Archive for April, 2014

Culture is often defined as “how we do things around here!”  It influences what we purchase, how we think, and virtually everything that makes us feel safe and secure. It is the sum total of the beliefs we are taught as we grow up, the values that are embedded in us by our families and peers, as well as the traditions we celebrate with those who live around us.

For many, the teachings of their religious institutions also combine with these other cultural forces to become powerful drivers of attitudes and behavior. And when they build up over long periods of history and become associated with the land they live on, outspoken criticisms and disruptions are perceived as threatening. These can range from political changes in governments to individuals and groups attacking those things that are held dear. And when someone outside claims that their history and culture give them claim to the same land, hostilities inevitably arise, and can rapidly escalate into outright war.

Understanding culture provides needed context for analyzing the hostilities in the middle east, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the recent violent actions in London immigrant neighborhoods, as well as the polarized ideologies producing anger in various parts of the United States.

We all experience cultural tugs from the organizations and institutions in which we find ourselves studying or working, and the cities, regions, and nations from which we gain inspiration and pride. There is little doubt that culture shapes the context that defines what we choose to hear when others speak, and what we take into serious account when attempting persuade them.

To underestimate the influence of culture when trying to communicate is simply to insure failure. The more complicated and foreign the culture, the more difficult the challenge. In fact, not only will entire messages be lost, but the exact opposite of the intended response is likely to result.

This is why understanding and accommodating the culture of each audience or individual is a prerequisite to building working relationships. This takes time, as well as opportunities for experiences to overlap. Diplomats must experience the cultures where they work; journalists must spend time with those they seek to explain; and educators must answer the call to bring diverse cultures together and explore their unique opportunities to enable world peace.


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Detailed strategic communication plans tend to sit unimplemented on shelves primarily because of their complexity. Daily events divert staff attention. Crises become priorities. Conditions quickly make many of the details irrelevant, or they are just too complicated. Textbook formats are good to know, but in practice they very rarely are carried out.

Hard lessons like this led me to a much simplified approach with institutions. At the executive level, I decided to set only simple communication goals, with the collaboration of key colleagues. Then, I asked each department to use its’ most talented staff to select the best tactics for each target audience. And finally, I made sure that the institution’s brand identity was deeply embedded in the goals.

I have been wondering lately if any of these institutional lessons would apply to government and foreign policy communication? Is it possible, for example, to improve the clarity of White House communication simply by focusing more on clear, simple goals?  Experienced communication experts in each country and city could then be empowered to make informed judgements about tactics selection and to take into account the many different cultures, values, and preconceived ideas involved. These experts would also be in a position to establish important steps in the process: interactive social media dialogues leading to face-to-face events aimed to stimulate old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

Foreign policy communication is complicated and too often ends in mass confusion. If the basic problem is the overwhelming complexity of events, issues and plans, maybe we should first try more simplicity.

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If you try to change a Democrat’s mind with a strong Republican presentation you are likely to produce a more determined Democrat. Direct persuasive messages, no matter how carefully crafted, usually cause the other side to dig in even deeper. In fact, this is also true in communicating anything, but most especially foreign policy.

Changing minds requires finding facts and situations that make adversaries uncomfortable with their position. Eventually this unsettled state can lead them to seek a new point of view. But even in this state, people must hear potential mind-changing new ideas from people around them they trust. And what’s more, they must also have sufficient time to work those ideas into their personal thinking on their own.

Interestingly enough  I learned the power of “third-party advocates” from fund-raisers. They learn early on that they usually are not the best person to ask a donor for money. Rather the best person is someone close to the donor who has better credibility, and their trust. This same dynamic applies to changing people’s minds.

The credibility of the source of new ideas is absolutely essential. In the case of foreign policy, the US government will never have that credibility with adversaries. So opening people up to considering new ideas must be the first step in changing their minds. Then, engaging the guidance and help of sympathetic local third-parties with credibility is the best way to proceed.

Joseph Nye, Harvard Professor and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Trustee, is credited with coining the term “soft power.”  His thinking is spelled out in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. “Hard power” uses force and money to influence.  Soft power uses all the communication tools in the toolbox, along with cultural exchanges, economic development assistance, town halls, and other indirect initiatives using third parties. The concept is to “demonstrate’ the idea of America in foreign settings, rather than argue it.

New media tools are especially suited to soft power strategies. With sufficient numbers of skilled experts in target countries, website chat rooms can be monitored, Twitter can promote gatherings, Facebook  can serve as a hub of ideas and comments, and on-going dialogues can be facilitated. So when priority audiences are targeted, their preferred media platforms utilized, and all of Nye’s other initiatives employed, some success might be possible over time. And that just might be the best we can do.

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Creating conditions for communication success can be discouraging. First, you must have your audience’s attention, and convince them you understand their needs. They must also be willing to receive your information. Then, you must have a simple message with no more than 3 to 5 points. Next, you must offer examples with which your audience can relate. Now, you must send your message using your audience’s media of choice… and then obtain their feedback. The most direct and interactive media are best because you must reply by responding to what has been misunderstood. And then an ongoing dialogue must begin to establish a receptive relationship.

So is it even possible to achieve foreign policy understanding with countless audiences inside many nations, especially when each has its’ own agenda? In such a world, is it necessary to have separate messages for each nation, and audience? Is it possible to know individual media preferences in remote places? And how can brand identity be maintained while responding daily to 24/7 “breaking news?”

And finally, with so many departments of government, NGO’s, think-tanks, and associations sending messages around the world every day, is coordination even possible?

Sharing a uniform “idea of America” statement and format for releasing daily news statements with all these entities, might be a place to start. And having enough interactive media specialists around the world to communicate with each priority audience is another critical step. And even then, maybe only a small measure of understanding may be achievable.

But some clarity is better than none. is it not? Otherwise, all we do is continue to contribute to clutter and confusion.

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