Public Diplomacy Persuasion

Another FSI lecture is below.   I am doing this one on Monday.   The PowerPoint is available below. It has a lot of the same themes as the last one, but is significantly different.

Everything is always becoming something else

Πάντα ῥεῖ  – everything flows. That is what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said more than two and half millennia ago and he was right. But the fact that he said it around 500 BC indicates that the concept has been around and talked about for a long time. Yet it seems to be a concept that each generation discovers for itself and then thinks that it is the most afflicted – ever – by change.

We always have and always will live in a dynamic environment.  What is more, our attempts to understand and act within it alter it, so that we never really face the same challenges twice.  (Heraclitus also said that you can never step twice into the same river – and he was right about that too.)  There is no finish line; there is no stable end goal.  Success means sustainable change.
So I don’t think my reference to Heraclitus is as obscure as it might seem in the context of something as dynamic as public diplomacy and the media. Our job as public affairs professions is to understand the ebbs and flows of events, to take advantage when things are flowing in the right direction, help direct them when we can and know when to get out of the way of the big waves.

Portfolio or Toolbox Strategy (for an uncertain world)

No technique or media tool will work in all situations.  That is why we need to deploy the whole panoply of tools and techniques and know which combinations are best.  This is more an art than a science.  The key is flexibility. Don’t get too enamored with anything in particular or develop strategies around one platform. You don’t want a Twitter strategy.  You want a strategy that may use Twitter as one of the tools. Carpenters don’t have “hammer strategies.”   They have building strategies that may involve hammers as one of the many tools in the box.

There is no such thing as a global brand or a one-size fits all

Even a ubiquitous & simple product like Coca-Cola tastes different and is marketed differently around the world.  The reason they teach us all these things and all these languages at FSI and the reason you make the big-bucks as public diplomacy professionals around the world is that you are supposed to understand the local cultures and environments and apply a nuanced and appropriate persuasion strategy.  I would add that almost all the effective public diplomacy (as opposed to public affairs, which happens mostly in Washington, BTW) work occurs at posts overseas.  Washington programs should be in business to support the field in this respect.   This is something we sometimes forget.
We are not allowed to change our “product,” i.e. the United States and its policies, but we can choose which aspect to emphasize, what analogies to make, what frames to deploy, what relationships to cultivate and when and where to do these things.

The human equation: bridging the last three feet

Edward R. Murrow, the greatest director of USIA or public diplomacy, observed that our communication technologies could span the world, but the real persuasion took place in the last three feet – human contact. He lived in the days before Internet. IMO, internet can (although less easily than people think) create or at least sustain the kinds of engaged relationships Murrow was talking about, but we still have to build those relationships. There is a cognitive limit to human engagement. You can only keep in real contact with a couple hundred people, although new technologies may expand that number, it does not reach into the millions or even the tens of thousands.  That is why you have to set priorities.  You just cannot love everyone equally and any strategy designed to reach everybody will satisfy nobody.

There is no garden w/o a gardener.   

You cannot outsource or compartmentalize your brains or your engagement.  The person doing the public diplomacy must be involved with the public diplomacy decisions.  There just is no way around this.  If we don’t get involved, we cannot make good decisions.  Too often, we just try to shunt off the PD function.  We hire consultants.   Many consultants are good, but a consultant is often like the guy who borrows your watch and then charges to tell you what time it is. If we outsource our decisions, we essentially outsource our intelligence. Then THEY know what we need to know.  It is a lot like hiring a guy to look after your spouse.  Even if it seems to make her happier, maybe that is your role. BTW – be very wary of pseudo-experts who claim to “speak for” large groups of people or have some kind of inside knowledge that cannot be replicated or properly explained.   If they cannot explain it to you even in broad strokes, they probably don’t understand it themselves and often they are just hucksters protecting their phony baloney jobs.   We have too many such people hanging around us not to trip over them occasionally.

So let me sum up before I move to the next part.  Technologies are new; human relations are old.  Our “new” methods return to an earlier age when communication was engaged, individualized, personal, two-way and interactive.  And for public diplomacy the lessons of anthropology (people) trump technology (machines.) How does public diplomacy really work?

Forget about mass marketing & advertising analogies. We are not selling something as simple as a can of soda and we do not have the resources to engage mass markets. We are not trying to build awareness (who is not aware of the U.S.?) and content DOES matter.Public diplomacy is a mass networking proposition, where we build key relationships with opinion leaders and use leverage to allow/encourage others to reach out, who in turn reach out …  We cannot reach THE common man (because he doesn’t exist) and we should be careful not to mistake A common man for THE common man.

There are thousands of books and experts who will point to the example of the obscure person who did something great.  They are right; but it is really easy to pick Bill Gates out of the crowd AFTER he has been wildly successful.   Then it is easy to explain why he succeeded.  Of course millions of others did similar things and did not become the richest man in the world.   They call this survivor bias.  In many ways it is like a lottery.  We can be sure that SOMEBODY will win, but we cannot tell who before the drawing.  So we have to play the odds and we cannot treat everybody who buys a lottery ticket like a potential millionaire. 

Humans are social creatures who make decisions in contexts of their culture & relationships We make a big mistake if we treat people as members of undifferentiated masses.  Human societies are lumpy. There are relationships that matter more and some that matter less.  And (as per Heraclitus) they are in a constant state of flux. People make most of their important decisions in context or in consultation with people they trust.  Later they might go the some media sources for confirmation or details. Probably the biggest decision you have ever made was buying a home.  Did you just read some literature and make an offer? Or did you ask around and talk to people you trusted?  How about the car you own?   We like to explain our behavior rationally, but relationally will provide more reliable assessments.

Information is almost free and a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention

We now must find or create social context for our message to get attention.   I always laugh (at least to myself) when I hear someone say that “we got the message out” or “We reached a million people”.  I am going to start calling this the barking dog strategy, because like the dogs, we just shout “I’m here; I’m here; I’m here.  It doesn’t matter what you say; it is what they hear that counts.   If your message does not say the right things, if it doesn’t fit into their cultural and socials contexts and if it is not delivered in an appropriate way, it doesn’t get through.   I will reiterate that the reason you get those big-bucks is to understand the right time, place and context of the communication.   The new technologies have not made this easier.

Understand – Everything has rules and patterns

I mentioned Heraclitus.  Let’s go a bit farther east and think of Lao Tzu.   He talked about the need to understand the “Tao”, the patterns and logic in all things.  Understanding these things could make the most difficult tasks fluid and easy.   There is usually easier and harder ways to do things.  Sometimes you CREATE more resistance and make less progress by pushing too hard.   So try to understand before you try to persuade.  If people have been doing things for a long time, there is a reason.  Figure out what that is and persuasion becomes much easier.   And always look for the links and relationships.  People may not be aware of what drives their own behavior, but it is often linked to social acceptance. And a person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality. 

Let me digress with a fish story from my time in Iraq.   During the late unpleasantness, Coalition forces had to ban fishing on the Euphrates River for a time, to prevent insurgents from using it as a highway.   But fishermen didn’t return after the ban was lifted, even though the fish were plentiful and bigger given the no-fishing respite.   We thought of helping them buy new boats, nets, sonar etc. But the reason that they weren’t fishing was much simpler – no ice.  The ice factory had shut down and in this hot climate if you cannot put the fish on ice, you cannot move them very far or sell them. We helped the ice house back into operation and the fishing started again.  

ENGAGE – influencing your community but also being part of it and willing to be influenced 

This story shows the importance of engagement.  You also have to get out – physically – and meet people where they are.

Inform & Interpret – turn information into useful knowledge

Engaging is fun and essential, but if we are not giving the taxpayer value for their money if we don’t inform and persuade.   Since information is almost free, what do I mean by inform?  This means turning raw information into useful knowledge and narratives.   Even simple facts must be put into contexts.  What if you didn’t have any dresser drawers or hangers in your closet?  What if you didn’t have any bookshelves or cabinets and all you stuff was just lying on the floor.  It would be hard to find things and many things would not be useful.  Turning information into knowledge is like putting things in some order.  In the public diplomacy realm, that usually means framing and narratives.   People understand stories and until they have a story that makes sense, information just sits there, useless as the shirt you cannot find under the pile of dirty clothes.  Analytical history, BTW, as opposed to antiquarianism or chronicles is depends almost entirely on framing. The historian must choose what to put in and what to leave out and that makes the story.

So if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to our success in the Cold War because accurate information was in very short supply. Today in all but the dwindling coterie dictatorships in the world’s most benighted places, information is already available.  It is how that information is put together – the contexts, relationships and the narratives – that counts.

As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what even science is beginning to explain. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success. I mentioned framing, but I should say a little more.  The frame is how you characterize information or events.   If you want to be pejorative, you can sometimes call it spin, but there is no way you can understand complex reality w/o some kind of frame. Most of our frames are unconscious, but that doesn’t mean they are not powerful or pervasive.  Think of the ubiquitous sports frame.   Describing something like American football, (i.e. centrally planned, stop and start with specialized plays and players) versus football other places (i.e. fluid, fast breaking with the players less specialized) makes a big difference to how it will be perceived. Or think of how we try to frame our presidents.  We want our candidate to be in the frame with Lincoln and Washington, Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B Hayes, not so much.

Build a community & be part of a community

 Figure out what you can contribute and do it.  Remember people make decisions in the contexts of their relationships.  Also make sure that you get something back. 

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. You want to be able to give to your fellow man and expect that he will do the same when you are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if you don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. You might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected.  At first they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor.  And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.

A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give.  Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. You notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts you can receive is advice and knowledge.  Let others share their culture and experience.

Just a few more short points …

Inclusive & Exclusive 

Communities are inclusive for members and exclusive for others. You attract nobody if you appeal to everybody. You have to earn membership in any community worth joining. 

Personal – or at least personalized  

Editors and marketers have tried for years to homogenize for the mass market. That’s how we got soft white Wonder bread and Budweiser beer.  Niche markets – and social media is a series of niche markets – require personality.  We do a poor job of segmenting our market in public diplomacy.  This is something I will work on when I get to Brazil and I suggest you think about when you get to your posts.


Success is continuous learning – an iterative   process- not a plan – and a never ending journey.  As I wrote up top, we never get to the end. We have to learn from our failures and our successes and move on. The best we can do is make our own ending worth of the start.