Podcast Blues

NOTE Sept. 12: Amb. Chris Stevens, who is mentioned in this post, was killed alongside three other American diplomats during an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Stevens becomes the first American ambassador killed in service since 1988. At least as many ambassadors, if not more, have been killed in service as flag officers in combat in the history of the U.S. diplomatic corps. In deference to and as a small record of Amb. Stevens’ long service, and in spite of the mild critique he is subject to here, I am leaving the rest of this post in the original.

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Buried on YouTube is an intriguing and expanding experiment in Internet-enabled public diplomacy.  Beginning a few years ago, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) started short video profiles of American ambassadors bound for exotic posts abroad.  This is a way to introduce themselves to the countries where they will be serving, the bilateral agenda they’ll be promoting, and maybe get some of that social media mojo everybody’s been talking about. IIP stood up a video production capability in 2008 and is producing by its count an astonishing 300 video products a year.

Typically for a federal agency, these introductory videos – 16 are live, which setting aside consulates and other missions represents about a tenth of our diplomatic representation abroad – are produced with gusto but manifestly uneven style and quality.  So this is a friendly critique with suggestions for how these videos can get better and find the audience they are clearly intended to reach.

DON’T KILL A GOOD IDEA TO SPITE THE BAD

The first thing to say – before the bureaucracy goes defensive and crushes a creative, progressive idea out of instinctive reflex to criticism, like Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men – is this is good and should continue. All American ambassadors should do this.  The initiative uses a new and evolving technology, it trains our top diplomats in front of the camera and develops the State Department’s production capacity – all capabilities the department needs and should expand.  Please, Hillary, don’t kill this for budgetary reasons or for any stupid or malicious comments somebody logs on your YouTube site!

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IS ALSO THE SMALLEST

Unfortunately there are some systematic problems this initiative will face.  And the biggest problem is this: most of the countries profiled by these videos have very low Internet penetration.  This is, frankly, the entire problem with Internet-based public diplomacy platforms: it has been seduced by the gossamer Web dreams of high-yield outreach on the cheap, the Digital Diplomats’ snake oil pitch.  In reality the world is divided between the wired-up haves – those uncensored, connected and mobile, mostly in the advanced democratic West – and the delinked have-nots, which is most of the rest of the world.  Even to reach most of the Internet haves, a major “push” using Internet-based tools usually involves an expensive, labor-intensive, multi-modal campaign that soundly pounds the dream of inexpensive Web riches to gold dust.

This is almost immediately clear when looking at the traffic numbers for the videos, which in one case (Mongolia) is in the low double digits.  Kosovo has the highest traffic, but that’s because Kosovo is the most pro-American country in Europe.  Still, Internet penetration in Kosovo is only about 20 percent (by contrast, the U.S. has an Internet penetration of 78.3 percent; in Japan it’s 80%; Iceland tops the list at 97.8 percent).  The rest of the view rates for these videos span the mid-hundreds.

But the plain obstacle is the countries themselves: Bangladesh, Vietnam, Equador, Nicaragua, Uganda, Mongolia and Libya have some of the lowest rates of Internet penetration in the world.  (Among these countries, Bangladesh ranks lowest; North Korea is at the bottom.)  Of course, with the Internet in the “rest of the world,” you’re producing for a self-selecting minority, which is fine.  But IIP clearly needs the resources to do a much better job of promotion to get these videos to their intended audience.

Continuing to produce these introductory videos makes sense but they need to be promoted properly and in the right technological context.  Can these be pushed out to mobile phones, screened in schools or for civic organizations, or in other public diplomacy venues?  They shouldn’t sit on a server never to see an audience in countries that have dramatically less Internet access than we are used to in the developed world.

LESS IS MORE

Many of these videos feel both overproduced and as if they are trying to do and say more than the video can bear.  The videos are professionally shot and edited, and benefit from a surfeit of imagery captured from our traveled Secretary of State and President while abroad.  Nonetheless, it seems like the producer or editors is worried the viewer will lose interest unless he or she is bombarded with multiple camera angles, smash cuts, sliding transitions, music, and the rest.  There is no uniformity of style or format among the videos.  I’m inclined to suggest that less is more.

I wonder if the scriptwriters were able to settle on a single theme in each video – instead of the usual smorgasbord of official priorities – around which to build a coherent narrative or tell personal stories.  Then they could build both audience interest in the individual ambassador and learn about one subject in depth rather than skate over a half-dozen or so issues that the official “relationship” will concern itself with.  I’ll get into more specific ideas about how this can be done in a minute.

THE POWER OF BABEL

Language is impossible to avoid when viewing all of these introductions.  Some ambassadors speak the native language, some don’t.  Some are clearly very good at speaking foreign languages, and some are not.  Some should speak foreign languages but don’t.  Why?

It’s important to assert first that speaking English is fine.  When I was at NATO, the interpreters specifically advised us to speak the language we were most comfortable with, which is usually our mother tongue.  Writing from experience, that’s especially important for speaking on camera.  Most of the world speaks or is learning English and doesn’t mind the opportunity to practice, especially if what they’re hearing is subtitled.  In the case of the U.S. Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, speaking an Indian language would be impractical and impolitic (there are simply too many languages and topolects spoken in India), and her obvious grasp of location names based on a prior tour demonstrates her respect for the country and its cultures.

Several ambassadors speak Spanish of varying degrees of proficiency.  Truly impressive, however, are Ambassador Tracey Jacobsen, who learned Albanian to go to Kosovo, and Ambassador Dan Mozena, who learned Bengali to serve in Bangladesh.  Mozena’s commitment to Bengali is particularly poignant, and he and wife demonstrate a sincere, effusive warmth that is obvious on camera.  This combination of attributes on the part of all three of them clearly endeared them to their audiences based on the positive responses I read on the YouTube site.  (I would only note, although this is certainly not Jacobsen’s fault, that her Albanian is subtitled in Serbian for the contentious Serb minority in Kosovo, but in Latin script. Serbian is normally written in Cyrillic.)

But for Ambassador Michael McFaul and Ambassador Chris Stevens, our representatives to Russia and Libya, respectively, they both speak at length about working in the former Soviet Union and North Africa but record their videos in English.  Stevens was the official U.S. liaison to the Libyan opposition.  McFaul generated the recent “reset” on relations with Moscow.  Both, to my knowledge, speak the local language, but neither did so for these videos.  It’s a difficult argument to balance, I admit, but viewers will wonder why the American ambassador to Kosovo speaks Albanian but the ambassador to Libya, with two decades of experience in the Arab world doesn’t speak Arabic on camera. The same could be said for McFaul.

CRINGE LESS

This leads me to the only really bad video of the batch, Ambassador David Shear, our representative to Vietnam.  This was hard to watch because it was so transparently staged and because it stood in such poor contrast to the others.  Here, Shear is seen taking language lessons in Vietnamese and eating at a Vietnamese restaurant.  This is poor form, especially given the extraordinary effort Jacobsen and Mozena made to learn very difficult and obscure languages like Albanian and Bengali.  The Vietnamese may be forgiven for wondering why out of the 1.2 million speakers of Vietnamese in the United States (the third-most spoken Asian language here), one couldn’t be appointed Ambassador.

The Vietnamese are also no doubt aware of both our obesity epidemic and the immigrant-entrepreneurs – most of whom are refugees from the war – who own those restaurants.  Shear, probably trying to cast himself as a humble naïf learning the language and culture of a country he is about to serve in, instead communicates an embarrassing ignorance of the country in which he will soon be head of mission.  He should be the expert on Vietnam. The worst evidence of this deafness to tone is when he vows to consult the “many people with experience working in Vietnam”: at last count, there were 2.59 million U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War, not including diplomats, journalists and aid workers.

IT’S NOT WHAT YOU LIKE BUT WHAT YOU’RE LIKE THAT MATTERS

But in the end, I didn’t feel like I got to know these men and women.  Most of them are clearly charismatic and intelligent, which as mediated through video is no small achievement.  I learned a few things about them.  McFaul is from Montana.  Shear likes to eat.  Powell is a photographer.  Stevens enjoys the outdoors.  Ambassador Piper Campbell likes horses.  But to borrow a phrase from Nick Hornsby, it’s not what you like but what you’re like that really matters and I didn’t learn much about what they’re like beyond how they were conveyed through the four-inch portal on my computer.

In order for viewers to like, trust and sympathize with your subjects, they have to reveal something about themselves.  I recognize this is not the usual approach for career diplomats, who are not reality television stars.  And writing as someone who has done work like this, it is simply not easy to do (and doesn’t always “work” when you do it).

The videos are intended to do three things: introduce the ambassador, describe the bilateral relationship, and pitch American foreign policy priorities.  It’s a big ask.  But it can be done.  And it can be done well.

By way of an example, watch this, a video featuring the Japanese Consul-General in Memphis, Tennessee, produced by the local Chamber of Commerce.   (Full disclosure: a good friend was part of the team that produced this series, but he no longer works for the Chamber.) You can tell right away that you’re watching something completely different.  The CG plays in a band, in public, in Memphis.  He loves music and talks about how important Memphis is both to Japan for trade and to the small Japanese community in the city.  He appears on camera, of course, but the audio track was taped in a studio, in a more relaxed setting, probably based on a structured interview.  As a result, the video feels intimate and subtle, like you’re part of a conversation.  And despite the higher production values, it was probably easier to put this video together because the voice track was taped and edited later with the camera footage shot on location.

The important thing to remember is that this was produced by the Chamber to sell Memphis.  There are several other videos like this one profiling small business owners, some of which are quite compelling and moving.  But that doesn’t seem to detract from getting to know the individuals and learning what motivates them in their work.  IIP could learn from videos like these – maybe even collaborate with the National Symphony Orchestra the way the Chamber partnered with the Memphis Symphony, which commissioned original work to score the videos as part of the promotional campaign.

What strikes me most about the Chamber campaign videos is they tell a story not just about the individuals but about the city. As my friend told me, Memphis is not all blues and barbecue: It’s a place that people love, where the subjects of the videos have decided to settle and to start their families and businesses.

To understand how effective these ambassadorial videos could be, start by substituting Mongolia for Memphis.  What is the American community like there? What are some of the experiences the ambassadors have had that explain who we are, what we’re like, and what we have in common with the countries where they’re posted?  Only when we talk about that do we really begin to reach people.  And when we start doing that, we begin to cross those last three feet, in Edward R. Murrow’s famous formulation.  Even over the Internet, that remains public diplomacy’s most important territory.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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