Saturday, February 13, 2010

Handbook of Public Diplomacy

For those of you interested in exploring Public Diplomacy, I highly recommend the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (2010).*

Here's a quick synopsis of some of the chapters I've read -- food for thought.

Chapter 6 - Exchange Programs and Public Diplomacy
Giles Scott-Smith

Scott-Smith rather cynically argues that politics pervade all public and citizen diplomacy initiatives. “…Even the most politically neutral of exchanges, such as those between high schools," he writes, "have either political intent behind their creation or are promoted for the purpose of developing cross-border relations that can subsequently lead to political outcomes, such as a reduction in conflict."

While it is true that such exchanges may have a politically beneficial consequence, I hesitate to describe their 'intent' as inherently political. While the term 'diplomacy' necessarily suggests the relationship between nation-states or, perhaps, at the individual level, national identities, there seems to be a tendency within public diplomacy discussion to conflate the interests of the American citizen/individual with the American foreign policy agenda. I would argue that the cross-cultural exchange and learning efforts initiated by non-governmental educational and cultural groups are primarily motivated by an interest in the edification of their members
and the people with whom they will exchange their ideas, customs, practices, interests.

Chapter 10 - Mapping out a Spectrum of Public Diplomacy Initiatives: Information and Relational Communication Frameworks

R. S. Zaharna

Zaharna identifies public diplomacy as a communication phenomenon, as well as a political one. The chapter clarifies two trends in public diplomacy that speak to the difference I tried to distinguish above in my response to Scott-Smith. Zaharna writes that what emerges in the range of public diplomacy initiatives are “two underlying perspectives of communication. One perspective (the Information Framework) tends to view communication as a linear process of transferring information often with the goal of persuasion or control. The other perspective (the Relational Framework) sees communication as a social process of building relationships and fostering harmony." While Scott-Smith would put all educational exchanges into the first category, I would argue (and Zaharna would probably agree) that many of them fall into the second.

That being said, it's important for those of us in this field not to be naive about the 'frames' and 'lenses' through which our information is filtered. Much of what we might take for unbiased communication comes through channels designed and maintained as tools for the dissemination of government-sponsored information. The British Broadcasting Corporation is a prime example. So many Americans I know insist that the BBC is the best source of information about world events, without recognizing its political bias.

By the same token, the Peace Corps model exhibits all of Zaharna's characteristics of the Relational Framework, and yet it is undoubtedly a government-initiated public diplomacy effort--one that follows Scott-Smith's advice:

“Whatever the goals they are intended to achieve, exchanges are best kept independent from any sense of direct political interference and obligation in order to maintain the integrity of the participants and the credibility of the programmes themselves. Whereas propaganda refers to the deliberate manipulation of information to achieve a desired result, exchanges are (ideally) the most two-way form of public diplomacy, opening up spaces for dialogue and the interchange of alternative viewpoints.”

*I've got Emerson's copy, so you can't check it out until I'm done reading it!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

News? Public Relations? Front page ad?

iPhone helps report street-level woes

In The Press Effect, the authors cite Douglas Cater who called the press the "fourth branch of government" (p. 95). This front-page feature article in today's Boston Globe represents the media's complicated relationship with government and is also a good example of multiple layers of meaning and benefit that an article like this can represent and provide.
On the surface, this article is about a new iPhone app called "Citizens Connect" that allows residents of Boston to identify "street-level" problems and alert local government to public maintenance needs. Very cool! The article includes a giant color map of the mobile reports that have been made since the app was launched in October.
The article also serves as a positive public relations tool for Mayor Menino, as it explains that the creation of this app was an initiative of the mayor's office, (despite Menino's refusal "to use email or allow voice-mail at City Hall.") [What?! and he was elected for a 5th term??!! anyway...] The placement of the article as the lead story on the front page, with color photos and graphics on the front as well as inside pages, gives the initiative prominence and importance. One has to acknowledge that in addition to the "news" value of a story like this--and the initiative IS great, who can deny it--there is also great benefit for the mayor and to the city government in such a positive story about what they are doing to solve the city's problems. On this level, (propaganda?) it would not surprise me if the entire content of this story was written up in a press release by the mayor's office, with the few quotes sprinkled through the article representing the reporter's contribution to the story.
And who else benefits from such praise? iPhone, of course. This app is a "public service" that only works on one particular type of equipment. Poor me, without an iPhone! I cannot do my civic duty to report the pothole I have to jump across to catch the bus! "It gives me this feeling of being instantly gratified," says Heather Sears. "I feel like I'm armed and helpful, because I've got this tool and I can make an instant difference." Suddenly, my ability to be a gratified, helpful citizen who makes a difference is impeded by the lack of an appliance.
I want instant gratification. I'd better run out and buy an iPhone.