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PDAA Honors Outstanding Public Diplomacy Initiatives

by Domenick DiPasquale

The recipients of this year’s Awards for Achievement in Public Diplomacy were featured in a Virtual First Monday program on May 4, 2020. To view the recording, go to

Whether engaging difficult to reach audiences in the Middle East, countering Russian disinformation in the Baltics, or resetting a historically contentious bilateral relationship in Africa, the recipients of the 2020 PDAA Awards for Achievement in Public Diplomacy used a mix of outside-the-box thinking, deep understanding of their audiences, and superb leadership abilities to demonstrably advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.

“This year’s recipients have shown particularly impressive ingenuity, given the conditions they are working under,” said PDAA President Joel Fischman. “Budgets are woefully inadequate, and many officers and Locally Employed Staffers have had to carry on virtually, at a distance, because of security concerns and now the coronavirus. Their creativity, perseverance, and commitment to their goals bode well for the continuing high standards of our profession.”

The four recipients are:

  • Zennia Paganini, Public Affairs Officer, Yemen Affairs Unit (based at Embassy Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)
  • Public Affairs Section, Embassy Luanda, Angola
  • Meghan Luckett, Assistant Public Affairs Officer, Embassy Vilnius, Lithuania
  • Riad Yazbeck, Cultural Affairs Specialist, Embassy Beirut, Lebanon

Zennia Paganini – Yemen Affairs Unit

ABOVE; PAO Zennia Paganini with Yemeni students in Cairo.
RIGHT: front page of the Houthi newspaper headlined “What Are The American Embassies Planning?!”. Paganini is on the left and Yemen Affairs Unit Ambassador Christopher Henzel is on the right.

The ongoing multi-year civil war between the central Yemeni government and insurgent Houthi forces led to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2015. Working from this embassy-in-exile, PAO Zennia Paganini singlehandedly has maintained American influence and a ‘virtual’ presence not only among Yemenis still in country but also among the Yemeni diaspora scattered throughout the Middle East.

Paganini has used virtual platforms to reach audiences inside Yemen, such as the network of English-language professionals and students built up over the years, and in-person programming among key Yemeni contacts in exile. An example of the latter was a day-long workshop for 32 Riyadh-based Yemeni journalists on the theme of promoting peace and tolerance with social media.

With a majority of Yemenis younger than 30, Paganini created an initiative called MAP – Make a Place for Yemeni Youth – that works to educate diaspora youth, support Yemenis’ economic empowerment, and strengthen the country’s civil society institutions. Evidence of the effectiveness of this and other youth-oriented programs was found in an unlikely place: the front page of the Houthis’ official newspaper, showing Paganini with youth contacts and journalists in Riyadh and Cairo under a banner headline reading “What Are the American Embassies Planning?!”

Public Affairs Section – Embassy Luanda

Hip-hop artists Wordsmith with the local at-risk youth orchestra in Angola.

Angolan Vice President and U.S. Ambassador Nina Maria Fite giving a joint interview.

A historically contentious quarter-century relationship between the United States and Angola formed the backdrop for the work of PAO Deneyse Kirkpatrick and her seven Locally Employed Staff at Embassy Luanda. Using an array of public diplomacy tools, Kirkpatrick and her staff broke new ground in strengthening the Embassy’s relations with the Angolan government and opening new avenues of bilateral cooperation.

The initiative by Embassy Luanda’s public affairs section centered on the 2019 commemoration marking the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in the present-day United States. Programs ranging from a hip-hop artist to a cooking demonstration by a South Carolina chef to four performances by and national television coverage of the U.S. dance troupe Step Afrika! highlighted the two nations’ shared cultural heritage. The presence of the Angolan vice president and six cabinet officials at Step Afrika!’s final performance garnered major media attention.

Beyond such immediate impact, this public diplomacy initiative strengthened the potential of long-term institutional relationships. The president of Angola created an inter-ministerial commission to mark the 400th anniversary; a task force was organized to identify possible projects to be supported by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation; and an International Visitor leadership program exchange built institutional linkages between the Angolan Ministry of Culture and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Meghan Luckett – Embassy Vilnius

ABOVE: The November 2019 outdoor concert that was a centerpiece of the Laisves Banga public diplomacy campaign. Held in downtown Vilnius’ Lukiškių Square, it commemorated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
RIGHT: Laisves Banga means Wave of Freedom and the main graphic of the campaign was the wall (Iron Curtain) being knocked over and creating a domino effect (or wave) of freedom throughout Europe.

A relentless Russian campaign has targeted Lithuania with disinformation intended to stoke nostalgia for its Soviet past, drive wedges in Lithuanian society, and portray the country as a failed state rather than the modern democratic success story it is. Assistant PAO Meghan Luckett played a central role in Embassy Vilnius’s efforts to successfully counter this false narrative and remind Lithuanians, especially the younger generation, of the inspirational role their country played in unshackling other captive Soviet Bloc nations.

Luckett coordinated the Embassy’s support commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, the August 1989 event during which two million Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians joined hands to create a 650-kilometer-long human chain to peacefully protest Soviet occupation. She convinced the nation’s public broadcaster, LRT, to join the Embassy’s multi-dimensional “Courage To Be Free” campaign, immediately boosting that campaign’s visibility and impact.

Luckett also shepherded to fruition a major component of that campaign, an open-air concert attended by thousands in downtown Vilnius’ Lukiškių Square to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years earlier. Through repeat broadcasts and online access, the concert was ultimately viewed by 800,000 Lithuanians – more than a quarter of the country’s entire population.

Riad Yazbeck – Embassy Beirut

Cultural Affairs Specialist Riad Yazbeck meets with women from the Shia community in Lebanon.

Embassy Beirut’s senior cultural affairs specialist Riad Yazbeck visits an English language class in Akkar, Lebanon, that is part of Embassy Beirut’s Teaching Women English program. The program is part of the Embassy’s effort to bring American cultural and social values to the most vulnerable segments of Lebanese society.

Riad Yazbeck, the senior cultural affairs specialist at Embassy Beirut, capitalized on his personal connections in Lebanon’s Shia community to advance not just public diplomacy initiatives but also the Embassy’s political reporting on this major player in Lebanese politics – the sect considered most at risk for violent extremism due to the influence of Hizballah and Iran over many of its members.

When months-long civil unrest erupted in Lebanon in 2019, Yazbeck’s network of contacts among the Shia allowed him to collect extensive information about Shia participation in the protests despite Hizballah restrictions. Yazbeck used this information to draft a reporting cable on the Shia involvement; this cable was included in top-level briefing materials for the Secretary of State and recently was cited in the Presidential Daily Brief.

With this analysis showing there had been misconceptions about Lebanon’s Shia population and its degree of allegiance to Hizballah, Yazbeck then instituted a greater degree of interaction between the Embassy and the Shia through an English language training program he manages. The program is aimed at women in at-risk communities and includes components on entrepreneurship, public speaking skills, and combatting gender based violence.

Celebration of Public Diplomacy Excellence

“The PDAA awards committee was encouraged to read accounts from across the globe of how public diplomacy professionals are continuing to break boundaries by using all means available to communicate our nation’s policies, values, and hopes for a united approach to solving the world’s problems,” said Judith Baroody, PDAA Board member and chair of the awards committee. “It was especially inspiring to see how our public diplomacy colleagues are focusing on the most critical and difficult issues, and finding creative ways to address them.”

The traditional PDAA luncheon in May honoring award recipients has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. PDAA instead will hold a May 4 teleconference for its membership during which the four winners will be announced and invited to make short remote presentations, live or pre-recorded, about their work.

To make a financial contribution to support the PDAA Awards for Achievement in Public Diplomacy, click here.

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