By Patricia H. Kushlis
Of all the new appointments made by the Obama administration in the area of media and public relations, by far the most intriguing is Macon Phillips, the guru who shaped President Obama’s re-election social media campaign. Phillips is slated to be the new coordinator of IIP, the State Department’s troubled International Information Programs Bureau.
I’ve never met Phillips but corridor gossip tells me he is reputed to be a decent and reputable person. Yet whether the skill set needed to run a successful domestic presidential get out the vote media campaign is transferrable to one devoted to influencing hearts and minds abroad is where the proof remains in the pudding.
A recent Washington Post story reports that Phillips will face a tradition-bound bureau where those people with the social media skills have moved on or back into their big name high tech firms leaving a void that will need to be overcome. Having watched this bureau over the years and having worked in two of its earlier reincarnations during my own Foreign Service career, I see a far different story because I don’t think any person named by the Post made any kind of difference.
One of the reasons I chose work in this bureau for my last assignment just before retirement in 1998 was because it was the most innovative and creative part of the then US Information Agency. It was team based, non-hierarchical, flexible and at the forefront of the Internet revolution.
After consolidation, its pared down hierarchy did not fit the State Department’s model – so it was scrapped. The funds for staff training and the purchase of the most recent technology were pared back so equipment and software aged and skills atrophied. Even my team which had focused on national security issues – and one would have thought would have been the most significant of the substantive areas – was abolished during the Bush administration. Those reasons still elude me.
And yes, many of the most creative and dedicated people moved elsewhere in short order including to the Pentagon’s cutting edge strategic communications operations or to work for one of its many contractors. But these were not the so-called indispensable people mentioned by the Post.
Instead, the Department contracted out much of its social media operation because, supposedly, IIP’s own staff was inadequate. Given what had happened there, it should have come as no surprise. Too many civil servants and Foreign Service Officers were driven out by incompetent leadership regardless of administration.
What no administration has yet to grasp is that to be successful, IIP needs continual care, feeding, support and respect for its mission. Its staff needs to combine a blend of considerable domestic and foreign policy knowledge, and international communication skills. It must be savvy enough to know when to employ what, where and to be able to act in the immediacy of the moment.
The question today, however, is whether a bad situation can be turned around. It is possible but whether probable is a different story. Why? I’m not convinced that the State Department can change its spots enough to accommodate an open, not secretive, environment in its midst that is minimally hierarchical or whether it will agree to fund and staff such a bureau adequately and then let it do what it can do best.
To do so – at minimum - would take a continuous and long term infusion of funds for training of permanent staff, the hiring and adequate compensation of such staff (and I don’t mean contractors) with the technological skills to keep up with the fast changing media environment plus others with the requisite substantive skills.
Such a bureau also needs flexible open space and a pared down hierarchy that encourages innovation plus plenty of support from a robust survey research element, one that once upon a time existed but was disappeared into State’s own Bureau of Intelligence and Research upon consolidation.
If Kerry, Phillips and Richard Stengel, the former Time Magazine managing editor now slated to be the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs will make the changes necessary, then maybe there will be a chance for a brighter US government international communications future. Otherwise, Secretary Kerry, just forget it.