Karen Hughes: Changing public diplomacy's face
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WASHINGTON -- Seven months ago, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes began her job to improve the United States' "public diplomacy" with an ill-fated splash -- a "listening tour" of the Middle East that earned negative reviews from the Arab media and catcalls from domestic critics.
But since that diplomatic debut, Ms. Hughes has managed to set in motion substantial changes in the ways an often lumbering government bureaucracy reacts to the swirl of news, gossip and rumors that make up today's 24-hour news cycle.
"I am trying to lay the foundation for a dramatically different 21st-century diplomacy," Ms. Hughes, a former longtime adviser to President Bush, said in an interview last week. "This is a long-term endeavor. You can compare it to the Cold War, in the sense that it is an effort that will take years, as the Cold War did."
The difference, Ms. Hughes said, is that during the Cold War "we were trying to get information into societies that were very closed and people were hungry for the information. Now there is information overload everywhere -- a bunch of it wrong, a bunch of it fabricated -- and rumors get around the world in an instant on the Internet."
Washington's failure to conduct effective "public diplomacy" has long consumed policymakers, spawning dozens of reports. Ms. Hughes readily admits that many of her ideas came from the blue-ribbon panels that issued recommendations on how to improve public diplomacy. "There were 30-plus reports that had made very sound recommendations about what we should do, and I view my job as trying to get it done," said Ms. Hughes, 49.
Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador who was chairman of one of those panels, said he is impressed with how quickly Ms. Hughes has moved.
"I give her top marks," he said, ticking off the recommendations that are being implemented after being ignored. "She has put into practice many measures that someone without her clout would have had difficulty putting into practice."
There is little doubt within the federal bureaucracy that Ms. Hughes has clout. She regularly has lunch or dinner with Mr. Bush to update him on her progress -- a level of access highly unusual for even a senior official.
Ms. Hughes's efforts include such innovations as a presidential campaign-style "rapid response" unit that monitors Arabic newscasts and then distributes early-morning summaries. Previously, the government produced 14 disjointed reports, which came out 24 to 48 hours after news appeared overseas. By then the response was stale.
Now, a team of people who speak Arabic and other languages monitors news reports by computer and on large flat-screen TVs, producing an instant report on the "hot issues" overseas and suggested messages to counter the bad news.
A March 21 report noted the growing use of the word "massacre" in European and Arabic media to describe an incident in Iraq in which 15 civilians were allegedly killed by Marines. The suggested response stressed that the "allegations are serious" and "the loss of any innocent life is a tragedy" but that "we do not target civilians."
Ms. Hughes has also made it easier for ambassadors to give interviews overseas without getting clearance from Washington and regularly distributes "echo chamber" messages to overseas posts -- canned talking points that officials can use on emerging controversies. She is creating a regional spokesman's office in Dubai to handle inquiries from Arab media, and she has lifted the informal ban on U.S. officials appearing on al-Jazeera television.
"As a communicator, I believe that even when you don't necessarily like all the practices of an outlet, when it communicates with 40 million people you need to get your message out on that outlet," said Ms. Hughes, a former television reporter in Texas.
Ms. Hughes has pushed a new program -- parts of which are classified -- to research the messages and themes that resonate in certain countries and then coordinate with other agencies, such as the Defense Department, to make sure those messages are delivered consistently. She is also working with computer executives to examine whether podcasting is another route for message delivery.
Ms. Hughes has won approval for more mundane bureaucratic initiatives that, over the long term, could have an impact in the risk-averse State Department culture.
In the coming year, public diplomacy skills will be added to the criteria for evaluating the performance of ambassadors for promotions. When the State Department some years ago began evaluating ambassadors on how well they served U.S. business, the embassy doors suddenly swung open for corporate executives. Now, nervous Foreign Service officers have called her office, seeking advice on how they can do well on the evaluations.
J. Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said there is "broad consensus we need to improve public diplomacy effectiveness" but there is concern that the measures used might not be reliable or quantifiable. He noted that the message often needs to be tailored to the local situation and context to be effective, and that a country's relationship with the United States might dictate how often an ambassador appears on local media.
Also, Mr. Djerejian noted that public diplomacy, by itself, "cannot carry the whole burden" because the U.S. image is truly shaped by policies. The Iraq war and the perception the United States is biased toward Israel are difficult hurdles to overcome, he said.
Nevertheless, Ms. Hughes has set about creating a public diplomacy infrastructure. She has created new senior-level posts, placing a deputy assistant secretary responsible for public diplomacy in every regional bureau of the State Department.
This gives her bureaucratic tentacles into the key offices of the building, where many policies are developed. She said "mistakes were made" when the old U.S. Information Agency was merged into the State Department seven years ago, creating her office but leaving few links with officers in the field. "One of the things we have tried to do is reestablish those management links," she said.
First Published April 23, 2006 12:00 am