Civil Society Internet Politics & Diplomacy United States and Canada

Issue Brief

September 15, 2021

Upgrading US public diplomacy: A new approach for the age of memes and disinformation

By Marta Churella, Wren Elhai, Amirah Ismail, Naima Green-Riley, Graham Lampa, Molly Moran, Jeff Ridenour, Dan Spokojny, and Megan Tetrick

Introduction

This report outlines a set of principles and actions to strengthen the State Department’s public diplomacy institutions, domestically and abroad. We chose not to define what the specific ends of public diplomacy should be—we believe public diplomacy should support overall US foreign policy goals and that the country’s democratically accountable leaders should define those goals. However, regardless of the policies US leaders prioritize, the United States needs public diplomacy institutions that can set meaningful strategic goals, design and evaluate programs using data and evidence, customize messaging and programs for hundreds of distinct overseas audiences, and connect meaningfully with audiences in the United States. We believe that spending time and effort on building processes and institutions that can do all of this is the best hope for a State Department that will be able to communicate effectively around the world and demonstrate the impact of its efforts at home.

Logo of fp21

This report is being published in collaboration with fp21, a think tank dedicated to transforming the processes and institutions of US foreign policy.

It is the result of a unique collaboration between nine current and former State Department employees. Read more about their innovative process on fp21’s blog.

The contributors to this piece all participated in our non-official or personal capacities. The views expressed are our own and not necessarily those of the US government. Our recommendations were crafted with the State Department in mind, although we recognize public diplomacy is a function other US government institutions also perform. Some of the issues identified here may also apply to those other institutions.

Our recommendations below fall into four main groups.

  • Empower leadership and set a clear strategic direction: This starts with immediately appointing and confirming an institution builder as under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. This also includes leading on diversity and inclusion, building a culture of transparency and responsiveness, considering public diplomacy in the policy formulation process, and matching resources to strategic priorities.
  • Build campaign design and evaluation capacity: These recommendations focus on how State Department staff can embed evidence-based learning in their work. Among other steps, we suggest developing ready-made audience listening tools and incentivizing honest reporting when programs fail to meet their objectives.
  • Reorient processes to support staff and programs overseas: In these recommendations, we call for a focus on building the capacity of staff members overseas to listen to their audiences and produce content that reflects their interests. We also recommend upgrades for American Spaces, exchange alumni programs, and foreign-language spokespeople.
  • Renew public diplomacy’s domestic dimension: In the final section, we recommend ways to involve more Americans in the work of public diplomacy, including by expanding domestic outreach, virtual programs, and university partnerships.

We start, however, with a deeper examination of the problem.

A vital capability, spread too thin

Today’s world sees challenges to US values from autocratic adversary states, an increase in the importance of non-state actors in international affairs, and a technologically driven information revolution. Meanwhile, the US brand has become dramatically diminished.1Richard Wike, “The Trump Era has Seen a Decline in America’s Global Reputation,” Pew Research Center, November 19, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/19/the-trump-era-has-seen-a-decline-in-americas-global-reputation/. People around the world point to domestic conflict and policy inconsistencies, and question the value of partnership with the United States. Each of these factors has made it increasingly vital to have public diplomacy tools that can build and wield soft power.2Joseph S. Nye, “Soft Power and Public Diplomacy Revisited,” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 14, 1–2, 2019, 7–20, https://doi.org/10.1163/1871191X-14101013.

Accordingly, US public diplomacy professionals have sought out new audiences and experimented with new tools and approaches. However, this process of self-directed adaptation has been hampered by ongoing confusion over the proper mission of public diplomacy. Over the years, the potential answers to the question, “what is public diplomacy for?” have multiplied.

Traditionally, US public diplomacy professionals have sought to build long-term, durable people-to-people ties between the United States and the rest of the world. By doing so, we seek to increase foreign-public support (most often among elites) for policy positions that align with US interests, to increase approval of the United States and the American people, and to expand understanding of US values and culture. We do so through exchanges, cultural programming, working with journalists and foreign media, and communicating with audiences online.

While those goals and activities remain in place, public diplomacy tools have been deployed against an additional range of complex threats. Some public diplomacy programs today seek to convince people to counter violent extremism in their communities, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in their businesses, and spread accurate public-health information. Public diplomacy professionals design programs to build resilience to disinformation and spread media literacy and intergroup tolerance, countering the hatred that can spread quickly on new digital platforms. We also increasingly design public diplomacy programs to create spaces to engage in dialogue with foreign audiences, and to build networks of people who share US values.

That is a lot to handle. And what we hear consistently from our colleagues in the field and in Washington is that there isn’t enough time to do it all as it should be done. Existing training and tools aren’t adequate to balance these competing missions while meeting increasing standards of rigor and evidence-driven policy. Meanwhile, scarce staff time and resources in public diplomacy sections are often consumed by ancillary functions that support other diplomatic activities. Thanks to their specialized training in grant management, public diplomacy personnel are often pressed into service to administer embassy small grants and other assistance programs. Public diplomacy events create opportunities for conversations with highly placed political and economic contacts. Exchanges reward some of the mission’s best contacts. Public-facing platforms offer customer-service information to clients of consular and commercial sections. Public diplomacy personnel take photos and videos that help illustrate the value of overseas diplomatic work to domestic audiences. They sometimes assist in crafting speeches, even for non-public events.

Doing better means listening more to the practitioners out in the field, to those interacting directly with the audiences we want to reach.

Too often, these activities are done reactively, in response to demands from Washington offices, post leadership, or even host-country requests, and not as a part of a clear vision of how to best utilize limited resources (and they are always limited) to greatest effect in advancing US strategic goals and interests. Where will our efforts have the most impact, and is that where they are directed? The answer, unfortunately, is often a vague argument based on anecdotes and perhaps a few sparse numbers. This can be done better. Doing better means listening more to the practitioners out in the field, to those interacting directly with the audiences we want to reach. The State Department can develop a more focused approach that allows it to really utilize the best resource it has—its people—and helps make their work more efficient and effective.

Empower leadership and set a clear strategic direction

The proliferation of public diplomacy goals calls out for strategic-planning capacity. The State Department needs leaders at every level of the institution, in public diplomacy roles and beyond, to make sure that their activities fit into an overall foreign policy strategy. They must be empowered to ask whether what they are doing is working, to direct resources toward activities likely to succeed, and to say no when asked to divert resources toward non-mission-critical tasks. To this end, we recommend the following.

Appoint and confirm an under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs (R) immediately. Nearly eight months into a new administration, this is the only under secretary position at the State Department that remains vacant without a nominee. The absence of a presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed leader for U.S. public diplomacy in a time of multiple global crises is both unwise and inexcusable. The R family bureaus, as they are known in the State Department, and the work of public diplomacy professionals at embassies abroad, have been without a Senate-confirmed leader for more than a third of the time since the United States Information Agency was integrated into the State Department in October 1999.3Matt Armstrong, “tl;dr edition of ‘W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy,’” Mountain Runner, June 14, 2021, https://mountainrunner.us/2021/06/tldr-whither-r/. Other under secretary positions have not sat vacant for such lengthy periods of time. In a bureaucratic institution, any segment of that institution that doesn’t have an empowered leader in high-level meetings suffers. In a federal agency, that group not only suffers within its own institution, but it suffers in interagency discussions, including, in this case, national security discussions.

However, it is not enough simply to fill this role. The person selected for this role should be an institution builder, someone excited about diving into the hard, and often thankless, work of leading organizational change. They should have a thorough understanding of the current tools of US public diplomacy and how these tools support broader policy goals. Finally, they should be asked to commit to spend a full term in office to carry through the necessary work of reform.

Create clear roles and define responsibilities. It must be clear who is empowered to make decisions and decide priorities—anything else is a recipe for doing many things poorly. As this report will discuss later, we believe this should start by pushing authority and capacity to the State Department’s public affairs officers and their staff in the field. In Washington, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs should set the tone for the US government’s messaging and outreach to international audiences. This designation must extend outside of the State Department to include coordination of public messaging conducted by other US government agencies with presences abroad.

The role of the under secretary, as outlined in the Foreign Affairs Manual, should be updated to reflect changes in R family bureaus and establish clear channels for the under secretary for public diplomacy between the R family and other bureaus, particularly regional bureaus. Updates should draw a clearer connection between regional bureau deputy assistant secretaries responsible for public diplomacy and the R family. As in at least one past administration, the under secretary should also seek a formal consultative role in the selection of public affairs officers for overseas posts.

Conduct a comprehensive review of the recent reorganization of the public diplomacy bureaus. In 2019, the R family underwent a major reorganization, as the bureaus of Public Affairs (PA) and International Information Programs (IIP) were in large part folded into one new one, Global Public Affairs (GPA) except for some units incorporated into the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) or the under secretary’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources (R/PPR). Now, a few years into the reorganization, the State Department should review that structural change by seeking feedback from public diplomacy practitioners in the field and domestic offices, as well as conducting an objective evaluation of how the changes have affected the execution of public diplomacy, both externally and internally. Is the reorganization working as intended? What adjustments need to be made?

Include public diplomacy input in policy decision-making. Too often public diplomacy is brought into the conversation only after a policy has been decided upon. Yet the success or failure of many foreign policy initiatives depends on the views and behaviors of foreign publics. Public diplomacy should inform policymaking with insights about the interests of foreign publics while also providing mechanisms to influence how key audiences receive and react to US policies. How a policy will be communicated and received by foreign publics should be considered as a matter of policy itself. Anticipating the impact of US policy decisions on foreign publics will permit the State Department to craft proactive programming and messaging campaigns instead of reactive ones.

The State Department must also help public diplomacy professionals develop messages and programming that confront the United States’ experience with racial injustice honestly and humbly, and connect the ongoing struggle for justice in the United States with similar events around the world.

Lead on diversity and inclusion issues. Public diplomacy professionals will be more successful when they draw on all of the United States’ diversity. Recognizing this, and in line with a series of reports on this topic in recent months, the new leaders of the State Department’s public diplomacy bureaus should solicit feedback from career staff on how the public diplomacy bureaus can lead the department on diversity and inclusion. These efforts could include, for example, working with the Global Talent Management bureau to track and share diversity numbers in the public diplomacy workforce, expanding mentorship and sponsorship programs to secure career-advancing jobs for people from historically marginalized backgrounds, and creating incentives for senior public diplomacy professionals to participate seriously in these programs.4Uzra Zeya and Jon Finer, “Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 2020, https://www.cfr.org/report/revitalizing-state-department-and-american-diplomacy; Nicholas Burns, Marc Grossman, and Marcie Ries, “A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Century,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, November 2020, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/us-diplomatic-service-21st-century; Jason Bair, “State Department: Additional Steps Are Needed to Identify Barriers to Workforce Diversity,” United States Government Accountability Office, June 17, 2020, https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/707658.pdf. Public diplomacy bureaus should also collaborate with the office of the State Department’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer to ensure that those selected to lead public diplomacy bureaus and offices—roles in which representation is especially valuable—reflect the broad diversity of the United States.

When it comes to public diplomacy, however, a commitment to diversity requires more than personnel changes. The State Department must also help public diplomacy professionals develop messages and programming that confront the United States’ experience with racial injustice honestly and humbly and connect the ongoing struggle for justice in the United States with similar events around the world. Ambassador Natalie Brown’s statement in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection offers a model of what this could look like.5Natalie Brown, “Statement by U.S. Ambassador Natalie E. Brown on the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol Building and the Nurturing of Democracy,” US Embassy Kampala, January 8, 2021. US leadership, starting with the president and the secretary of state, must serve as models of how to message on topics of diversity and inclusion effectively, and should incorporate sessions on this topic in public diplomacy training.6Jeffrey Engel, “Biden Must Offer America a New Definition of Itself, a Broader Idea of Freedom,” Dallas Morning News, January 17, 2021, https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2021/01/17/biden-must-offer-america-a-new-definition-of-itself-a-broader-idea-of-freedom/.

Reevaluating what others in the world actually think of the United States, acknowledging US shortcomings, and asking what they want out of a relationship with the United States can help the United States regain credibility in the global marketplace of ideas.

Finally, the State Department should work toward a goal of making the Americans selected for its highly competitive international exchange programs diverse and representative of the US population. This will start with collecting and publishing (aggregated and anonymized) data on the participant pool and using this data to target recruitment resources at underrepresented groups. With regards to programs that bring foreign participants to the United States, the department should consider what diversity data would be appropriate to collect in each cultural setting in which we work. This should be approached with careful recognition of the sensitivity of certain information (e.g., sexual orientation or religion) that in some cultures might be extremely private or risky to share. The Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs has begun examining these questions, and its efforts should be encouraged and supported with resources and high-level attention.

Reevaluate the tone and content of US messaging around democratic values. There is a disconnect between what foreign audiences can see on their TV and smartphone screens (including unfounded accusations of a stolen election and the storming of the US Capitol on January 6) and the self-congratulatory, US-focused messaging coming out of the State Department in recent years. To preserve and rebuild US credibility and influence overseas, the next under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and the department spokesperson should lead a comprehensive rethink of how US public messaging can advocate for US values and policy interests without coming across as tone-deaf to how America is now perceived. Many around the world still look to the United States as a leading nation, but few are interested in following its lead without question. Reevaluating what others in the world actually think of the United States, acknowledging US shortcomings, and asking what foreign publics want out of a relationship with the United States can help the United States regain credibility in the global marketplace of ideas.

Build a culture of transparency and responsiveness. The first signal of this much-needed cultural shift has arrived already with the return of daily press briefings at the State Department. Daily press briefings are a symbol of the United States’ commitment to press freedom and a means to drive public conversations on key policies. With the press briefings restored, the department should consider creative ways to take questions from nontraditional media and media representatives not present in the room. It could also use technology to engage speakers remotely—for example, by including a US ambassador in a briefing on a topic related to the country in which they are posted.

Cautious, faceless institutional social media accounts are not able to engage effectively in the many forms of digital communication that have proliferated globally in recent years.

More broadly, leadership should empower staff around the world to engage in good-faith efforts to conduct public diplomacy—even if these efforts sometimes inevitably fall flat. This policy should include a review of current rules governing personal and official use of social media to enable staff to participate effectively in public and private conversations online while exercising good judgment. A refreshed policy (designed in collaboration with a diverse set of career staff) should make clear what lines employees should not cross and how the department will handle situations in which an employee’s social media posts attract significant public attention. However, it should also emphasize that the department will reward, and not punish, thoughtful risk taking. Cautious, faceless institutional social media accounts are not able to engage effectively in the many forms of digital communication that have proliferated globally in recent years.

Match staffing, training, and resources to strategic priorities. As stated above, this report does not attempt to prescribe what the priority goals for US public diplomacy ought to be. However, it is critical that the department’s leaders, once they have arrived at a set of strategic priorities, consciously and thoughtfully embed those priorities in staffing, training, funding, and organizational structure across the entire department. Strong leadership through an appointed under secretary is imperative for this effort. If, for example, countering online misinformation and disinformation is a priority, then the department ought to convene a process to identify the factors that make societies susceptible to disinformation, assess these factors in each country where it works, train public diplomacy practitioners in best practices for responding to disinformation narratives, and equip them with access to analytics and data to identify these narratives quickly. The department must coordinate its efforts and share new capacities widely, not keep them siloed in specialized offices or disparate efforts, and it should invite outside experts (including US and foreign civil society) to collaborate and inform its thinking.

Build campaign design and evaluation capacity

US public diplomacy has been too slow to integrate modern communications techniques and technologies into its core business model. This relates to a broader need to foster a culture of learning within public diplomacy, to keep pace with a fast-changing world. Too often, the State Department designs messages and programs according to its best guesses of what works, rather than evidence of what works. Even when it collects data on the impact of its programs, they are not stored in formats that allow the department to measure progress over time or compare different audiences.

Fortunately, this is an area in which leadership has taken notice and begun to take action. We applaud the development of a new integrated software suite for practitioners that integrates contact management, event planning, budgeting, and grantmaking functions—replacing less efficient systems currently used by public diplomacy professionals. But, creating the tools is only half the battle. The State Department must ensure its tools are intuitive to use and that they assist practitioners in actually carrying out their day-to-day work, rather than simply adding another reporting demand on the time of overburdened public diplomacy sections. Staff must be properly trained and incentivized to adopt these new tools and methods to plan and execute programs more effectively. To that end, we recommend the following.

Too often, the State Department designs messages and programs according to its best guesses of what works, rather than evidence of what works.

Reinforce a design-thinking approach to program and campaign development. Too often, public diplomacy planning starts from existing programs, not real-world problems. The design-thinking framework offers a process for defining goals, gathering insight from the people who will be affected by US policies, rapidly prototyping solutions, and testing them for further refinement.7Scott Doorley et al., “Design Thinking Bootleg,” d.school, Stanford University, 2018, https://dschool.stanford.edu/resources/design-thinking-bootleg. We are glad that strategic-planning tools are taught in public diplomacy training, but staff members must be encouraged, empowered, and evaluated in their application of what they are being taught. Design activities and tools must become a normal part of the day-to-day routine of public diplomacy sections and offices. This must start with public commitments by department leadership to promote a learning culture and actions to back up that commitment, including granting people the time away from their daily activities to engage in training and campaign design. The under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs could also consider reviving and scaling up private-sector design-thinking training, such as the Institute for Design + Public Policy, organized through a partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design.8“Institute for Design & Public Policy @ RISD,” US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, September 2, 2015, https://eca.state.gov/video/institute-design-public-policy-risd.

Use analytics to gather useful insights. New tools to analyze the social media landscape and other datasets offer immense sources of information on what conversations are taking place, what arguments are being mustered for or against certain policies, and how audiences are responding to our messages. Analytics do not provide a complete picture of success or failure, but they can offer a complement to other kinds of data. The State Department should build workflows that analyze who is accessing its websites, what appears in searches for key search terms in countries around the world, and what sentiments characterize key audiences’ social media conversations on topics of interest. To the extent that privacy and paperwork-reduction laws create unintended limitations on its abilities to use digital analytics and other modern engagement tools, the State Department must make the case to Congress to modernize these laws to permit data-driven public diplomacy work while respecting privacy.

Make listening tools more available and integrate them into our work. The State Department has taken steps to build capacity to use surveys, focus groups, and social media analytics to inform policy and programs, but these approaches are not standard practice. Long lead times for both contracting and design, high costs, and a lack of staff trained to draw data-driven insights can be major impediments for public diplomacy sections. To effectively integrate data into planning and evaluation, the State Department should expand training on research methods and data-driven program design. As we will discuss below, the department must create better linkages between expertise in these methods in Washington, DC, and the field, and expand that capacity where needed. The department must develop better contracting mechanisms for quick-turnaround public-opinion research, including, where appropriate, online and short-messaging service (SMS) surveys, and text-based focus groups. It should also explore ready-made ratings and audience-research products and standardize the work of media monitoring, ideally training contracted staff to do this to a uniform standard around the world.

Use modern contact databases to maintain relationships with key audiences. When key contacts are locked away in individuals’ phones, spreadsheets, or files of physical business cards, maintaining relationships through inevitable staff transitions is nearly impossible. This is thankfully an area in which much progress has already been made at State, driven in large part by public diplomacy practitioners, to move toward a universal contact relationship management (CRM) platform. This transition has taken nearly five years, and a serious change-management strategy is needed to help staff scale the learning curve and use this software to its full potential. This could mean, for instance, expanding capacity to regularly check in with posts overseas, refresh their skills, and listen to their feedback on how the new tools do or don’t meet their needs.

Integrate monitoring and evaluation into our work. In recent years, the office of the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs has rightfully emphasized incorporating monitoring and evaluation plans into major initiatives. However, our own experiences and conversations with colleagues suggest many posts lack the necessary staff capacity to design and carry out consistent project monitoring and the ability to design and execute evaluations. Besides a lack of training and misplaced incentives that reward claims of success even if they are made without evidence, public diplomacy staff members are simply constantly pressed for time. Recognizing this reality, evaluation staff in Washington should consider models of collaboration in which evaluation specialists work remotely with staff in the field to better understand when they should formally evaluate programs and to co-create and implement monitoring and evaluation plans for priority campaigns to help them do so.

Clearly define success and reward honest reporting. We must break ourselves of the habit of describing every completed program in glowing terms. Doing so risks replicating failing programs and losing credibility with foreign audiences, Congress, and the American people. Metrics of success should be defined at the same time the program is being designed, and later reported on without spin. This will not only make our policies better but will also help describe the longer-term and indirect benefits of public diplomacy programming. Building a truly evidence-based approach to public diplomacy will also require creating incentives to report on efforts that fall short of their targets. Public diplomacy leadership could consider offering “lessons learned” awards for staff members who wind down and/or draw insights from unsuccessful programs. It could also involve additional training on how to structure grants flexibly and review performance constructively. Public diplomacy officers and local staff must also accept the difficult responsibility of eliminating programs that are not advancing current foreign policy objectives and they should be celebrated for doing so.

Fund and use research on what works in public diplomacy. As the department collects more data on its activities, we must use this information to identify trends in what we do and how well it works. The department should expand training for its staff on how to collect and use data, and should also pursue partnerships with external partners to conduct quantitative and qualitative research on US public diplomacy. The Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and the Office of Policy, Planning, and Research (R/PPR) have evaluation units and require evaluation plans as part of applications for funding. That information, however, is rarely aggregated to provide an overall look at what is effective in public diplomacy. Collaboration with academic researchers can help fill this gap.

Reorient processes to support staff and programs overseas

Most public diplomacy professionals who have spent time overseas understand the need to start any public effort by listening to and understanding one’s audience. Policy guidance painstakingly drafted and cleared in Washington often does not connect with foreign publics. Social media content produced in Washington rarely produces levels of engagement as high as locally produced content. Cultural programs developed in Washington do not always resonate overseas. Especially in places where the United States’ brand is weak, US government speakers are often not the ideal messengers for US policy positions.

We need to strike a better balance between the things Washington is good at—centralizing messages, deploying highly placed US diplomats, and fitting public diplomacy into global policy initiatives—and the things that are best done in the field. To do this, we recommend the following.

Invest in overseas staff. The work of public diplomacy increasingly requires not only good judgment and creativity, but also constantly refreshed skills in digital design, data analytics, and program evaluation, among other areas of expertise. We must make sure we are recruiting and hiring people who have these specialized skillsets, and must make training a regular practice. For many employees, especially locally employed staff (who constitute the majority of the public diplomacy workforce), training is a rarity. Dedicated training budgets are often nonexistent and international trips to attend courses are seen as a perk to be awarded sparingly. This must change. We should make the opportunity to learn from the best and expand one’s skills a key selling point as we seek to attract and retain talent.

As we look past the end of Covid-enforced telework, we must harness some of the new remote-collaboration tools we have adopted to enable continuous skills development for public diplomacy staff. Ideally, this would come not only in the form of virtual instruction, but also through mentorship and project-based collaboration with experts in digital communication, grant management, and (as discussed above) program evaluation. The State Department should appropriately resource and staff public diplomacy training to experiment with new distance-learning models, perhaps adapting formats from current distance language courses that help staff maintain and develop language skills through a combination of asynchronous course content and synchronous coaching sessions with a teacher.

Content produced in Washington and translated into a handful of commonly spoken languages is not a substitute for increasing resources to produce content tailored to key audiences overseas.

Emphasize local content production. The State Department’s overseas public diplomacy sections have worked hard to build large digital audiences. This puts many of them in the position of running a small media-production company. However, resources for digital content production are hard to come by. In small and even medium-sized public diplomacy sections, it is not uncommon to have a single staff member who serves as video producer, graphic designer, photographer, webmaster, and social media manager. Content produced in Washington and translated into a handful of commonly spoken languages is not a substitute for increasing resources to produce content tailored to key audiences overseas. The department should make it simpler to procure content-production services locally. Regional public diplomacy offices in Washington should instruct posts to make use of local vendors, offer them standardized contracts for content production, and set clear rules for contracting with local influencers to produce and distribute content.

As an important corollary to expanding in-field content production, the State Department should rethink its Content Commons platform to include high-quality templates for social media graphics, presentations, and videos and selected content produced in the field. This last addition would allow posts, in some cases, to repurpose content created by other posts. It would also allow them to take inspiration from content produced by other posts, searching by keywords or tags.

Expand American Spaces. American cultural centers, known globally as American Spaces and locally by a host of names including American Centers and American Corners, can serve as focal points of communities of people who share an interest in the United States, US culture, and US values. Especially when paired with other public diplomacy programs, American Spaces can extend the reach of US missions far beyond their walls—and outside of capital cities.

The State Department should resist the urge to consolidate its resources in a limited number of expensive American Spaces. Instead, it should seek out and support partnerships with a wider range of local governments and universities, and allow enthusiastic exchange alumni or others to create American Spaces in their own communities. As security protocols at US diplomatic facilities have become more stringent, American Spaces offer more inviting venues where those interested audiences can engage with the United States and meet likeminded peers. To thrive, however, they must be closely linked into other US public diplomacy programs, so that they magnify the impacts of those programs.

Support networks of exchange alumni. In many countries, alumni of US exchange programs are the most convincing speakers on many of the issues on which public diplomacy sections work. We can do a better job of equipping posts to use alumni networks to amplify our messages, including by making sure our alumni databases are robust enough to assemble groups of alumni with shared interests or other points of connection as needed. Through well-organized, self-governing alumni networks, we should offer alumni programs that train alumni to communicate effectively, build and manage their professional brands and social media presences, and identify public-speaking opportunities. We can also formalize relationships between alumni and American Spaces in their communities, offering grants for alumni to lead programs at their local American Space. Finally, as we will discuss further, we can engage more closely with US exchange alumni, encouraging them to remain connected with the countries to which they traveled and linking networks of US exchange alumni with alumni networks overseas.

Identify and train foreign-language spokespeople. Especially in places where the predominant languages are considered “super hard” for native English speakers, the State Department has few US staff with the language skills and media training to engage fluidly and on message on broadcast and social media. The foreign-language spokespeople embedded in regional media hubs for Spanish, French, Arabic, and Russian help to fill this gap, but each post should have at least two officers who have completed rigorous, on-camera media training, and who participate in refresher sessions virtually during their tours. These officers could be public diplomacy officers, or they could be deputy chiefs of mission or other section chiefs. Ambassadors should also receive on-camera media training, ideally in the language of the country in which they serve.

Renew public diplomacy’s domestic dimension

The best salespeople for the United States remain the American people, a population blessed with diversity and creativity and marked by its generosity. Public diplomacy must do more to involve more Americans in dialogue with people around the world, and US diplomats must engage the American people with firsthand accounts of how international connectivity benefits the United States. Doing so may also help more Americans come to understand the value of the work we do—and develop a new set of champions of public diplomacy. To do this, we recommend the following.

Public diplomacy must do more to involve more Americans in dialogue with people around the world, and US diplomats must engage the American people with firsthand accounts of how international connectivity benefits the United States.

Reimagine how we connect with Congress. To sustain a public diplomacy strategy over time, we must do a better job of demonstrating the impact of our work to those who fund it. The stability and longevity of programs like the Fulbright and International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) exchange programs are due in large part to congressional champions of those public diplomacy tools. As the State Department seeks authorization and resources to transform how it conducts public diplomacy, regularly engaging Congress about our approach to foreign policy should be a top priority.

Changing the culture of interactions with Congress to encourage more consistent conversations between State Department staff and Hill staff (not just those interactions directed or managed by legislative-affairs functions) would be a step in the right direction. Similarly, we encourage Congress to replace many of the reports the State Department is required by law to produce with online databases that would serve as a living record of activity and nudge the department to upgrade its evidence-collection and knowledge-management practices.

Expand domestic outreach to raise awareness of diplomacy nationally—especially among historically marginalized communities. The State Department’s Office of Public Liaison already organizes public appearances that send US diplomats into communities across the United States to start conversations about US foreign policy. We should dramatically scale up these efforts, initially through capitalizing on virtual platforms, and should build relationships with community groups beyond the traditional discussion forums (Rotary Clubs or World Affairs Councils). Volunteering for domestic outreach should be made opt-out and included in standard onboarding procedures for State Department staff. The State Department can leverage the same database-driven contact-management and marketing platforms pioneered by public diplomacy overseas to identify employees best positioned to connect with specific domestic audiences. We should also develop a strategy to encourage Americans who have traveled overseas on US government exchanges to share their experiences with audiences in the United States upon their return.

This mission will require significant investments in staff time, far outstripping the current capacity of the Office of Public Liaison. In the short term, the department should stand up part-time task forces of staff with ties to each US state or territory to help plan programs that reach their home communities. In the medium term, we should consider repurposing existing funds to invest in an expanded public-liaison office. In the longer term, we should develop staffing plans that would station State Department public diplomacy staff in communities around the country to involve more Americans in communicating with foreign audiences. These positions would supplement the work of diplomats in residence, who are charged with recruiting candidates for State Department careers.9“Transforming the State Department,” Truman Center for National Policy, March 5, 2021, https://www.trumancenter.org/issues-posts/transforming-the-state-department/.

Build up virtual programs to connect global audiences to people and places across the United States. Virtual diplomacy became a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. This experience, however, has hinted at new possibilities for involving more people in the work of public diplomacy. Just as the State Department convened a task force to consider how to enhance our remote-work capacity during the pandemic, the department should thoroughly consider how virtual programs can be incorporated beyond the end of the pandemic to connect communities within the United States with communities in other countries. Properly organized and resourced, virtual programs could allow US embassies around the world to tap into a far deeper pool of US-based talent. With better virtual tools, embassies could design exchanges that build lasting networks of common interest between the United States and other countries while simultaneously building a US constituency that is directly involved in (and perhaps more supportive of) the mission of diplomacy.

Help more US universities forge mutually beneficial partnerships with foreign universities. US universities are eager to recruit foreign students, and foreign universities are often interested in exchange opportunities for their students, as well as research collaboration and training. US embassies and consulates are in prime positions to facilitate connections between universities, and to help each side understand the structure and culture of the other. However, we need a new model that is not reliant on the department funding joint activities through grants to implementing organizations. Longtime partners of the State Department have developed university-partnership models and tools we could explore to develop a sustainable model focused on relationship building. Building stronger institutional connections internationally—while remaining appropriately cautious of opening doors to the undue financial or political influence of adversaries, competitors, or even allied nations—will help foster increased individual student and faculty exchanges. There is a strong economic case for doing so, as recent declines in foreign student enrollment have led to lost revenue for US universities and their communities.10Julie Baer and Mirka Martel, “Fall 2020 International Student Enrollment Snapshot,” Institute for International Education, November 2020, https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Fall-International-Enrollments-Snapshot-Reports.

A significant share of these partnerships should focus on English-language education. Any student around the world studying English has a natural reason to at least consider connecting with the United States. Programs like the English Language Fellows and Specialists, English Access Microscholarship Program, Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, and Online Professional English Network create lasting connections with emerging leaders and allow people to receive information about the United States directly from US sources.

Conclusion

This report represents the ideas and aspirations of one set of professionals who have devoted their careers to US public diplomacy. We are proud to join a growing chorus of public diplomacy professionals and outside observers calling out for a reassessment of public diplomacy’s means and ends. In the past year, a range of publications from the University of Southern California (USC) Center on Public Diplomacy’s Jay Wang, the Public Diplomacy Council, former US Ambassador Michael McFaul, and Kathryn Davis Public Diplomacy Fellow Mike Pryor have all discussed ways to upgrade US public diplomacy for the modern era.11Jian (Jay) Wang, “Rethinking Public Diplomacy for a Post-Pandemic World,” Foreign Service Journal, July/August 2020, https://www.afsa.org/rethinking-public-diplomacy-post-pandemic-world; Sherry Lee Mueller and Joel Anthony Fischman, “Memorandum for President-Elect Biden—Public Diplomacy: Re-engaging the World,” Public Diplomacy Council, November 29, 2020, https://www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org/2020/11/29/memorandum-for-president-elect-biden/; Michael McFaul, “Sell It Again, Uncle Sam,” American Purpose, January 13, 2021, https://www.americanpurpose.com/articles/sell-it-again-uncle-sam/; Mike Pryor, “Rethinking U.S. Public Diplomacy,” American Ambassadors Live, November 25, 2020, https://www.americanambassadorslive.org/post/rethinking-u-s-public-diplomacy. The push for data-driven public diplomacy began almost a decade ago.12“Data-Driven Public Diplomacy Progress Towards Measuring the Impact of Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting Activities,” Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, September 16, 2014, https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/231945.pdf. Some of these issues have been debated since the turn of this century—or earlier.13“Public Diplomacy: A Review of Past Recommendations,” Congressional Research Service, October 31, 2005, https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20051031_RL33062_57f980a49cd2be222ce728221e8041e46c12634d.pdf.

Our most fervent hope is that the State Department will approach change by building processes that allow us to prototype, refine, and adjust as we go and by inviting career public diplomacy professionals at every level of seniority to participate in the design process.

A concerted effort to reimagine and retool US public diplomacy was already long overdue. The damage the United States’ image incurred in recent years has turned it into an urgent priority. Should leadership choose to prioritize rebuilding and strengthening US public diplomacy institutions, we believe the career staff of the department is ready to turn the page on old turf battles and contribute ideas, time, and energy to the necessary work of organizational and cultural change. The ingredients of success are already at hand. In many cases, we have recommended accelerating the widespread adoption of practices that are already working at limited scale, or resourcing and training staff in the field to use tools that now exist. Our most fervent hope is that the State Department will approach change by building processes that allow us to prototype, refine, and adjust as we go and by inviting career public diplomacy professionals at every level of seniority to participate in the design process.

Acknowledgements

We deeply appreciate the feedback and encouragement we received from colleagues and mentors within and outside the State Department. In one-on-one conversations and at a group virtual discussion of this report convened by fp21, they offered agreement, pushed back, and reframed our thinking. Thank you to all those who contributed thoughts, including Maha Armush, Matt Armstrong, Shawn Baxter, Caitlin Bergin, Rachael Chen, Nick Cull, Camille Dawson, Brian Drozd, Nicole Finnemann, Lauren Gibson, Ryan Gliha, Carissa Gonzalez, Bruce Gregory, Peter Kovach, Paul Kruchoski, Kristin Lord, Ellen Masi, Michael McFaul, Tristram Perry, Dale Prince, Mike Pryor, Luis Renta, Maryum Saifee, Amelia Shaw, Vivian Walker, and Aleisha Woodward.

Summary of recommendations

Empower leadership to set a clear strategic direction

  • Appoint and confirm under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs (R) immediately.
  • Create clear roles and define responsibilities.
  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the recent reorganization of the public diplomacy bureaus.
  • Include public diplomacy input in policy decision-making.
  • Lead on diversity and inclusion issues.
  • Reevaluate the tone and content of US messaging around democratic values.
  • Build a culture of transparency and responsiveness.
  • Match staffing, training, and resources to strategic priorities.

Build campaign design and evaluation capacity

  • Reinforce a design-thinking approach to program and campaign development.
  • Use analytics to gather useful insights.
  • Make listening tools more available and integrate them into our work.
  • Use modern contact databases to maintain relationships with key audiences.
  • Clearly define success and reward honest reporting.
  • Fund and use more research on what works in public diplomacy.

Reorient to support staff and programs overseas

  • Invest in overseas staff.
  • Emphasize local content production.
  • Expand American Spaces.
  • Support networks of exchange alumni.
  • Identify and train foreign-language spokespeople.

Renew public diplomacy’s domestic dimension

  • Reimagine how we connect with Congress.
  • Expand domestic outreach to raise awareness of diplomacy nationally—especially among historically marginalized communities.
  • Build up virtual programs to connect global audiences to people and places across the United States.
  • Help more US universities forge mutually beneficial partnerships with foreign universities.

Contributors

  • Wren Elhai, foreign service officer since 2011
  • Marta Churella, civil servant since 2007
  • Naima Green-Riley, political scientist, Atlantic Council nonresident fellow, and former foreign service officer 2010–2015
  • Amirah Ismail, foreign service officer since 2011
  • Graham Lampa, director of digital and data at Atlantic Council and former civil servant 2009–2018
  • Molly Moran, faculty at Miami University of Ohio and former civil servant 2010–2019
  • Jeff Ridenour, foreign service officer since 2011
  • Dan Spokojny, CEO, fp21 and former foreign service officer 2009–2016
  • Megan Tetrick, foreign service officer since 2008

Media inquiries may be referred to [email protected]nticcouncil.org.

Atlantic Council contributors

Related Experts: Graham Lampa and Naima Green-Riley

Image: Illustration by Amirah Ismail