Archive for September, 2010

Events this week had me thinking once again about how immediate and urgent the need is for the US to significantly enhance its’ public diplomacy activities.

I was invited by the CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Lee Hamilton (also the former co-chair of the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group), to participate in his Center’s new project to design a business plan for an independent organization to conduct US public diplomacy.

The first meeting of the Wilson Center project took place this past week. Much of the discussion centered on the urgent need to harness more of the country’s strategic communication talent to utilize all the communication tools in the tool box (especially new and social media), and to call upon the human and financial resources of corporations, foundations, universities, nonprofits, and other organizations, to explain the “idea of America” around the world. 

The most compelling argument is that establishing such an organization independent of prevailing government policy is the only way to achieve genuine communication credibility. In other words, there is nothing more credible, or powerful, than people-to-people communication.

The turmoil at the United Nations this week (most especially the Iranian leader Ahmadinejad’s accusation that the US planned the 9/11 attack) further underscored the urgency of this need. With dangerous threats and active isolation coming from countries like Iran, North Korea, and the former Burma, with conflicts continuing in the middle east, parts of Africa, and even in China, it’s abundantly clear that as many Americans as possible must be called upon to tell our story to the rest of the world.

True, there are a number of organizations, agencies, and departments of government, currently performing some role in public diplomacy. But these efforts lack coordination, and therefore are failing to achieve the intensity necessary to be effective. In other words, they are failing to break through the paralyzing clutter and confusion of today’s information environment.

And so the Wilson Center project declared this week that the time is now to mobilize as many Americans as possible to use all means necessary, including all the new media tools available to us, to talk directly as possible to all the people of the world about what individual freedom in the United States really is like!  

I hear this as a “call to arms” for all of us in the strategic communication profession.

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Ever since my recent trip to Australia, I can’t stop thinking about how rapidly everything in education is becoming global.

One person in one of my sessions at the conference I was attending said his institution is small and regional and therefore doubted that these issues would effect it. Another person quickly responded that if students are to receive a relevant education, the curricula in all subjects will have to be internationally oriented, and study abroad will have to appropriately expand in all institutions. Further, I would add that schools around the world will eventually be recruiting students and raising money in everone’s neighborhood, so no matter your size or location, you will not be able to avoid these industry changing forces.

Our discussion pointed out that the internationalizaton of the world economy will have many institutions considering building campuses abroad, although many are likely to find this approach may not be cost effective for them.  Rather they will seek research and project partners with compatible institutions and institutes, they will set up student and faculty exchanges, or find partner institutions, or draw up agreements between specific academic programs. Some will require a semester or two abroad, and others will actually offer joint degree programs. And still others will imagine how they might become a truly transnational, or multinational, institution.

Governments will also change how they fund education and more emphasis will rest on those in the advancement professions of fund raising, alumni cultivation, student recriting, and reputation building. And so the big issues of funding sources and educational entitlement will persist, with different formulas appearing in different places. 

Global rankings will provide the same issues on an international scale that many of us have faced on a national scale.  Entities outside our profession will establish our quality criteria for us, and this will tend to make those institutions that seek higher rankings all look alike. Those of us with differentiated identities that define unique competitive advantages will have to become quite sophisticated in finding our internationl markets, just as we have previously on a smaller scale.

No doubt about it, this time of “sea change” in education is both frightening and exciting.  Experience teaches, however, that the most secure place to be in times like this is to lead that change, correcting quickly when mistakes are made, but pressing ahead nontheless… and learning as we go.

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I spent the last week in Adelaide, South Australia, participating in a conference of advancement professionals from Australia, New Zealand and many other countries around the world. It’s a long, long way to travel and I was reluctant to go.

Very quickly, however, I was reminded that nothing replaces “being there,” even in this internet-dominated world.

Participation with other cultures quickly reveals that while the specifics of problem-solving can be quite different in different places, the big issues everywhere are very much the same.

Even on the international stage, movers and shakers become so by moving and shaking in person! Many of them were present at this conference, and engaged participation was their apparent key to influence and effectiveness. Having fresh ideas was their most important qualification.  Collecting them, and then adapting them through local collaboration, was their chosen path to prominent international influence.

It therefore also became clear that trying to look like an expert on other places and cultures is actually unnecessary, and perhaps even unwise. It became obvious that all effective communication is fundamentally local, and acknowleding that you know this, and knowing how to get that help when you need it, is really the key to earning widespread professional respect. The simplicity and significance of lessons like this are learned only by being there.

In the final analysis, if you want to know and be known internationally (or even locally for that matter), either as an individual or as an organization, you must first show up!

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This week I found myself reflecting on all the travel I do, and I realized what I like mostly about it is just absorbing the everyday experiences of the people and the culture… observing what people are doing, seeing how they look, and fnding out what they are thinking is what interests me most.

It also occured to me how similar this is to discovering the essence of the brand identity for a university, and for many other organizations. It indeed is very challenging to find brand differentiation in very similar organizations. University and other institutional benefits descriptions can all sound alike. After all,  many have similar programs, offer similar activities, and even have similar quality goals.

I believe the very essence of the fabric of an institution is revealed only when spending time walking around, watching the behavior of people, having coffee or lunch, asking about experiences, absorbing the culture, and noting how values are acted out in day-to-day activities. You will find that many times those values are in fact shaped by local geography and the social traditions that have enolved over the years from founding missions.

Location, culture, and values enable discovering the differentiated and substantive brand identities of the largest, most comprehensive, institutions. And just spending time there observing, absorbing, and taking detailed notes, can give you all you need to know.

Some “tourists,” and many brand specialists, make sure to see all the attractions of a destination and then find that most offer the same features.  But others prefer to just be there for a while, and thereby come to know the true character of the place.  Culture and character, then, well communicated, can be the differentating factors in a destination’s brand distinction, and that is also very true for institutions.

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