Comment on Judith McHale's talk at CNAS

[The following was originally posted as a comment by a reader – TOX – to my post on McHale’s talk at CNAS. It is ‘promoted’ to an entry to give it the visibility it deserves. –MCA]

I was less impressed with the new Under Secretary McHale’s prepared and unprepared remarks. She seems very competent and understands complex communications and engagement challenges globally from her previous experience, but that did not shine through yesterday. Defining the key themes and messages for the office of Public Diplomacy will be essential to prevent comments such as lack of knowledge stemming from only two weeks on the job. President Obama did not get away with that answer and neither should she. Perhaps an approach similar to General Petreaus would be valuable where 100 leading representatives of government, non-profit, and commercial expertise come together to help shape policy over 100 days. Public health NGO’s in Africa, to international media, .COM leaders, military IO and Public Affairs representatives and more could be a potential pool of interested subject matter experts that can make a difference. President Obama used similar groups of expertise in his digital outreach strategy leading to a powerful grassroots movement. This kind of strategic review is both valuable for future plans and seizing the momentum of being new in the office so people perceive the office to at least have a plan and commitment. The following observations are only highlighted to hopefully improve the effectiveness of this critical office.

The take-away for me that was substantive and should have been the cornerstone of her remarks was the recent engagement strategy surrounding the President’s recent speech in Cairo. It appears successful and may demonstrate her new approach to this office rather than saying she has only been on the job two weeks. Audiences respect details and substance and this incredible case study has both. A visual, or at least a more detailed, presentation on the fully integrated communications approach to the speech sounds incredible, but was poorly explained. The number of countries, languages, traditional and new media outlets broadcasting the message, coordination to host “watching parties” with debates on site, and anecdotal feedback should be codified for such a presentation. An estimated total reach or audience of the speech compared to typical U.S. President speeches would help add a comparative analysis. Otherwise, why do we think this was successful? Compared to what and to what end? From what I understand, this was a success for engagement and communications, potentially serving as a compelling case study, answer the questions about her approach/philosophy, and maybe even help secure increased congressional funding. Without a disciplined approach and review of such communications efforts, I am not surprised with the limited funding for this office.

Media training takes practice and is worth the investment. A few thoughts:

  • Review your own tape and keep it for your records
  • Avoid useless quantifiers such as “so”, “totally”, “great”, “a lot of time”, etc.
  • Reinforce what is important for your office and mission. Answers like “I don’t know and I am just two weeks on the job.” cannot possibly help in this effort and represent missed opportunities to repeat what is important. Your message.
  • Answering a question about what worries her the most in this new job with a list of examples ranging from measuring results to resources and coordination challenges, she replied “they all do”. There are no priorities if everything is a priority. You should know your opportunities and challenges now with the flexibility to refine them in the future.
  • For the question of “Why are we in Afghanistan? And How are you going to explain it to Afghans?”, she could not or chose not to answer it. The President has made it clear and is a good reference point on how to answer this question in the future. Keeping consistent messages throughout our government is the real question here and deserves a careful review by this office. The lack of message consistency is almost as damaging as drone attacks on civilian populations to our credibility. She answered slightly how she plans to engage communities through listening and direct interaction, but no comment on the greater communication effort behind that or any details.
  • She simply does not know the difference with Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy. She admits that she “has not looked up the definition of either term”. She can learn it, but it does say something to not have an answer. Your comments are gracious, but the audio record is unavoidable for those not present (www.state.gov/video/?videoid=26110211001 Q&A starting at 20 minute mark). She answered that they were very similar with “a lot of overlap” on one of the most fundamental questions for the office. Are we still confused on why Congress does not appropriate significant funds to this office?
  • Speaking of funding, her comment about “not being offered $5 billion in this economy last time she checked” is unfortunate. You better know what you want in this town and don’t be surprised if you don’t get support without a clear answer. A review underway is answer for now, but you could begin to shape expectations for the future with some highlights or even a comparison to other government agency spending on similar work.
  • Regarding the question referring to the previous communications strategic plans by your predecessors, answer with 1-2 specific highlights that you are focusing your review on of personal concern rather than repeated platitudes. If you have not read this important document in your first 2 weeks, read them now.
  • A critical task for the office in the first 3 months should be to answer the question of funding and resources to achieve what specific results. In such a short time in the office, stakeholders want to understand her process and plan to make an impact and that would suffice for now.
  • If you can’t answer a question and promise follow up then put your assistant in touch with them so people think it is sincere and not just avoiding a question. Even better, post the answers after finding them on your website showing your commitment to get reliable truthful information to interested audiences.
  • With 1,400 attendees, you can expect some bizarre questions. President Obama brilliantly absorbs and deflects such questions to reinforce his positions. The accusation (reference to the bizarre question) against our visa experience in India should not be contested or made fun of in public forum, but rather re-emphasize the importance visa and education programs have in the engagement component of your office.

The overall initial perception is more than concerning. The prepared remarks read like a safe, conservative, bureaucrat. The un-prepared remarks are even worse. Make your priorities, develop your strategy, execute, and refine. Please let us not define successful communications or engagement by how many Muslims we meet, Web 2.0 tools we explore, or messages we translate. This office must define what impact it can have abroad through more relevant metrics.

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