On Tuesday, February 1, 2011 I had the privilege of speaking to Dawn McCall, the Director for the Bureau of International Information Programs (or IIP) at the US Department of State. IIP along with Education and Cultural Affairs (or ECA) comprise the direct reports to Judith McHale, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. For good discussion of how IIP fits into the rest of the State Department, see Matthew Armstrong’s recap of his discussion with McCall the previous week.
Director McCall answered questions about recent changes to IIP announced on January 28, 2011, which comes after a thorough “three month business review review that examined every aspect of IIP’s operations, programs, and products. The review included focus groups, site visits to American embassies and consulates abroad, and working groups within IIP.” IIP is primarily responsible for printed material, web and video content, and speaker programs that promote subject matter experts giving talks around the world. IIP also manages America.gov.
The changes we talked about are interesting, in that they reflect a reorientation away from directing content production from Washington. McCall announces in the press release: “In today’s crowded communications environment, we cannot expect audiences to come to us… Instead, we must go to where they prefer to be, and think of new ways to engage with them.” Sound advice, given the plurality of media options that comprise how audiences seek and rely on particular outlets to frame their view of the world and sustain their communities. The US can’t just put up a website and expect public diplomacy impacts, let alone even decent traffic. It needs to be present (in a legitimate way) within particular media ecologies.
The central theme of our conversation was that IIP would endeavor to understand, work with, and respond to the needs of the various posts around the world. This starts by moving beyond America.gov, to tailoring content to particular online and media-based communities “where audiences actually spend their time.” McCall indicated that America.gov was “too passive.” If there are “conversations going on in different places,” then IIP needs to recognize how to deliver its content to these places.
I think it’s important here that she wasn’t stressing a particular unified “message,” but rather a more contemporary term: content. Content, in this usage, connotes a more flexible approach to the message itself, and emphasizes the significance of the act of communication over its particular encoded information. It’s not the job of IIP to craft a monolithic message – but rather, following her explanation, to “listen to the posts.” According to McCall, IIP spent a lot of time creating content, but very little time actually engaging with the local officials who would be more aware of communication requirements and informational needs for their particular audiences (or audiences that reflect communities of interests around a policy issue, etc.). Thus IIP must provide “deeper” content that is on the “wavelength” of the needs of the post. This also means providing more content offerings – linking different forms of media and content production.
IIP is therefore not simply a mouthpiece in this vision, but an internal service provider to the rest of the State Department. McCall indicated that the Bureau’s new orientation would focus on audience analysis and on working with other partners in the USFG to develop content, understand communication requirements (like language competencies), and work to develop a talent pool both within and outside of government for content production.
Audience analysis, I think, is also key to some of the measurement and evaluation problems that plague public diplomacy more generally. McCall emphasized the need to adapt and listen – and to provide a breadth of content that was relevant to the particular missions abroad and the local knowledge of the post. This didn’t sound like a platitude, but a serious attempt to reconfigure an approach to content generation that both recognized the complexity of the communication environment and the requirements – more in-depth content (higher quality speakers, information, media products) that could be matched on demand to issues and contexts.
It sounds expensive – but apparently this shift is going to be executed by more efficiently organizing (and recognizing) resources available. For example, McCall talked about the formation of “content development groups” that linked different producers – horizontally and vertically, across media-based and content-based expertise.
As public diplomacy – as a concept – begins to define the larger strategic vision of traditional diplomacy, I think it’s logical that the “traditional” public diplomacy departments re-orient to serve the growing public diplomacy dimensions and practices of other parts of the State Department. If other parts of State are effectively “doing” public diplomacy – than integrating IIP as a partner could potentially go far to keeping the strategic communication concerns of public diplomacy in the mix of diplomatic practice and indeed, foreign policy making.
It’s key for other functions of the State Department to recognize the tools and expertise that an in-house public diplomacy unit can provide to their existing (and increasingly public) responsibilities. IIP’s announcement is not merely a signal that IIP is keeping up with contemporary communication environments – but that it can be integrated into the larger communicative action obligations of the State Department more readily. Case in point: Egypt. I asked her about how IIP could help the US handle its public diplomacy tasks in Egypt during this time of political crisis. She said that IIP has the technological capability to manage remotely content operations for key US online presence (like the Egyptian embassy). When the Internet went down in Egypt, the US Embassy website was then managed directly by IIP, keeping a portal to the US perspective on events open. Regardless of whether that perspective was appropriate or timely, IIP demonstrated the technological capacity to react and adapt quickly. And that’s an important start.
More generally, the changes signal something that was probably a long time coming. IIP is becoming a communication enterprise attuned to the requirements of contemporary public diplomacy: by linking specific audiences to perspectives that the USFG wants to promote in some fashion, through engagement in conversations, providing clarification, and otherwise providing focused content that is not out of touch with the local needs of the audience and the post. In theory, IIP won’t be a provider of arbitrary content and views out of Washington, but rather be an attentive contributor. And by being “attentive” – IIP might contribute to the larger symbolic project of demonstrating the US capacity to “listen.”