Archive for August, 2013

Each week I try to watch Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS: Global Public Square. Over time, I find that his topics and guests achieve a level of context on complex foreign policy issues rarely found on television. Two guests on a recent program have had me thinking ever since. Their topic was simply…”making choices.”

Kent Greenfield is the author of The Myth of Choice, and Sheena Iyergar is the author of The Art of Choosing. A common theme that emerged in their conversation was that people actually prefer limited choices. While conventional wisdom might be that we all have come to prefer endless choices, Greenfield and Iyergar presented evidence that too many choices can confuse and cause many of us to make no choice at all.

Actual behavior observation revealed that when choices were limited many consumers were much more likely to act. For example, in a supermarket when a few brand choices were arranged and given a separate location, actual purchases increased. When there were too many choices confusion increased to where the ability to act was disrupted.

Insights like this always seem to apply to other situations. For example, I found myself actually relating this one to our local World Affairs Council schedule of events. Email notices promoting endless programs and events stream my way almost every day. As a result I am finding making choices very difficult. In the days when there were fewer choices I must admit each one seemed more compelling.

Also, I am now wondering to what degree this insight about choice applies to  communicating U.S. foreign policy. Are there just too many different message choices  flowing from too many places in government for any central idea, or objective, to make it through the clutter?  Or worse, can communicating more messages, even when they are positive, actually add to clutter and confusion?

Maybe significantly limiting the receiver’s choices of message points would have a better chance of breaking through this clutter. In other words, while constant 24/7 breaking news presenting opposing points of view each day almost insures widespread  confusion, should communication from the state department be simply one regularly repeated statement of our objective for each situation. And should that statement  be coordinated so all segments of government are consistently making the same one?

I certainly understand that focusing one simple message on each crisis situation will not achieve total world understanding. But would not such a coordinated effort at least limit negative perceptions a little, and in so doing enhance our credibility with some local and other opinion leaders who might then help us spread the word?

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Each fall TCU students identify a common reading for the entire university community. The idea is that everyone will read it and discussions will take place in classes and other groups. This year’s choice is about a Haitian family.

Brother I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticate, is a story of two brothers and a daughter’s love of them both. It is also a story about the split between family members still struggling in Haiti, and those that have come to the U.S. for greater opportunity.

Underlying this emotion filled family story is also an account of a confused up and down relationship between the two countries.

Haiti’s story is one of a steady succession of unsuccessful leaders. Many were ruthless. And mixed in with this sometimes violent turmoil has been weather events that literally devastated cities, raped the countryside, and wrecked the economy.

For a time after 1915 the U.S. became occupiers. At other times U.S. administrations varied in levels of interest and types of response. As a consequence, many Haitians developed negative attitudes about America. But others still dreamed of immigrating to the US for a better life. Many of these eventually became citizens, but now live with confused personal identities and families emotionally divided between the U.S. and their homeland.

This book leaves the reader thinking: Is it not time that we in the U.S. finally send out a clear message about what Haiti ultimately means to us? Do we share a common ideology? Is there a national security concern? Is it an important trading partner? Or do we just continue to help clean it up when it comes apart?

We are a nation of immigrants, and are proud of that fact. Yet we have prison-like holding centers for thousands of good family people waiting for visa and entry decisions. Indeed, the situation is complex.  But can’t we somehow find a simple policy message that gives guidance to practical solutions?

Read Brother I’m Dying and you will come to a deeper understanding of the human  consequences of a confused foreign policy, and the devastating impact it can have on  traditional American family values.

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After reviewing my notes from last week’s stimulating Chautauqua lectures on foreign policy, I noted that Richard Haas’s new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order, was mentioned several times.

Haas, a former diplomat and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues simply that fixing our own economy and the current dysfunction and polarization of our political system is a prerequisite to formulating a credible way of approaching the rest of the world. This seems obvious, but no one in Congress seems to be listening.

When you think about it this is not rocket science. Most thinking Americans were embarrassed to watch the Republican primary’s so-called debates! The incredible extreme statements and disrespectful personal attacks undermined any hope of our appearing to be a rational thinking society. And the current polarization in Congress has done nothing to improve the situation. How can any society that cannot find rational compromises in crisis situations expect admiration or even respect from other societies? How can we think we are a model of democracy for the rest of the world when we cannot not even get our own house in order?

A major lesson from a life in the communication business is that you have nothing if you do not have credibility. It’s a fact that the credibility of the source of a message  either reinforces its truth, or cancels out everything. Communication from sources without credibility not only fails, it stimulates counter communication and even hostile responses. Indeed, it can cause negative ripple effects that reverberate on and on indefinitely.

Haas’s point is certainly well taken. It clearly got the attention of Chautauqua speakers. And it really is a “no brainer:” How can we expect to influence other countries when our system at home appears so broken?

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Chautauqua Institution is a one-of-a-kind summer casual resort where individuals and families go to participate in lectures, concerts, films, sports, swimming, boating, bicycling, religious services and study… and to reflect on the issues of the day. Each week features a different theme, and this week’s theme was foreign policy.

My wife and I spent last week immersed in this wonderful place. From the world-class symphony, to sessions with acclaimed authors, to incredible arts exhibitions, and more, Chautauqua is nothing short of amazing.

But I must say that I also came away from the lectures even more troubled about how hopelessly complicated our world has become. Virtually every major speaker reinforced in great detail how each country in the Middle East and elsewhere has a different set of circumstances requiring a completely different set of strategic initiatives.

Some aspire at least partially to American basic values, while others are only strategically critical to our national security. And our inconsistency in explaining and dealing with all this has strengthened anti-American sentiments, making the task of diplomacy even more difficult.

There seems to be no one doctrine or policy statement that can cover all of these bewildering situations. Aaron David Miller, former diplomat and scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in a presentation this week that, “these problems are generational in character, bi-partisan in nature, and yield to only approximate solutions at best.”

As I listened to these lectures, I naturally found myself reflecting on the communication challenges and realities of making America understood in this volatile international climate. Reluctantly, I had to agree that there is no simple central message or statement that will adequately explain U.S. foreign policy initiatives. But I have been  thinking lately that there might be a set of communication “objectives” that could  explain Miller’s observation about the need to settle for “approximate solutions.”

Previous to Chautauqua I had already developed a hypothesis from periodic Washington interviews and conversations. What is missing, I thought, is the existence of one central executive branch strategic communication planner charged with involving every agency and department in an integrated planning process before anything happens. My impression was that only general guidelines are shaped, and then are carried out as each agency sees fit… essentially creating independent “silos” which end up adding to widespread confusion and clutter.

Would it not be possible for a central plan to focus on communicating two clear U.S  objectives: one objective for countries that support U.S. values, and another for those that are only strategically important to national interests? Then, as in all institutional strategic communication, key points that advance these two objectives can be repeated relentlessly through a variety of old and new media… all aimed to cut through the clutter of confusing daily news reports.

The weeks and months ahead for me will largely focus on assessing the effectiveness of strategic communication in U.S. foreign policy more systematically, and on exploring ways expanded public diplomacy initiatives and the internationalization of higher education can help improve world understanding. I invite you to follow my journey.

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The 2012 book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” by Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor of government reminded me once again about the essential responsiblity communicators have to provide full context on important social issues.

My understanding of Sandel simply is that when financial market values dominate all other values, society is losing its moral compass. When money goes beyond buying a higher standard of living to buying political outcomes and virtually everything else, serious moral issues arise. Greed widens the distance between rich and poor, and eventually produces dangerous hostilities. When market economics trumps all other social values, everyone eventually suffers.

So what is the responsibility of journalists and communicators to provide context for possible social consequences such as this? Can this be accomplished without taking a political sides? I suggest that it can. I believe it’s not only possible to explain the various potential consequences of social and political trends with an observer’s detachment, but as professional communicators I believe making the good faith effort is our imperative.

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