facebook and Twitter almost as soon as they were generally available.  I am very interested in our internal Wiki, called Diplopedia. It is really getting good and I have been using it to find out things I need to know about our activities and the Department. As I have been writing in other posts, we have been working on these things for long time, but they are now reaching critical mass and takeoff stages, phase shifts. 

My picture, BTW, is the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  It was built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian the Great.  Istanbul is one of my favorite places.  It is a place of wonder with its mix of Turkey with the lost civilizations of the Greeks and Romans who were there for thousands of years before ... and then were gone.  It is a place think about understanding.

July 19, 2009

New Media: No Garden w/o the Gardener

New media, social media, no matter what we call it everybody loves it. It is revolutionizing communications with the public and within organizations.  Whole theories of management are developing on how leaders have to use new media tools to run their organizations. 

But there is a flaw in how it is usually portrayed and I fear how it is understood. New media is often treated as a technique, section or method that is separable from the rest of the organization.    Organizations have computing and IT departments, why not a new media department?  Create a capacity, put some specialists in charge of it, and then let it work on its own.   

The problem is that the new media already permeates everything & cannot be separated or put on autopilot. It cannot be deployed by management and then left to do its work because communication is the essence of management and the new media has become integral to communications. If leadership gives the new media to someone else, they will also be giving them the real leadership. 

I am not saying that the boss will need to master all the nuts-and-bolts of the technologies.  The beauty of the new media is that the applications have become much simpler as the technologies have become more complicated. Most people do not understand how their car or their telephones work – technically – but they can use them just fine.   

I remember hearing a story about a guy who wanted a garden that would just take care of itself while he would get the benefit of flowers, fruits and vegetables. It just doesn’t work that way.   The gardener can pass some of the digging and hoeing to others but he has to specify the types of produce he wants and has to understand enough about the system to know what results he can expect.    The analogy with new media is that leadership has to be using the new media.   You cannot get the advantages of real time, hands-on experience by reading the report a couple of weeks later.   You cannot just deploy and forget. There is no garden w/o a gardener.   

I did recently find this somewhat contrary opinion, however.