Looking for a research topic on public diplomacy and strategic communication?

Are you a graduate student looking for a research topic? Then I’ve got two topics for you. Actually I have a dozen topics, but here’s two, one I’ve shared several times over the last couple of months and another. I haven’t spent a lot of time refining these so don’t bang on me too hard on the wording but a discussion is encouraged.

For the first one, the title isn’t catchy but direct: A Comparison of Domestic and Foreign Discourse. Of course you could use your own. I’m just tossing out the idea not filing a copyright. The subject is study the contrasts between the laws and practices of domestic information operations, otherwise known as propaganda or campaigning, and foreign information operations, otherwise known as international broadcasting, public diplomacy, or strategic communication. The domestic example is fresh: the healthcare debates before and during the summer 2009 Congressional recess and America’s global engagement. The foreign example is whatever you want to pick, but perhaps start with the Fallujah mosque bombing in 2004 initially reported by the AP. 

This focus is on the communicators and not the consumers (with the media aligned with communicators in this when in fact they are communicators as well). This includes the principals and the media. This is not a qualitative analysis of effectiveness but a analysis of the messaging, platforms, tactics, and barriers.

In the domestic scheme, I’d suggest Fox News, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and the White House. For the foreign scheme, go ahead and use Fox but add Voice of America, also add Taliban (or similar) spokesmen and the US military (and State public diplomacy if you want, but that’ll probably not amount to anything more than a footnote at that time).

The analysis would look at the discussions during this period as an active struggle for the minds of people to affect their will to act. It would examine and compare the rules of engagement: the permissible use of misinformation and disinformation, the role of the Government in the conversation (members of Congress speaking on talk shows, press conferences, and town halls), and the use of proxies.

I think that could yield some interesting conclusions on the flexibility of domestic discourse that is not permitted – for a variety of reasons – in the international sphere.

My second suggested topic – which I haven’t taken the time to title – is very related to the first. I’d like to see such a study get into the aspects of the Smith-Mundt Act that supposedly – but does not despite repeated statements by many that it does – prohibits the US Government from propagandizing US citizens (nor does the Act define propaganda). The analytical approach to the Smith-Mundt Act is easy: if USG was responding to an IO campaign of a foreign government or foreign non-state actor, little to nothing USG said or did beyond America’s borders would be visible or transparent to the American public while everything the adversary said would be potentially seen by Americans and reported by US media (directly or by reflecting foreign media broadcasts) or foreign media, directly through foreign broadcasters (e.g. CCTV, Russia Today, BBC, France 24, Press TV, etc) or the web. However, if the adversary is a US domestic political opponent or the US Government, there are seemingly no rules (see above case on the health care debate and reconsider your thought on truth and transparency). A hearty analysis would likely show there is actually less accountability in the domestic discourse than in the global discourse.

You could take an organizational approach to this question. If the information opponent was outside the US, the responsibility to counter generally rests outside of public affairs and in another bureaucracy, perhaps public diplomacy or psychological operations or something else “dirty” that should not be seen, heard, or tasted by people within Americas borders. But if the information gets within the US, which isn’t a leap considering the global information environment, the public affairs bureaucracy takes over, which is notorious for being reactive in all things except domestic political issues.

Both topics will cross the “new” and “old” media divide. The original AP story on the Fallujah mosque bombing was widely available to global consumers – including media – through the web. Does that make it new media or because some might have accessed the AP wire service (which is also internet based) are they old media? 

Both topics will rely on timelines for information dissemination and the information’s impact. Both will be able to leverage phrasing from point of dissemination to the proxy (e.g. Fox News to town hall participant).

These research questions may be a bit loaded, so I’ll rely on serious academics like Craig, Steve, or Nick to tone these down.

Your comments – and other topics – are appreciated.