By Patricia H. Kushlis
In what turned out to be a less than stellar encounter with the White House Press Corps on July 15, America’s new Public Diplomacy Under Secretary Judith McHale fell just short of flat on her face during the Qs and As.
In contrast, her prepared statement that put a positive spin on America’s public diplomacy efforts during President Obama’s Ghana visit was fine. She did what she had set out to do.
But her responses to all but a single follow-up question were lacking. Not as embarrassing as the high profile Karen Hughes flouncing around town in a mud-colored burqa at an Iftar dinner when she was Bush’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy – but too many of McHale's responses were not good enough, nevertheless, for someone who has been in the Under Secretary position since early May and is serious about making a difference in how the US is viewed abroad and in improving this country's public diplomacy efforts.
McHale may be a quick study. She was advertised as such when she was nominated for the position. But it was clear that in this first high level press briefing, at least, she simply didn’t know enough about the basics of the State Department’s public diplomacy operation to be put on-the-record in front of a group of experienced reporters who may, or may not have already known the answers to the questions they asked anyway. If they didn't, certainly their news organizations should have.
Here’s the question McHale handled well
Q. "How do you guard against only reaching the (foreign) elites if you’re using these new media methods (e.g. Internet social networking tools)?"
McHale: "Well, we’re not just using new media. . . . new media will work in certain places, but it’s a tool, not a strategy. . . So we’re going to use it where appropriate to reach certain targeted demographics. . . One of the strengths of the embassies is that they understand that (the media infrastructure in each country) and they report to us, and we tailor each of these initiatives to the available infrastructure."
McHale’s absolutely right about the strengths and limitations of the new media. I hope her staff understands this as well. Furthermore, I sincerely hope that our embassies still do have their fingers on the media infrastructures in the countries in which they are located - not only just understanding them but also being in regular contact with the editors, reporters, and publishers who make them work 24/7.
Regrettably McHale couldn’t answer much else.
She didn’t know – but she should have
• Whether “past administrations had databases of non-Americans, of foreigners, to use for diplomatic purposes and how they were collected,”
• Whether the US government public diplomacy outreach efforts during Obama’s latest foreign trip were coordinated with the host governments and whether such coordination was needed,
• How much money (called micro-grants) was given to movie theaters in Sierra Leone to show Obama’s speech,
• How much money overall is spent on public diplomacy (presumably in the State Department budget),
• The quantitative effectiveness of Obama’s speech in Moscow, or
• The impact of Obama’s Cairo visit on the Islamic world.
Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary finally stepped in to save the day - if not the face.
So let me take a stab at some answers
1) Every USIS operation abroad since before I joined USIA in 1970 had a data base of non-Americans. It was used for diplomatic purposes. The data base was created primarily for developing invitation lists for receptions, concerts, lectures, and exhibit openings as well as producing mailing labels for recipients of USIS produced magazines, periodicals and for distributing press releases and backgrounders to media outlets, think tanks and others interested in the US views on various issues.
2) Since the host governments had to agree to Obama’s visit to begin with there should have been varying levels of cooperation in terms of national media outreach. Any time a speech is carried on government controlled radio or television, it would have implicitly had the agreement of the host government or without it, as in Moscow, it would not have happened. The types of people-to-people outreach activities McHale described elsewhere in Africa and the Dominican Republic are, frankly, not new. Invitational screenings of this sort were being done well before I joined USIA. I’m pleased to see they are continuing because they are effective. They also do not require another country’s government involvement – but chances are members of those governments and the media were themselves present at some of the showings.
The primary new element is the text messaging of Obama’s speech through the new social networking capabilities of the Internet. In earlier times, the speech would have been distributed to the local media via fax machine, delivery van, the post office – or even bicycle. What the Internet offered was real time access to the speech for people not in a newsroom or present at a showing but who had access to the Internet. In reality, this capability was available in 1997 before I left the government – but far fewer people had Internet access then than do now.
3) McHale is likely correct: the budget for theater rental micro-grants is likely to have been small. It also would not have been needed in capital cities where the USG had cultural centers. But it seems to me she should have been briefed on the amount spent for this activity before she met the press - particularly since the information about distribution to theaters was an important part of her prepared remarks.
4) It’s embarrassing that McHale was unable to tell a group of influential reporters how much the State Department’s budget for public diplomacy is or at least provide an overall ball-park figure. Had she done so she could have scored great points in support of desperately needed upgrades and expansion.
According to a report last year by the American Academy of Diplomacy, the PD budget for FY 2008 was only $859 million and the American staff was 24% lower than in 1986 when there was a USIA (1,332 down from 1,742). Furthermore, McHale could have compared this with the $4.9 billion the US Pentagon is spending this year to “win hearts and minds” and the 27,000 people it is employing to do so. (That according to a February 6, 2009 AP report).
5) Ah, yes, Moscow. True Obama’s speech wasn’t carried on government controlled national television but it was broadcast live on Echo Moskvy (private radio) and the 24 hour news channel Vesti-24 both at the last minute. Furthermore, the speech was reported extensively – and for the most part favorably – in the Moscow newspapers (which also have Internet sites which is where I found an Izvestia report of the speech in both English and Russian that I cited in an earlier post).
Furthermore, McHale – a crucial member of and tie breaker on the troubled Broadcasting Board of Governors which controls the various US civilian radio and television outlets aimed at foreigners abroad including VOA and RFE/RL – could have also used the opportunity to deplore the loss of the VOA-Russian language service and the problems with VOA’s website that occurred during Obama's Moscow visit.
She could have signaled through the US media the need to re-evaluate US government overseas broadcasting in general. But she didn’t even mention the radios. Instead, she chose the opportunity to talk about a Facebook effort – which she admitted had not been a big draw (in the thousands – she guessed).
6) Finally Obama’s Cairo speech effect in the Islamic world. For anyone following public opinion polling by Steve Kull at World Opinion.org or the Pew Charitable Trusts (let alone a high level State Department official who should have access to the Department’s internal survey research numbers) McHale could have answered the question by saying that overall survey data shows inconclusive results – e.g. it’s too soon to tell – but that at this point the president is viewed more highly than US foreign policies, that overall the favorability towards the US abroad in the Islamic world has a long way to go but it appears to be improving a bit and that Obama’s speeches in Cairo, Istanbul and even his inaugural address were designed to change the perception of a US at war with Islam.
Until McHale gains a firmer grasp of the basics of her own portfolio, the White House – and the State Department for that matter – should think carefully about her engaging in a similar high stakes media rematch any time soon.