U.S. Public Diplomacy Flying Blind

It's really quite surprising in some ways -- and not at all in most others -- that at a time when the U.S. is faced with unprecedented challenges, the U.S. Department of State doesn't use strategic research to guide its communications and public diplomacy.

Last month, the GAO released a report entitled "U.S. Public Diplomacy: Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Use and Coordination of Research." It concluded that the Secretary of State needs to take a research-based "campaign-style" approach to communications and generate "actionable" research to inform its efforts. I love this idea!

If the USG was a moderate-sized company, or a candidate for office higher than dogcatcher, strategic research would guide every communications decision it made. According to the report, the State Department spends about three million dollars a year researching the best way to talk to audiences around the globe. That's about what a well-funded candidate for governor in a big state would spend on polling.

So, according to the report, what currently guides USG communications overseas?

"In the absence of systematic processes to understand the needs or level of satisfaction of policymakers . . . agencies [like State] generally rely on ad hoc feedback mechanisms, such as conversations with individual users and irregular e-mail submissions."

So, the U.S. is allocating billions of dollars in aid and implementing policies affecting billions of lives and it takes pretty much same approach the PTA does to spending the proceeds from the car wash. "Without such actionable research, agency communication efforts represent little more than educated guesses of what is likely to influence foreign cultures where target audiences have views of the U.S. that are potentially informed by a complex mix of psychological, historical, political, cultural, religious and other factors." Ouch.

Political campaigns and PR firms have been using strategic research techniques for 30 years. The tools range from the simple (surveys, focus groups) to the more complicated (ad testing, audience measurements) and they can be implemented even in the roughest, most remote, most underprivileged areas. This isn't rocket science. There's no good reason for State not to be using it (bureaucratic inertia: not a good reason).

The report acknowledges that State does currently conduct research through the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. I've seen that research and I put it in the "interesting, but not useful" category. It's always nice to know what people think, for example, about suicide bombing or where the public stands the latest constitutional amendment. That type of research is useless, however, for figuring out how to diminish public support for suicide bombing or to build support for a constitutional amendment. When you want to persuade people or change their minds about something, your poll questions are formulated and analyzed differently than they would be for a "sociological poll" or the type of poll that might appear in a newspaper.

I reject the counterargument that budgets are tight and there isn't money to be wasted on research. If you're spending millions on a public education program on, for example, Bird Flu, doesn't it make sense to spend a hundred thousand to make sure you're communicating the right message to the right audience? Guessing is pennywise and pound foolish.

I do foresee some bumps in the road if the USG is serious about implementing a "campaign-style" approach to communications. Strategic research is most effective when all the players around the table agree on the goal and are willing to set aside parochial agendas to move it forward. I can't imagine achieving that level of cooperation between Washington and an Embassy, much less among different offices at State or among different branches (ie State and DOD).

Additionally, an effective research program often delivers bad news: maybe conventional wisdom is wrong, or a program isn't working the way it was planned or a powerful person's agenda is misguided. My former partner and I were referred to as the "princesses of darkness" because of our willingness to deliver bad news in stark terms. In my experience, folks at State aren't generally receptive to hearing that things aren't exactly the way they'd like them to be. Killing the messenger is a dumb idea when your messenger is the one who's carrying map to victory.

I would never argue that strategic research can clean up all the messes the U.S. finds itself in right now, but it would certainly help mitigate some of them and give diplomats around the world some guidance about the best way to present the U.S.'s side of the story. It can also help them assess whether what they're doing is actually effective. Finally, it might also provide ammunition against those who believe that public diplomacy efforts are a waste of time and resources.

Thanks to World Politics Review for the heads up on the report!