Archive for September, 2012

Diplomacy is generally understood to be governments communicating with governments. It is primarily practiced through embassies and consulates around the world, and involves foreign service officers and ambassadors advancing their governments’ foreign policy objectives while collecting and researching essential political and economic information. Some governments argue they also practice “public” diplomacy. 

Public diplomacy generally takes two forms:  The first form is governments communicating directly with the publics of other nations. It is practiced through cultural and educational exchanges, as well as by providing local libraries, information centers, and educational programming.  It is also managed for the most part through embassies and consulates. Government sponsored international broadcasts (i.e. Voice of America, and BBC World Service) and other forms of mass media can also be seen as public diplomacy. And government sponosred public diplomacy is also usually driven mostly by foreign policy objectives.  

The second form of public diplomacy is direct people-to-people communication. At one time the United States had a government agency called the US Information Agency, or USIA. It was separate from the state department so many people  believe that this “independence” allowed it to practice this more direct form of people-to-people public diplomacy. But the function and funding of the USIA were significantly reduced during the Clinton administration, and then its functions were moved into the Department of State. Today this more direct form of public diplomacy is practiced mostly by nonprofit organizations such at Sister Cities International, and other similar NGO’s. A business plan for a new independent organization was recently developed during a project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and it will be interesting so see what happens next. Its champions are currently seeking start-up funding.

The practice of these forms of diplomacy and public diplomacy have been influenced by the same media revolution forces as all institutions and governments.  All have, or are developing, sophisticated websites, and have staff managing various forms of electronic newsletters, apps, and social media. For example, the state department has initiated several projects involving mobilizing youth to use social media to connect with youth in other parts of the world. And the  business plan of the proposed new organization referenced above outlines rather ambitious uses of various forms of media, from television programs to mobilizing university groups to help tell America’s story. Many of us in higher education also believe that international education is a very effective form of public diplomacy, bringing people together across cultures to achieve common understanding without a political agenda.

So far our study of media revolutions as a part of a TCU Honors College colloquium is indicating that while all international organizations are utilizing new media, the most compelling international media issue just might be the role and effectiveness of social media across cultures, and most especially across the closed borders of authoritarian regimes.  As we probe this question with visiting experts and guests, and as I interview colleagues, it seems that the real power of social media so far is in its ability to mobilize groups to action, and to set issue agendas.   However, the limitations of social media seem to be that they do not handle deeper substance well, and therefore are not effective in actual problem-solving.  For this, the use of “old’ media such as comprehensive reports, and most especially face-to-face meetings with conflict resolution objectives, are still required!

We will continue to explore this topic as we move forward with  future class sessions and interviews. But once again we are finding that while media roles change when new media appear, the old ones never disappear. Stay tuned for more thoughts and insights as we continue our adventure in media ideas.

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What is a ‘NGO?”  Since the term is not used consistently, providing a definition is challenging. Nonetheless, they are generally organizations that operate apart from government and are motivated by a social or human problem-solving cause. They almost always operate  internationally and yet are not overtly political. They almost always are supported by voluntary contributions and are in some way legally constituted. However, not all of them are  recognized in the US as legal “non-profits,” which have a more precise definition and an official tax-exempt status.

There are NGO’s that work in disaster relief, public health services, conservation, education, institution building, construction, social services, and much more. The United Nations supports many of their efforts, and actually might have originated the term.

There does not seem to be an accurate count of the number of NGO’s but most would agree that they number in the thousands. Many work in the most difficult countries under the most demanding conditions. And each country can present an entirely different set of communication challenges.  Many developing countries today have some level of media infrastructure and a working press. But many others have neither of these.  Some are in the midst of revolution and ongoing violence, while others are rural, mountainous and virtually inaccessible.  Nevertheless, there are almost always some NGO’s operating in every corner of the world.

The basic questions today for students of international communication are:  How have the operations of these cause-based organizations around the world been changed by the new digital and social media revolution?  Where do traditional media still dominate, and how? And just what is the specific situation in my countries of interest.

In the clutter of today’s information environment the importance of NGO’s often goes unrecognized. Yet there is no doubt they are a major force in the world. Everywhere we turn they are fully engaged in international problem-solving and are often actually leading the way in uses of digital media technology. Therefore, every student of communication will do well to study what these organizations are doing and how they are using new technology in some of the most  challenging situations.          

More international communication/media at:         www.icahdq.org         www.comminit.com

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Last spring I taught a graduate seminar on integrated marketing communication (IMC) and I asked the students about their reading habits in this new media world. They all said they still prefer printed books!  I was surprised.

But the responses I get about the future of books in my interviews of students and adults vary significantly. Some do agree that they still prefer printed books. Others, however, have made the complete transition to e-books.  Still others point out the limitations of moving back and forth in e-books in order to clarify or review specific points. Or they say underlining sentences and making margin notes is just too difficult, even though doing these is possible on most devices.  Of course, a few still flatly state that the book will be dead soon, and a few others admit they download e-books for travel and find themselves buying the hard copy too!    One literature scholar admitted she really likes leisurely reading fiction on e-books, but her professional reading still requires her to “work though a real book.”

Most publishers produce both e-books and printed books, and are very pleased to find that many customers will purchase both versions. I am afraid I am one of those people!  But e-books are less expensive to produce, require no warehouse storage, and are easy to download. They are also usually less expensive for the reader too. And the ease of purchase can result in more frequent sales.  As a result, I am told that many narrow market publishers are considering going exclusively to e-books. Only time will tell.

Libraries are going more and more digital every day too. Storage problems are better solved, searching is simplified, and acquisitions are generally less expensive. Institutions that are crammed with rows and rows and floors and floors of stacks can now be computerized learning centers with small group and team work areas, as well as furnished open areas for studying and thinking in comfort. Where total silence used to be required, now these electronic learning centers are becoming gathering places for the exploration and sharing of ideas.

In my honors class about media revolutions we remind ourselves every week that no medium ever completely goes away, but roles and uses certainly do change. So what will be the ultimate consequences of the changing role of books?  Is anything lost by converting to e-books?  Or, will a balance of  electronic and printed books be the final outcome?  Will people read less, or more?  And what about print publications in general?  Which uses will go electronic, and which will not?  One thing for sure, this media revolution is not over yet!

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Not too long ago the news media world in the United States was composed of a handful of television networks, a number of large national and local newspapers, and a few wire services.  Many of these outlets maintained news bureaus in other US cities as well as around world. And most were commercially successful. This enabled large staffs of reporters and editors to operate on the principle that all news sources must be confirmed, and all stories  thoroughly fact checked. In fact, this was pretty much the cardinal principle of professional journalism. But that was then, and this is now. 

Today, with the advent of 24/7 cable, news aggregators, bloggers, social media commentaries, and citizen i-phone reporters, the news media world has become a dramatically different landscape.  Cable channels now promote political biases without apology, bloggers have no editors to satisfy, aggregators create their own policies for selecting  stories, newspapers have been significantly reduced in reporting and editing capacity,  the major networks have lost audience numbers and revenue, capacity to cover international news has been reduced, and consumers are now on their own to make sense out of clutter.

The danger in all this is that consumers can now select their news sources based only on what they want to hear. They can feed their biases without making any attempt to reach out to new or other ideas. And so they might  not ever learn how to separate fact from fiction. Or, how to recognize misleading, out-of-context statements.  Over time, this kind of unedited “news” can exacerbate and reinforce an already polarized society. And since extreme statements make headlines every day, the news media eventually can become an accomplice in the crime!  

Right now the only answer seems to be educating consumers to take responsibility for regulating and editing their own news consumption.  How else in today’s digital world will they ever achieve thoughtful understanding and balanced thinking?  To be sure, in this new and digital world few in the news media are any longer in a position to protect the public’s interest.

But, if citizens must now become their own news editors, where will they learn how to do it… or why it’s so important?  This year, that will be the ultimate core question for me and the students in my “media revolutions ” class. And because democracies are certain to flounder without a well-informed citizenry, it also might be the core question for our society as well.

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One of the lessons of communication history is that media never completely disappear. How they are used, however,  is likely to change when more dominant media appear, or when using them over time clarifies their weaknesses and strengths. 

Since I have been leading a course about media revolutions at TCU I have been asking colleagues and students if their use of social media has changed since they first began using it. I have been especially interested in probing specifically how they have been using it, as well as what else they have been doing with their time.  What I have been hearing has been somewhat surprising.

The impression one can have from the countless individuals and organizations that tout using Facebook, consult LinkedIn, and tweet all day long is that the entire world now runs on social media. Using it is the only way to get anything accomplished, or so it seems.  But I have been hearing many colleagues, and even some students, say their use is now more clearly defined in their mind. They tell me they are using it primarily for social purposes, and not for more serious ones. The sensation of easily cultivating on-line relationships and feeling connected is its primary attraction, and that is what also can become an addiction for some. 

One colleague commented that he thought social media would continue to be important only for those who desire a large percentage of their time to be spent socially. He did think, however, that use will remain substantial enough for social media advertising to become increasingly more effective.

When I asked a visiting media expert if he tweets, he said, “not any more.” When I asked why, he said, “the novelty wore off.”  When I explored this with others I heard some say that they just didn’t have the time any longer to keep up with it.  They were seriously engaged professionals who didn’t think they had the time for continued and constant interaction with a mostly social medium.

Many explained that Facebook is great for having fun but it has serious limitations for doing substantive business.  Some also suggested that Twitter is too trivial for serious communication and consumes too much of an individual’s time. Some say it can make you better known initially but its effectiveness declines when communication needs  become more serious. Some just put social media in the category of a fad. They suggest it will continue to be a pastime for some but for others it will gradually become less fulfilling.

When LinkedIn was new it promised to be a gathering point for professional people with common interests.  Many now report that they are getting too many requests from people they don’t know, and so they now have no idea how to use it effectively to cull out talent. Apparently many companies still use it to review pools of people in specific job categories, but some tell me the larger the pool the more difficult it is to sort out the lists usefully. 

When it comes to international situations, however, many point out that Twitter has proven to have an incredible  ability to cross borders, especially those of closed societies.  And even in the US, it has been a powerful tool that can quickly assemble like-minded people, sometimes for demonstrations and protests and other times for parties and celebrations.  Indeed, entire countries and their government agencies are now exploring the potential of social media for this very reason. They have found it to be an efficient tool for building virtual relationships and connecting sympathetically with people in foreign cultures. In these cases its simple and social strengths advance a more serious and substantive cause.

All of this is anecdotal at this point. But as I explore the actual use of social media with colleagues and students it seems that its role is already changing for many of us. To be sure, social media will not go away. But as we use it more and more we may merely be confirming that it is indeed mostly social. We may also be confirming that this is both its limitation when it consumes too much of our time, and its strength when we use it purposefully.

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