1. “VACCINE DIPLOMACY” AND PUBLIC CONFIDENCE AND EDUCATION: As the United States – and much of the world – braces for more coronavirus infections and deaths, the pressures to approve several vaccines and start widely and fairly distributing them intensifies at home and abroad. Public affairs and public diplomacy personnel face staggering challenges on the long road to assist policymakers, health professionals and vaccine manufacturers to clearly explain the process and reassure people that vaccines are safe and effective.
The Atlantic has gone so far as to say that “the next six months will be vaccine purgatory.” The need for timely, accurate, and credible information disseminated by trusted influencers and spokespersons is both unprecedentedly urgent and global. Skepticism and partisanship need to be overcome by straight-talking officials because polls suggest that a sizable minority of the public does not intend to get vaccinated and even more information will not change its mind. One individual who will continue to attract truly international attention is the nation’s unofficial “Public Health Spokesman,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, who recently has had to walk a more narrow line than usual since he still not only works for the current Administration but has been promised even more responsibility and public visibility in the Biden Administration.
Special attention needs to be given to anti-vaccine movements which are using social media to spread disinformation and fuel issues such as “line-skipping,” so-called “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine famine” and, in Muslim countries, whether vaccines are “halal”. A foreign policy issue requiring careful PD messaging is how the new Administration handles rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) and approaches international public health cooperation and foreign assistance.
America’s handling of the pandemic has been very much a case of mixed official messaging, but, still, many countries are looking at the United States to see how vaccine efforts are handled, for example, across racial and ethnic lines. One promising communications initiative that deserves watching was announced recently by the non-profit Ad Council, which back in the 1950s played a leading role in creating public service communications that encouraged Americans to be vaccinated against polio.
The new, national private sector initiative, which will complement government efforts, hopes to raise $50 million for one of the largest public education campaigns in history. Ad Council President/CEO Lisa Sherman has said: “Widespread adoption of the COVID-19 vaccine is our generation’s ‘moonshot’ and will represent one of the largest public health interventions in our nation’s history. By bringing together the worlds of communications, public health, and policy, we can transform life as we know it today and save hundreds of thousands of lives.”
The first phase of the Council’s multimedia messaging will be released in early 2021 and will have distinct approaches for different audiences, including historically marginalized communities. Media, advertising, technology, and marketing resources will be focused on “identifying and addressing misconceptions and concerns around vaccine safety and effectiveness; uniting trusted messengers, influential voices and large-scale platforms around consistent, research-based messaging; tailoring communications to reach multiple diverse audiences through strategic media placements and community-based outreach; and reinforcing the importance of wearing face masks as vaccines are rolled out.”
For information about the Council’s plans, go to https://www.adcouncil.org/
For recent Gallup and Pew Research polling on public compliance with vaccine recommendations, go to https://news.gallup.com/poll/
PD practitioners know the value of “telling America’s story.” For an interesting report of how the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. is finding a way to curate and communicate on the pandemic, see Andrew Dickson’s How Will We Tell the Story of the Coronavirus? in The New Yorker at https://www.newyorker.com/
2. SUPERHERO FIGHTS COVID IN INDIA: An excellent example of how public diplomacy can be used to take on the pandemic and reach young audiences is a creative, new project supported by a grant from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
“Priya’s Mask” comic book and animation film were developed in coordination with the Embassy’s North India Office and the Regional English Office (RELO) and through a grant from the Public Affairs Section. They worked with an international team and with Rattapallax, a non-profit organization in New York and New Delhi that has produced a social-activist comic book series about “Priya,” India’s first female superhero.
In earlier stories, teenager Priya raised awareness and fought Indian social problems such as rape, acid attacks, and human trafficking. In this new comic book and short film, by writer Shubhra Prakash, Priya and her tiger companion, Sahas, bravely and compassionately battle the spread of Covid-19 and disinformation. The positive messages directed to a younger audience are that girls and courageous frontline healthcare workers are important and that wearing a mask and working together will help end the pandemic around the world. Priya is even shown teaming up with Burka Avenger, Pakistan’s female superhero, to stop her arch-enemy from infecting her city with the dangerous virus.
Since its debut on December 2, 2020, “Priya’s Mask” has drawn positive attention not only from young and old Indian fans but also U.S. and other global audiences. United States Ambassador to India Ken Juster — dressed smartly in traditional Indian style and with U.S. and India flags in the background — appeared on Twitter and Facebook to say how proud the Embassy was to partner on the project to help educate people about the virus. See the video at https:twitter.com/USAmbIndia/
3. TRUST – OR A LACK THEREOF – IN NEWS: Public diplomacy professionals are very much aware of a growing problem at home and abroad. Amidst a barrage of messages, trust in news has eroded, and this has affected how governments and media organizations function and how relations take place within and between countries. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford have released an important multi-cultural study called What We Think We Know and What We Want to Know: Perspectives in Trust in News in a Changing World.”
Funded through a 3-year, $4 million grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, the research team focused on trust in digital news in four democracies — Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States — markets that have more than one billion internet users and a wide range of media systems and contexts.
The researchers tried to address several big questions: “Why is trust eroding, how does it play out across different contexts and different groups, what are the implications, and what might be done about it?” According to the study, trust is not an abstract concern. “It is both important and dangerous, both for the public and for the news media – important for the public because being able to trust news helps navigate and engage with the world, but dangerous because not everything is equally trustworthy and important for the news media because the profession relies on it, but dangerous because it can be elusive and hard to regain when lost.”
For the Trust in News Project’s initial report, visit reutersinstitute.politics.ox.
4. HAPPY 80TH TO IVLP: Throughout 2020, the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) – arguably the single most effective program in America’s public diplomacy tool box – has been observing its 80th anniversary. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)-run exchange program for emerging leaders can be proud of its more than 225,000 alumni from around the world. The program’s roots go back to the WW II era.
The year-long anniversary celebration ended on December 9, 2020 with the Department hosting a virtual reception and a “My IVLP Moment” storytelling workshop. ECA Assistant Secretary Marie Royce made opening remarks, and IVLP alumnus Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, gave special video remarks. According to ECA, the nonprofit StoryCenter facilitated a storytelling workshop to “help the IVLP network underscore the historic legacy of the program and the transformational power of international exchanges.” Throughout the year, the Department has highlighted 80 accomplished IVLP alumni and the impact of their experiences on the global community.
The pandemic, of course, has affected the program. The last in-person IVLP activity was in March, but a number of virtual IVLP projects and alumni activities have been possible. When the program can get back to its normal, in-person schedule is iffy since the health and safety of all involved is, understandably, the top priority.
For more information, visit https://eca.state.gov/ivlp.
5. “PANDA DIPLOMACY” STILL WORKS: Despite the recent sharp rise in tensions between China and the United States, there is some good news on the public diplomacy front. “Panda diplomacy” is alive and well, as a new agreement between Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and China Wildlife and Conservation Association (CWCA) proves.
Under the terms of a three-year agreement extension, the National Zoo will continue to host giant pandas through December 7, 2023. The Zoo has had pandas since 1972 when China gifted President Nixon with a male and a female panda as a symbol of diplomatic rapprochement.
Under the loan program, pandas in the United States by the time they turn 4 must be sent to a breeding program in China. This means that the new panda cub born at the Zoo on August 21, Xian Qi Ji (“Little Miracle”), will be sent to China when the new agreement expires. The cub’s mother, Mei Xiang (“Beautiful Fragrance”), and father, Tian Tian (“More and More”), will also go to China at the end of the agreement extension. The two have three other surviving cubs – all now back in China.
Hopefully, U.S.-China relations will improve by the end of the new agreement so the Zoo can renegotiate and continue to host beloved pandas and maintain an active research and conservation program. Meanwhile, David M. Rubenstein, founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group and member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, has given a $3 million gift to fund the Zoo’s panda program through the end of 2023.
For more information and video, go to https://nationalzoo.si.edu/
Dr. Michael H. Anderson is a public diplomacy and Asian affairs specialist with nearly 30 years of Foreign Service experience serving in the US Department of State and the US Information Agency (USIA) and working in South Asia and Southeast Asia. His Public Affairs Officer (PAO) postings included New Delhi, Jakarta, Karachi, Singapore, Manila and Port Moresby. He also has been a journalist, a teacher, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, an information officer with UNICEF, and an East-West Center grantee. He is a member of the PDC Board.