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Public Diplomacy Morphs Into PR Following Merger

Flags in State Department lobby


Fred Coffey

Jane and I moved back to Denton, Texas in May leaving our many friends and a very important unfinished project. Several former USIA colleagues and I tried for nearly a decade to persuade the State Department to restructure the information (public diplomacy) operations to better serve our foreign affairs. Neither the current structure nor the application of public diplomacy are acceptable.

Most foreign service practitioners from USIA who developed their understanding of genuine communication — listening, learning, discussion, and issuing credible output — rued the 1999 merger into State. Why? Forty six years of developing effective information programs and modes of application would be subjected to fit State’s traditional culture: hierarchical, reactive, rigid and slow to affect policy. A dynamic, non-propagandistic information program should be proactive, nimble, and flexible based on cross-cultural understanding, that we called public diplomacy. But now?

USIA professionals involved with the merger failed in their effort to maintain the structural organization from field to Director, giving the Director (now Under Secretary) control over field programs and personnel. Also meaningful, the Under Secretary would provide field officers with someone to “carry their water” in Washington, important when field initiatives need support.

Then Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Amb. Tom Pickering, directed that information field programs answer to the Regional Bureaus, not the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The PD Under Secretary acquired a limited support staff and did oversee ECA and IIP, but reaching the vital field operations required negotiating with the Regional Bureaus. Today, however, Amb. Pickering supports restructuring information operations within State or a separate organization similar to the former USIA, perhaps linked to State as is USAID. Neither position advances at this time.

A respected label discarded

The pre-merger version of public diplomacy underwent negative changes in effectiveness, interpretation, and application. Respected widely everywhere, the USIS-label was discarded. Information initiatives emerging from the new embassy Public Affairs Sections are vetted by embassy section chiefs — not just the ambassador as before — often followed by public relations-inclined decision makers in the Regional Bureaus. Public relations and even spin (does it make us look good or bad) may creep into those decisions, a distortion of this country’s values.

Concerned about America’s loss of post-merger information effectiveness, several of us, retired officers from USIA and senior overseas PAOs, spent years trying to persuade State and key members of Congress to restructure the information instrument in State. Former Director Charles Wick was very active. Joining Stan Silverman and me were senior PD professionals included Amb. Bill Rugh, Bill Maurer, Len Baldyga and David Hitchcock. Also Bob Chatten and Al Hansen contributed. Field PAOs requested anonymity as their remarks might affect relationships with their ambassadors and regional bureaus.

Our goal: Require that the Under Secretary (R) have authority and control of the PD budget, personnel and field operations. Currently that position has the Congressionally-mandated responsibility but not the concurrent authority.

Former Chairman Henry Hyde of the House Foreign Affairs Committee exclaimed when shown the new organizational diagram for PD, “How in hell can you run a railroad this way?” Our response: “You can’t.” He stated he would correct the structure but politics intervened. Multiple calls on Senators Hagel, Lugar, and staffers for Kerry, Feingold, and Biden along with visits to several congressmen voiced similar refrains. Then Deputy Secretary Jack Lew and Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy only advised, “Let’s not make waves.”

Hit and run

Post-merger PD Under Secretary Charlotte Beers rode into office following her success with promoting Uncle Ben’s Rice, vowing to “rebrand“ the US image. PR? Beers complained her barrier to field operations were the Regional Bureaus. Wick personally asked Secretary Powell to “correct” the structure. Powell put the issue to the regional assistant secretaries who resisted ceding this staff resource. Concerned about the decline of our information effectiveness, Congressman Frank Wolf asked Ambassador Ed Djerejian to investigate. Djerejian’s committee, meeting at State, included no USIA or State PD professionals. With the exception of former USIA Deputy Director Gene Kopp, no PD professionals were called upon. The result: minimum change recommended.

Hit-and-run Under Secretary appointees continued: Margaret Tutwiler said she was not going to stay long enough to make changes. She was gone in six months. Karen Hughes listened to us but declined to follow the advice of Amb. Rugh with recommendations for the PD approach to the Middle East. In fact she made telling public gaffes during her first trip to the area. Also she placed two political appointees in regional bureaus to be responsive to her.

More stumbles. James Glassman refused to confront the Regional Bureaus in an effort to reclaim authority over field operations. However, he was successful in expanding outreach with social media, and breathed life into this new tool. Judith McHale traveled broadly and advised support to field programs but then left. Tara Soneshine resigned after a short stint. The jury is out on journalist Richard Stengel.

Meanwhile, public diplomacy is the must-have label for every country’s information output whether credible, PR, pure propaganda, or otherwise. Let’s junk this misleading label as others recommended years ago and return to “This is the United States – warts and all.” Let’s seek credibility and restructure the information instrument in State.


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