The Last Three (Make that Six…) Feet

This pandemic has brought into question one of the basic tenets of public diplomacy–Murrow’s ‘Last Three Feet’ of international messaging. The ‘personal touch’ of a Cultural Affairs Officer or a citizen diplomat communicating with locals overseas face-to-face was the whole point of public diplomacy. Bringing people together, sharing ideas and experiences, learning through immersion–how can that happen at a distance? In this new global context of travel restrictions, what does public diplomacy look like? What is its raison d’être?

The USC CPD Blog has had some really interesting pieces over the past couple of months, and when I get a chance, I hope to read them all & reflect on them here. In the meantime, here are some of my preliminary thoughts on PD in the post-Covid-19-era:

  1. Moving (even further) online

Firstly, I think we’re going to see public diplomacy activities shift online, even more than they already have, with things like virtual exhibits and galleries, and webcasts of lectures, and distance learning versions of educational exchange.

This has tremendous opportunities for expanding the reach of public diplomacy efforts. Where an art exhibition might only reach a few hundred visitors in person, making it available on the web and sharing it on social media platforms could increase its reach dramatically. It also has significant cost-savings and environmental advantages, when compared with the expense and pollution of international air travel.

Craig Hayden’s 2016 chapter “Technology Platforms for Public Diplomacy: Affordances for Education” considered the potential applications of MOOCs (massive open online courses). It highlighted some of the ways technology can enhance PD practices, and raises interesting points for consideration as our reliance on technology increases. The US State Department’s MOOC Camp is discussed as a largely successful endeavour, and it offers a model which could be built upon in the future.

One caveat to techno-optimistic thinking, however, is that while the internet offers more potential for increased audience size and interactivity, it also suffers from attention scarcity–there is too much content and audiences are fragmented. It is difficult to be heard on the internet, especially by the general public (who are unlikely to do a google search for virtual cultural exhibitions). Also, it is always important to bear in mind that the internet is not universally accessible–just 59% of the world’s population are active internet users (Statista), and although internet penetration rates have increased significantly over the past decade, there are still dozens of countries where less than a quarter of the population are online (Wikipedia). A shift towards online public diplomacy can mean ignoring parts of the world that are significant public diplomacy targets for the West.

2) Uniting publics over shared problems

Pandemics have a strange way of bringing people together. Although we’re all going through it separately, this is a common experience that we’re all sharing. Some people are isolating more comfortably than others, of course, and key workers never stopped going out into the world, but for many millions of people, this has meant staying home and limiting contact with others–a weird time that we’re all processing together.

Pandemics are shared problems that demand shared solutions. We have to cooperate on a global scale to resolve the pandemic, whether it’s collaborating in medical research to create a vaccine or coordinating resources like PPE. A vivid illustration of crisis-induced cooperation is the fact that wars have stopped–apparently they weren’t essential after all.

Public diplomacy can play a role in addressing issues that transcend borders. Initiatives like Fulbright NEXUS were aimed at bringing scholars and professionals together to work on shared problems, such as public health, climate change, and food and water security. The program has been on hiatus since 2016, according to the 2019 USACPD Annual Report, but recent events may inspire a reboot.

Work cited:

Hayden, C. (2016) Technology Platforms for Public Diplomacy: Affordances for Education, In: Mathews-Aydinli, J., Ed. International Education Exchanges and Intercultural Understanding, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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