This week’s Lunch and Learn session for public diplomacy staffers presented a panel of public affairs experts from the world of politics and corporate crisis communications.
Public diplomacy and public relations are cousins, but with clear differences — nowhere more pronounced than in the area of crisis and political communication. This sparked a fascinating compare-and-contrast exercise among the capacity crowd of communicators.
- Nearly every panelist stressed the importance of “relatability:” Alex Conant spoke of a politician’s “authenticity;” Sarah Peck, of working to explain congressional votes in terms the average person understands. Foreign policy is also devilishly complex. Moreover, foreign policy can rarely be attributed to a single person. How to make our positions relatable and authentic? No single answer came out.
- Gary Meltz offered key pointers for the world of political combat: poke holes in adversaries’ arguments and “introduce risk” for those who might be planning an attack.
- From the four speaker’s accounts, an image emerged of their operating environment: a tight war-room atmosphere built for the age of social media. An audience member explained the State Department environment of multiple clearances for every significant statement. Meltz’ first reaction was to “make the best of a raw deal” and everyone joined him in delivering some practical tips.
In fact, the session contained a lot useful reminders for PD practitioners.
- Conant: Build relationships with people who will endorse your position or defend you when you’re attacked.
- Chaz Cirame and Peck: Boil down policies to short points, with graphs where possible, and emphasize those rather than press releases and position papers, which increasingly go unread, even by reporters.
- Conant: It’s essential that a communication profession be in the room when the lawyers and executives (PD’ers, read “embassy country team and ambassador”) are crafting policy decisions.
Frankie Sturm, a co-director of the Lunch and Learn series who works in State Department Public Affairs, recruited the panel. Although the Council leaves topic selection to our associate members, I would suggest this is a vein worth exploring.
Last Wednesday’s panel focused on media relations and reputation management, as well as crisis communications. Other specialties of public relations, aimed at marketing concepts and ideas, employ broader strategies that involve educational and cultural tactics. I would love to get PD folks in the room with PR advisors to the nonprofit and government sectors to compare notes; they would learn from each other.
But Wednesday’s session carried important lessons for this time, when public diplomacy must defend our elected government in the international arena. The panel described a more aggressive approach than embassy press offices have taken heretofore.
The tension showed when a questioner stood and asked, “Shouldn’t government communications reject those tactics, no matter how effective?”
Debate ensued. Meltz summed up: “You’re here to make the world better, we’re here to operate in the world that exists.”
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More