Archive for October, 2014

In trying to sort out how the US can do a better job of international communication, I have been thinking once again about the potential power of public diplomacy.

In a recent speech to the South Texas World Affairs Council I concluded that daily statements from the White House about strategy (or the lack of it) in dealing with ISIS seem to accomplish very little, and often actually contribute to more confusion and misunderstanding. This is so, I asserted, because people at home and abroad tend to hear only what they want to hear, have different meanings for words such as democracy and freedom, and interpret every action as an effort of a liberal or conservative leaning  administration to impose its partisan views on everyone. Messages coming from a biased source will always lack credibility with many audiences, and therefore be immediately rejected.

As I developed this presentation I was reminded again of hearing Fareed Zakaria at the Chautauqua Institution last August argue that the thousand years of tribal warfare in the Middle East has created a situation where nothing that can be said or done now will make any short-term difference. And while I am now convinced that Fareed is right, I still see people all over the world wearing “made in America” jeans, listening to US music from country to jazz, loving Hollywood movies, and sipping Starbucks coffee. They still tend to love their “idea of America,” but only when they discover it on their own. It’s when we try to sell ourselves as “exceptional” that we are rejected as those “ugly Americans” behaving  arrogantly!

So I once again conclude that we have a long-term chance of being successful if we more aggressively “model” our “idea of America.” And this will be best accomplished by people-to-people communication and exchanges carried out by motive-credible non-governmental organizations such as Sister Cities, international NGO’s, relief organizations… and, yes, the most globally engaged colleges and universities.

The promotional flyer for my World Affairs Council speech stated: “Professor Lauer sees global higher education as the ultimate form of public diplomacy, with the potential not only to educate global leaders and accelerate world peace, but also to focus research and expertise on solving the world’s most serious problems and rebuilding nations torn apart by revolution.”

Yes indeed, I now think that more than ever!

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In a recent post I wrote about leadership communication and the differences between crisis and normal times. This week I am suggesting that some of this same kind of thinking applies to the news media and politicians during a crisis. This is when widespread misunderstanding is most likely to occur, and  widespread panic can easily result. My concern right now is Ebola.

The 24/7 news world produces similar headlines over and over again all day long. The more you hear them the more urgent they sound. The same questions are asked over and over, even when they have been well answered in previous reports. And each time they are asked, they are asked with a tone that makes them sound more like urgent warnings than questions.

It too often is assumed that getting and keeping attention requires headlines that increase in urgency every hour, even when there are no genuinely new developments. Claims of new developments are often made anyway, even when these reports usually offer very little that is new. And intense competition between news organizations can actually accelerate this relentless search for another “breaking news” item.

As people who have concerns about how things are being handled are found, they tend to be interviewed  over and over again. Often they are politicians who are quite willing to be dramatic about their viewpoints. Then other politicians seeing partisan opportunities for themselves line up to provide “the other side.” They also are looking for a news angle from which they can become a headline. Now the news media and  the political opportunists end up advancing each other’s self interests. This may be unintended, but it often happens in a crisis.

But a crisis is a time to provide information with calm and clarity. Updates should add to our knowledge  about the issue. Public education should be the news media’s only objective. Interviewers should prefer established experts.

Canadians provided a great example during the recent shooting in parliament. Law enforcement officials handled their press conferences transparently and calmly. Elected government officials behaved like adults. And the news media behaved responsibly… even while asking the difficult questions.

I urge that anchors, reporters, politicians, and all officials should save the competition and the drama for more normal times when the stakes are not so high.


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Over the years I have come to think that effective leadership, like teaching, involves enabling others to experience the personal fulfillment of developing and using their special talents. You give them challenging assignments and then share your “lessons learned” to help them develop. You then channel that talent toward achieving more focused personal, career, and institutional goals.

In the years I served as vice-chancellor at TCU I had periodic thoughts that this is what I was actually doing… conducting staff meeting as if my staff members were students in a class. But when I had these thoughts I also thought: What could they be thinking? Should coming to weekly staff meetings be so much like coming to class?

A typical staff meeting would begin with planning and implementation reports from staff members, all of whom were hired for their special talents and potential to develop them. I and others would follow with suggestions based on our current professional reading, past experiences, and lessons learned. Most suggestions would focus on enhancing the effectiveness of these already impressive and creative people. Then periodically we would review our overall institutional goals and discuss how each person’s creative initiatives were helping to advance those goals. Interestingly enough, the format of the graduate class I was teaching was surprisingly similar.

I look back now and find that I feel perfectly comfortable with this analogy. However, I do admit that  when I finally described this thinking to my staff, the surprised look on their faces clearly said back to me: “What the hell are you talking about ?

So I guess they didn’t get it. But even so, I must say I still like the analogy!

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“Meanings are in people” is a lesson learned early in Communication 101.

When we use a word like “conservative” we are only making a “noise” or sending a “sign.” The “meaning” that will be understood is already in the mind of the receiver. For some, the word may mean practical and thoughtful, and carries a very positive connotation. For others, it may mean something closer to self-serving or lack of social compassion, and may carry a really negative connotation.

The meaning of a term such as “dictator” these days seems to be determined by how each individual or social group is fairing under each one. For some the word may simply mean “tyrant.” For others, however, it may mean little more than a military-style leader. In fact, many individuals and businesses will prosper under some dictatorships, and they may think this is far better than the chaos that follows revolutions.

The demonstrations this week in Hong Kong also give us a glimpse of how the word “communism” can be understood differently by different groups of Chinese citizens. For some the word may simply mean a government administered society. And for others it may mean oppression of the masses. Today many young people see the current system as offering few opportunities. But a growing number of business people in cities such as Peking, Shanghai and Hong Kong seem to simply see a strong government that is enabling successful enterprise.

In this digital 24/7 news media world many words are losing commonly understood meanings. Politicians and pundits use words such as freedom, democracy, and justice to serve their own purposes.  As a consequence these words, as well as many others, now have various meanings.

Only when sender and receiver “experiences overlap” can common understanding be reached. Communication between nations and cultures especially requires patience, persistence and interactive  dialogue over time. This is the ultimate challenge of international relationship building, and vastly more people-to-people exchanges would be a major step toward meeting that challenge.

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Newly elected Indian Prime Minister Modi has been taking the US by storm this week. He is coming off as sincere, competent and refreshing. He is making a positive impression on most everyone, from corporate CEOs to politicians to the many people from India now living in the US. His appearances often include the music and dance of the culture, all of which suggests that there is a whole new day unfolding for India. He makes the possibility of cooperation and attractive partnerships seem endless. He is demonstrating what one highly visible, articulate, and colorful person can do to establish a whole new “image” for an entire nation.

But is this initial impact sustainable? If it is, this week will have been an incredible testimony of the potential of charismatic leadership. But if it is not, the inevitable backlash will likely produce serious and widespread disappointments.

Last year I traveled to India. The group I was with had to travel more than an hour to move out of the most devastating poverty I have ever experienced. And even then the city streets and countryside were extremely difficult to navigate. Very quickly I also learned that India is a country of very independent states, each of which has its own seemingly endless bureaucratic barriers to overcome. I could not imagine how long it would take to understand all this, let alone to establish mutually rewarding partnerships. I was there to visit universities, and right up front their representatives made aggressive sales pitches to sign partnership intention agreements. Yet it soon became very clear that the benefits would be all theirs, and the cost to us very high.

My clear impression was that many partnerships in India are one-sided, and positive opportunities are very difficult to find. The proof will be if Modi’s central administration can actually deliver on his promises in a country that has been run by highly independent and entrenched state bureaucrats.

Businesses and countries built mostly on one charismatic leader’s personality often do not thrive. But when that leader is the colorful spokesperson for a group of highly talented managers ready and able to deliver on the promises, wonderful things can happen. For Modi, the verdict is still out. But if he pulls it off, he could be just what the great nation of India desperately needs.

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