I often recall a dinner conversation I had in Rome some years ago with the travel agent that helped one of my colleagues with study abroad logistics. He said bluntly, “Everyone I know loves their ‘idea of America,” but they don’t understand much of what your government does.” Ever since then I have been grappling with the issue of communicating government administrative policy to many complicated domestic and foreign audiences vs. just getting a simple “idea of America” understood.
Last week’s blog addressed the challenges faced by the White House as new and returning presidents face communicating their policies to audiences that will hear what they want to hear no matter what is said. The reality is that communication will be breaking down all the time. Audiences must be prioritized, traditional and new media tactics selected for each, and many separate initiatives must be undertaken over time in order to achieve minimal progress. And no matter what is said, enemies and competitors will fire back with their own set of strategically planned initiatives.
Is it possible for a government to articulate a simple idea about values and culture with credibility? Can the simple “idea of America” come through in the same way that the travel agent in Rome described?
Some have concluded that government policy always must be shaped around economic and security realities, and that a government’s communication will always be with mixed and uncertain success. Those people and countries threatened by this will always retaliate in some way. There will be allies and enemies, advocates and critics. And so many strategic communicators have come to think that the best way to get the fundamental “idea of America” across is to organize ordinary Americans to meet with people in other cultures. This way our basic values of individual freedom and justice can be experienced first hand.
And so several efforts have been made in recent years to explore the feasibility of establishing a non-governmental, or in some cases a quasi-governmental, organization to operate totally independent of government to establish citizen-to-citizen exchanges and programs with the simple purpose of demonstrating how ordinary free and independent Americans look and act. One of these was undertaken by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Known as the SAGE project, the result was a business plan to establish a non-profit, non-governmental organization to stimulate and finance projects that will bring about a better understanding of Americans of all types. Currently, a former assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy is seeking the funding and other support necessary to bring this organization into existence.
My TCU Honors College students are discussing these issues. Last week we imagined what a new or second term president faces on “day one” trying to communicate administrative policy in light of what was said during the campaign and the realities of the existing friendly and hostile audiences all over the world! This week we will look at the potential of citizen-to-citizen public diplomacy, and the role international higher education and new media might play in it.
On a given day communication is breaking down all around us. But then each day is a new day, and the determined among us keep trying. One step at a time is the name of the game.