A Public Diplomacy Teaching Moment
Wednesday, August 1st 2012
Mitt Romney had a painful public diplomacy teaching moment last week in London. No question about it, Romney stepped off the airplane and put his foot squarely in it.
And, while I wrote this comment at that time, I had decided against posting it -- until Al Kamen’s column in this morning’s Washington Post changed my mind and reinforced my conviction. See why below.
What Romney was guilty of, I believe, is a mistake many American politicians and government officials make every time they travel abroad.
That is, they forget they are in another country.
They forget that those foreigners are living another, different story from the one we are living at home in the USA.
Too often officials fail to realize that the perception of current world events in a given foreign country is entirely different from what we at home have been absorbing from the American mainstream media.
Of course, for most USG visitors, the laser-like focus of the American and British press is not zeroed in on them, as it was on Romney from the moment he walked out of Heathrow’s hallways. When most USG officials and congressmen make a gaffe on foreign soil, they get a pass. Or, more likely, they don’t get noticed at all. Not so much for presidential candidates.
But, here’s what I believe happened to Mitt Romney: he departed the USA toward the end of a busy week on the campaign trail. Doubtless, before departure, he was reading the usual domestic newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post) and watching or listening to the usual broadcasters (ABC, NBC, PBS, etc.). And, the American media were – especially that week – in a news-free, pre-Olympics feeding frenzy.
Now, any experienced press officer will tell you that when an international event is in the offing – and especially if there is an absence of real news – reporters crank out countless, breathless, and entirely predictable stories about security, inconvenience, how much it all costs, and colorful accounts of local people criticizing preparations. There is little enough actual data or facts in these stories – they usually consist of multiple man-in-the-street interviews selected to support the reporter’s pre-conceived thesis.
In London this summer, there had been of course plenty of press criticism of the Olympic security preparations, the traffic snarls, and the costs. But, if you actually read the British press closely and compared it to the American coverage, you saw the difference. The Brits were negative about the impact of many preparations, griping about the inconvenience, and shocked at the costs. But, they were never in real doubt about whether the Olympics would be successful or something worthy of British pride.
It is a small but important distinction, one that the embassy’s public diplomacy staff would have felt through their fingertips.
And judging by my experience in the London embassy, the PAO would have happily briefed the candidate or his staff about the nuances of the local media environment, the psychology of the local audience, and the things you could say and should not say. (e.g., “Question the costs, but don’t question the people’s commitment or the eventual outcome.”)
Public diplomacy advice, grounded in local knowledge, is available to any prominent American visitor, of any party, at any time. Embassy officers probably would, if asked, have willingly held a “murder board,” a mock interview, to test questions and responses. But, I am willing to bet that neither Romney nor any member of his advance team sought that kind of specific, on-the ground, finger-on-the-pulse advice from the Public Affairs Officer or anyone else in the embassy. As Al Kamen points out, Romney’s traveling staff was small and not particularly attuned.
There are two lessons here, and they apply to any USG official or prominent person traveling to a foreign country who is likely to be highly visible and interviewed by local or world media.
Lesson number one is that the way the target country and its current affairs has been portrayed in the U.S. press is inevitably shaped by the prism of American culture and politics.
And, it is probably not accurate, at least in the eyes of the other country. U.S. media often cast foreign stories in the mold of American perceptions: oversimplification of good guys versus bad guys, tyrants versus democrats, and waste versus efficiency. It is easy to feed American exceptionalist mythology by stereotyping foreigners as weak and/or incompetent.
The experienced U.S. visitor abroad assumes that, no matter what he or she has been reading at home, it is most certainly not what people in the country have been thinking. In terms of tone and tenor, if not in terms of crucial facts, what you’ve been absorbing at home does not jibe with the perspective of most people in the country where you’ve just arrived.
Lesson number two is that the American visitor absolutely must get a thorough briefing on the local situation and host nation perceptions. You don’t have to go to the American embassy for this, but you need to get it from someone -- someone who lives there, listens intelligently, and understands what’s going on.
As an American ambassador, I was able to insist that no visiting USG official of any level would have any contact with any host country press, officials, or any public audiences before we at the embassy had a chance to brief the visitor and discuss the issues.
To do otherwise is to send the visitor walking boldly through a minefield -- without a map.