Thursday, June 21, 2007

Who Put the PU in Public Diplomacy? - Karen Hughes' "National Strategic Communications Plan"/The Fall of al-Hurra

" ... Secretary Hughes has called for an increase in the presence of language trained American spokesmen on foreign media outlets. ... "


JUN 8, 2007

This is the first in a series from Carrie Walters, Pickering Fellow at the U.S. State Department and Master's Candidate in Public Diplomacy at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

After extensive input from various government agencies, private sector communication professionals, and over thirty independent studies of U.S. public diplomacy, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes unveiled her new national strategic communications plan on May 31. The plan is a result of more than a year of effort by Hughes and her staff, and is considered the first comprehensive national strategy ever developed for public diplomacy.

In her remarks to the inter-agency Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communications Policy Coordinating Committee that helped guide the development of the document, Hughes emphasized that the new strategy provides a unified strategic framework while at the same time allowing for enough flexibility to meet each government agency’s individual needs.

The strategy outlines three key objectives to govern America’s communication with foreign audiences: it states that the United States should offer a vision of hope and opportunity to the world, should isolate and marginalize violent extremists, and should nurture common interests and values between Americans and foreign publics. In order to achieve this, several key priorities for public diplomacy programs and activities are established. The priorities are accompanied by concrete and detailed examples of how each can be turned into action.

First, the strategy calls for the expansion of education and exchange programs, with particular emphasis given to reaching youth, women, and other key influencers in society (i.e. journalists, clerics, business leaders). Here, English language teaching, the use of technology, and public-private partnerships are identified as crucial components for success.

Second, the need to modernize communication tactics is addressed. Under Secretary Hughes has called for an increase in the presence of language trained American spokesmen on foreign media outlets. This is seen as a priority not only with television and radio, but also with new technologies such as the internet, web chats, blogs, online videos, and podcasts.

Third, the plan emphasizes the leverage that can be raised by concentrating on America’s “diplomacy of deeds.” Regardless of their opinion towards U.S. policy, foreign publics should know the tremendous impact that Americans are making across the world in areas that people care about most: health, education, and economic opportunity. By expanding and advertising these accomplishments, we will be able to communicate our values most effectively.

In addition to these priorities, the new strategy pays particular attention to the importance of inter-agency coordination, evaluation and measurement, and tools for success. As a result, there is widespread support for the establishment of a Counter Terrorism Communications Center to coordinate messaging across government agencies on the war on terrorism. Also in the works is the creation of a central repository of information and analysis of international public opinion, which will collect data from both public and private organizations and use it to help monitor the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy activities. The plan is accompanied by a copyrighted strategic communications tool which walks those in the field through a step-by-step method for developing effective messages and programs.

What does this plan signify? Most obviously, it shows recognition of the fact that the U.S. government needs to communicate with a unified voice when acting overseas. We have too often been guilty of speaking on behalf of one particular agency or idea while ignoring those alternate (and sometimes conflicting) messages emanating from other parts of the government. Perhaps more importantly, however, this new strategy reflects the increasing role that public diplomacy will likely play in our post-Cold War world. Strategic communication can no longer take a back seat to other items on the national security agenda. Public diplomacy is a vital part of winning the war on terror—and having been approved at both the White House and the NSC, this strategy is a big step forward in acknowledging that fact.
ADL Calls For Review Of Al Hurra Broadcasts For Anti-Semitic, Anti-Israel Content

New York, NY, June 13, 2007

… In response to claims that the U.S. government's Arabic-language satellite television network Al Hurra recently permitted anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda on its airwaves, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called on the government to ensure that the proposed review of broadcasts "occurs quickly and is thorough, looking for both anti-American and anti-Israel bias."

The Failure of Public Diplomacy
The Guardian
June 16, 2007

What the downfall of al-Hurra, America's Arabic language television station, says about US efforts to win hearts and minds in the Middle East.
On June 8, Larry Register announced his resignation from the troubled American Arabic-language satellite television station al-Hurra in the wake of a relentless campaign for his scalp by conservative journalists, members of congress, and disgruntled stalwarts of al-Hurra's previous, failed incarnation. The campaign recalls a similar sliming campaign against Alberto Fernandez, the state department's best Arabic-speaking public diplomat, crucified in the conservative media for an out of context snippet taken from one of his hundreds of live media appearances. Register's resignation likely seals the fate of al-Hurra, which looks ever more like Radio and TV Marti - the anti-Castro stations beloved of American conservatives and Cuban exiles which maintains exorbitant budgets year after year even though hardly any Cubans ever tune in.

Launched in February 2004, al-Hurra never had a chance to be more than a drop in the highly competitive Arab media ocean. But even when you take into consideration the stigma of American funding, its performance under its founding director Mowafic Harb was remarkably weak. Arab viewers who bothered to tune in often expressed astonishment that America, home of Hollywood and CNN, could possibly be producing such a shoddy, unappealing product. Questionable news selection, weak journalism, and uninteresting talk-show topics and guests made the American stigma almost redundant. Arab media insiders regale each other with tales of the unprofessionalism at the station, the money freely sloshing around, the odd personnel decisions, the dominance of certain Lebanese sects, the bizarre story selection. Overall, al-Hurra came across as a third-rate Lebanese TV station rather than America's flagship public diplomacy enterprise. By 2006 it had become clear that al-Hurra had failed to win any significant audience or generate any meaningful political debate. Before conservatives suddenly decided to go after Register, it was rather hard to find even a single person not on al-Hurra's payroll with a good word to say about it.

Despite its clear failures, al-Hurra's backers proved far better at promoting the station in Washington than in the Middle East. They regaled congress and the media with fairy tales of rapidly growing market share and journalistic successes. While such accounts solicited guffaws in the Arab world, few in Washington had the ability or the inclination to check up. Al-Hurra has no live feed available in the United States, offers only a rudimentary website, does not make available transcripts of its programs and does not even publish basic information about the talk show topics or guests. This lack of transparency helped al-Hurra avoid accountability, protecting the station's reputation and budget. Worse, its relentless boosterism misled Congress and many Americans into mistakenly thinking that the US was "doing something" on public diplomacy.

Last year, the concentrated scorn of almost all professionals in the field of Arab media and public diplomacy (including in the state department) finally led to an intervention. After a scathing Government Accountability Office report criticised the station's management and performance, Harb left under a cloud of criticism. His departure, along with the replacement of the uber-partisan Ken Tomlinson as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, offered al-Hurra a fresh start. Larry Register, an old CNN hand, was brought in to try and salvage the sinking station.

Register recognised immediately that al-Hurra desperately needed to attract an audience before it could accomplish anything else. He began to try to win one by covering issues that Arabs actually cared about, featuring a more diverse range of voices and trying (against the odds) to establish al-Hurra as a model of free media rather than American propaganda. Register increased the attention paid to American politics, exploiting one of al-Hurra's few points of comparative advantage. While conservatives complained that al-Hurra had backed away from coverage of human rights and democracy, there is little evidence of this; indeed, the only al-Hurra program which I have ever seen generate any Arab public discussion was a program on torture in Egypt which ran during Register's tenure.

His attempt to transform al-Hurra into something worthwhile triggered an endless deluge of savage articles in the Wall Street Journal by the non-Arabic-speaking journalist Joel Mowbray, presumably fueled by leaks from still fuming members of al-Hurra's old regime (Tomlinson bragged on Fox News that he "stood virtually alone in trying to expose this inside government"). And so, in an impressively short time, Register's support in congress and the BBG crumbled, and he quit.

The conservative crusade against Register demonstrates one of the great difficulties facing any official American broadcasting to the Middle East. To be a free and credible media outlet means allowing critics of American policy to speak and covering news that might make America look bad. Register was skewered for airing a speech by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, but not covering such an important political event would have simply made al-Hurra look ridiculous (as famously happened under Harb, when al-Hurra continued running a cooking show rather than cover the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin). Competing in the Arab market means understanding Arab audiences. But Yasser Thabet, hired away from al-Jazeera to revamp and upgrade al-Hurra's pathetic news operation, was thrown to the wolves after conservatives made an issue of his al-Jazeera history and accused him of, in essence, being an Arab. After seeing how rudely a prominent journalist like Yasser Thabet was treated, what quality Arab journalist would even consider signing up with al-Hurra now?

Register's fate demonstrates that trying to produce a professional news product for the American government means career suicide, and few are likely to try again any time soon. Just like public diplomats after the Fernandez incident, al-Hurra staff will always look over their shoulders in fear of a conservative crusade, and will be unlikely to take risks or even try to put forward interesting news or political arguments. Clearly desperate to get an Arabic speaker - any Arabic speaker - into Register's job (his lack of Arabic proved his Achilles heel), the BBG chose the Lebanese director of Radio Sawa's news, Danny Nassif, to take over, at least temporarily. With this return to the old regime, al-Hurra's transformation into an Arab TV Marti seems complete.