I was cleaning out my old files and I discovered this. I wrote it last March, but it makes sense still. In fact, it makes more sense to me now that I have experienced Washington’s reach and as I anticipate going overseas again. I post it in unedited (since March 27, 2009) form.
We inevitably have a Washington perspective when we live in Washington, but we have to work to get beyond it because it is more dangerous than ever. The new media gives us tools that can reach anywhere in the world in seconds. We can bypass gatekeepers and some of them deserve to be bypassed. But we can also bypass friends. I am thinking of our colleagues in posts overseas.
It is temping to just get it done; pass that information; make that connection. We CAN do it and in making a direct connection from Washington to the journalist or blogger in the field we undoubtedly improve the short term efficiency and effectiveness of our information operation. But this short term success comes at the expense of damaging the system that makes us effective in the long run.
When you look at the whole system, you quickly realize that the main product of a public diplomacy operation is not information. Information is nearly free in today’s interconnected world and there is very little that we can give anybody that they cannot get somewhere else. If information is not the key, what is? The answer is relationships. We are working to build relationships of trust and reliance. Our relationships are what makes our information stick and helps put it in the proper contexts. Our relationships are the basis of our reputations. The connections count.
From Washington we can build electronic relationships and a type of customer base, but at best we have a relationship akin to a book lovers’ relationship with Amazon.com. It is not multifaceted and may not be robust enough to endure really hard challenges. When Barnes & Noble offers a better price, I abandon Amazon.
Most of the effective long-term relationship building is done on the local level, i.e. our posts. We can help them from Washington by providing backup and materials. We can help coordinate our programs among posts.
But we can also harm and uncut the post and we will probably do that with the best of intentions. When we bypass the post and reach directly into their audience, we are weakening their ability to maintain their contact network. The worst case scenario is when powerful Washington directly provides important local media outlets with information, interviews or editorials. It makes the people at the post look ineffective in the eyes of the recipients. They want to eliminate the middleman.
We can also do similar things with our electronic programming. That is why we have to be especially careful to involve posts. I don’t believe that there has been a problem so far. In the case of a CO.NX program, for example, we get participants from all over, but we are careful to keep the posts in the loop. It works like a cooperative and I am convinced that IIP programs to date have enhanced and expanded the reach of our posts overseas. But as the new technologies and methods develop, this coordination may become more difficult.
Web 2.0 presents lots of challenges of management, coordination, communications and control. The spontaneity, inclusiveness and reach are strengths of the new methods but also its weaknesses. We have made a very bad trade if we create a Washington-centric network of relationships at the expense of those based around out posts in the host countries. We have to always be aware of what we are doing and sometimes choose to be “less effective” in a particular transaction in order to maintain and grow the effectiveness of our total system.