Lately I’ve been reflecting on ethics in government. Have you?
Ethics definitely apply to public diplomacy, but how? The guidelines that I can find remind me of a very old joke, usually told by an aging male.
“When we got married, I made it clear to my wife that I would handle the important decisions and she could take care of the details.
“And so my wife takes care of things like where we live, the household budget, where the kids go to school. And I worry about world peace, hunger in America and so forth. It has worked out great!”
Ethics are visible not in generalities, but in daily routine and behavior. Yes, PD has a list of leadership tenets that include “the highest standards of integrity, transparency, and professional conduct,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sponsored a professional ethos statement for the Department that calls for “uncompromising personal and professional integrity.” However, these are so general as to leave officers unmoored by the challenges of a world filled with falsehoods, sharp power and hidden agendas.
Our embassies are constantly confronted with examples of unprofessional conduct by social-media “influencers,” adversary nations and even our own political leaders. New situations put them to the test, and not only in media relations. For example, the Department’s leadership, including the “nonpolitical” Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, increasingly shapes programs to support clear foreign policy objectives in measurable ways. I totally support that approach. But can it sometimes tempt officers to hedge on underlying principles and legislative intent?
PD values and norms used to be imparted to new officers by mentoring, but now FSOs now move in and out of PD; doctrine and formal training are much more important than they were twenty years ago.
The Public Relations Society of America publishes a Code of Ethics, which lists specific examples of proper and improper conduct in public affairs. The National Association of Government Communicators’ code offers a fulsome list of standards that seem to apply across international information and cultural programs.
It’s time for public diplomacy leaders to call out the most important ethical principles in our work. I’m talking about things like the following.
Relations with the media
- Communications based on facts, with no tolerance for falsehood
- Equal treatment for media organizations regardless of political party
- Openness to questions from the media including regular press conferences
- Respect and civil behavior toward all members of the press
U.S.-sponsored educational and cultural programs
- The award of academic scholarships on merit as judged by committees operating outside political considerations
- Showing exchange visitors all sides of America “warts and all”
- Transparency in the attribution of our public diplomacy programs
These are merely illustrations. How should the State Department pursue an authoritative definition and propagation ethical standards most relevant to public diplomacy?
The right place for this is the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, together with the specialist attorneys in the Office of Legal Counsel. “R” could set guideposts and management controls.
Next, specific training could be created. At the Foreign Service Institute, ethics and law are embedded in current training, but are not taught as separate curriculum. They are often implicit. One model approach for FSI could be its training to respect diversity in the workforce, which is mandatory. Courses provide examples of how to address specific situations and teach students to exercise principles of equality.
Finally, PDC members, we could start right here at home. the Public Diplomacy Council’s mission statement “supports the academic study, professional practice, and responsible advocacy of public diplomacy.” It’s time for our organization and other nonprofits in the field to encourage and move forward the discussion of what that really means.
American public diplomacy has been admired around the world for reflecting the traditional values of its society. Our openness, transparency and commitment to values that transcend private interests is the key to America’s soft power.
We should all do our best to make sure those values remain strong.
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service and seven years in the private sector. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More