Friday, April 13, 2018

Soft Power and Hard Targets

Joe B. Johnson, Public Diplomacy Council

image from article

Occasionally I co-lead a strategy workshop for State Department practitioners of public diplomacy [JB emphasis].  Each participant brings a topic and develops it into a public diplomacy campaign over five days; it’s learning by doing.
The hardest thing for our students – both Foreign Service Officers and locally-hired staffers – is to define a clear objective and then determine their degree of success.
That’s important these days.  Congress now expects accountability, and public servants worth their salt want to know and demonstrate that their work is effective.  Public diplomacy work is mostly oriented toward substantive issues with specific host-country groups and institutions.  Here are examples of topics from a recent workshop.
  • Help the partner government develop capacity to defend against cyber attacks
  • Empower young people to tackle corruption in local government
  • Encourage a NATO ally to increase the number of women serving in its armed forces
  • Encourage and empower alumni of Summer Work Travel programs to start their own businesses
Ideas like these may be new to audiences in the host country.  So a recent article in Harvard Business Review caught my attention.
Arthur C. Brooks, the President of American Enterprise Institute (AEI), described an evolution in his approach at the helm of this Washington think tank.  He decided that to justify AEI’s value to supporters, the organization needed to find new ways to assess whether the articles, white papers, and media appearances produced by its scholars were making an impact in the realm of ideas.  That’s not unlike the challenge for public diplomacy.
Brooks eventually decided that this meant going beyond counting media placements – an output commonly used as a metric – and finding new ways to discover who was paying attention to them. That enriched my thinking as I try to help our PD staffers observe their audiences and measure their success.
Our methods differ from “sharp power” operators like Russia and China.  There are legal constraints on the information we may collect, and our programs are open and attributed.  But public diplomacy is there to support U.S. interests, not just to garner good will.  So applying the right indicators and taking time to measure success according to national security interests is essential.
Moreover, it’s the best way to listen to our audiences.  And everyone prefers a partner who not only talks, but also listens.

Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy.

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