Karen Hughes, the State Department's public diplomacy chief, speaks to Ted McKenna about government efforts to boost the US' global reputation
Ted McKenna: A lot of people seem to be interested in how the US is perceived around the world.
Karen Hughes: Well, it's really interesting because, in the past, we were trying to get information to people in largely closed societies [who] were hungry to hear from the outside world. People viewed that information as their lifeline, as what was really happening in other countries and the world at large.
Today, we are competing for attention and credibility in an incredibly crowded and noisy communications environment. With a few exceptions, there aren't too many people around the world waiting, hungry to hear from America these days.
McKenna: Previously, were Radio Free Europe and those kinds of government outlets more important?
Hughes: We still have very important broadcasting outlets that broadcast around the world and provide truthful and accurate information in places where it's difficult to get truthful and accurate information. But one of the biggest differences in today's world as compared to just 15 years ago is that mass audiences are getting television in a way that they never have before in the history of the world. For example, I go to Algeria, and in very poor neighborhoods, every home, every apartment has a satellite dish. There is now a choice of 200-plus, I believe at last count, television stations, if you have a satellite dish in the Middle East. Mass populations are getting access to television in a way they never have before and I think that's got really big implications for our country, because if you see something on television, you tend to think that you have judged it yourself. It tends to have a certain amount of credibility because you think you have witnessed it. It can be very wrong, but you still have a feeling that it's right because you ‘saw' it yourself.
McKenna: What then is new about the State Department's communications?
Hughes: We're reaching out a lot more to young people. In so many countries around the world, such a large percentage of the population is young.
In one of the new programs we initiated, we looked at countries [where] we thought it was [very] important to focus our efforts on an inter-agency basis to counter extremism and try to prevent young people from being radicalized.
For the first time, public diplomacy was recognized as a national security priority, and we got $50 million in the emergency supplemental. [With that, we created] summer programs for young people, teaching them English and then having fun activities like sports to introduce them to American ideas and Americans.
For example, when I arrived here, I tried to determine how the US monitor[ed] news around the world. What I discovered was that about 15 agencies did different forms of things, but mostly what they did was send around news clips.
In today's world, sending around a news clip that appeared in a newspaper a week ago is a guarantee for old news. So we have created a news center at the State Department where we monitor on a real-time basis the major media of the world. So I can walk downstairs and see what's on Al Jazeera and what's on Telesur and have it translated.
McKenna: Is the focus on exchange programs a grassroots approach when traditionally public diplomacy has been about diplomatic connections between governments?
Hughes: I think it's true that diplomacy used to be thought of as quiet messages delivered by one government official to another government official. Today's diplomacy in today's media world is much more public. That's true also as we foster democracy around the world. I think there are now about 120 democracies across the world, which is a dramatic increase in democratically elected governments. That makes a big difference in diplomacy because democratically elected governments reflect their people, and they support policies that their people can support. So you have to be able to make a case to their people as well as to their governments themselves.
One of our assistant secretaries here at the State Department, Tom Shannon, and I have had long conversations about this. He says over the course of his career - and he's been in the foreign service for 30 years - diplomacy has become much more public diplomacy, that public diplomacy skills are increasingly an important part of diplomacy in general. A number of things that I have instituted at the State Department have been in recognition of that. For example, every foreign service officer is now evaluated on public diplomacy as one of their rating criteria, which means its viewed as an important job skill for a diplomat. [This] is recognition that public diplomacy is increasingly a skill that is expected of ambassadors.
McKenna: And maybe there's a connection between that trend and the explosion in mass media?
Hughes: Yes. For example, when I arrived here, I tried to determine how did the US monitor news around the world? What I discovered was that about 15 agencies did different forms of things, but mostly what they did was send around news clips. In today's world, sending around a news clip that appeared in a newspaper a week ago is a guarantee for old news. So we have created a news center at the State Department where we monitor on a real-time basis the major media of the world. So I can walk downstairs and see what's on Al Jazeera and what's on Telesur, and have it translated.
McKenna: How many people are there?
Hughes: I think it's about seven or eight people. It's a nice facility with all the media screens up. It produces, everyday, a report on what is driving news around the world, and then concise bullets of what our official position is. This now goes to an e-mail list of several thousand - every US ambassador, every senior US military commander, and every cabinet secretary. I insisted it be no more than two pages, because I knew from my experience working with the White House that if it was more than that, no one would read it.
There [are] two points to this. The first is that I think it's very important that US policymakers and cabinet officials know how our news is being perceived around the world. So this tells them this is the way that Europe, the Middle East, sometimes Latin America, and elsewhere what the big stories are and the way that news is being played [out] around the world - because it's an important influence on policy. Secondly, I think it's important because if you're an ambassador in Finland and if I'm asking you to get out and engage more with the media, you might be asked about one of these stories. So you have to know more as an ambassador to engage with the media than just the bilateral issues between your country and America. You have to know the big stories driving news around the world. This gives you points to make about the big stories at a greater comfort level. So daily we are now providing points to our ambassadors. That had never happened when I arrived here.
McKenna: You'd think they would have been doing that already.
Hughes: Public affairs did some things, but what happened was, I came here, and [in] my first week I thought, "What if I were the ambassador somewhere in the world? What's the big story driving news around the world?"
The week I started, in August 2005, it was Israel's withdrawal from [the Gaza Strip]. I realized that if I were an ambassador, I wouldn't know what to say about that. I spent a day trying to figure out what I should say, and I finally had to write something. So I wrote it up and sent it around the world. I was stunned by the reaction. We had probably 20 to 25 e-mails and phone calls saying, "Can I have more of those?"
McKenna: Sounds kind of like ‘talking points' that political parties issue to members of Congress.
Hughes: It's communications that any modern company would do. It's what modern communications requires, and that is how you empower people to speak out, by giving them the information they need. No ambassador wants to make a mistake; when you're representing America overseas you don't want to misspeak about American policy and so you need to know the facts. It's interesting, we just had a big State Department retreat where we talked about empowering people in today's world, where you've got blogs and YouTube and [the] Internet, and so much moving so fast that we really have to empower our people to represent the government or you're never going to keep up. You're never going to be engaging unless you empower people to do that.
Same thing, we have a new counterterrorism center that we've set up. You ask about new things, it's a new center that's an interagency center - brand new. The senior official is a State Department foreign service officer - an Arabist who has a lot of core experience in the Muslim world, and the No 2 is a [Department of Defense] DoD official, and it has representatives from various agencies. They're focused every day on countering ideological support for extremism. So, for example, yesterday, on July 4... when Al Queda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, put out a video, we issued an alert to go to American government officials around the world with themes to counter the statement that he had made.
McKenna: A lot people say America has a poor reputation around the world. Do you agree?
Hughes: It depends. A Pew [Research Center] poll just showed very positive impressions in Africa [and] India.
It varies. Obviously, across much of the Muslim world, the numbers are low. People talk about winning hearts and minds or changing image, [but] I view my job as reaching out to the world in the spirit of friendship and respect.
McKenna: How do you know these programs are working?
Hughes: We've put in place a new evaluation program that proves public diplomacy programs work. We actually went back and surveyed participants in our programs. We've always done it with education and exchanges but we hadn't done it with a number of our public diplomacy programs. And we were able to show from our initial survey data that 87% of participants in our programs have a better understanding of the United States and 73% have more favorable attitudes toward our country as a result of their participation. What we're trying to do is incorporate private sector best practices to make government more effective, and one of the things you have to do is measure. You have to evaluate your programs.
McKenna: Just like a PR campaign when they do a survey before and after?
Hughes: Absolutely. And, you asked about new things, one of programs we're also doing is called Greetings from America, where we try to amplify the exchange experience. We know - and I believe - that our education and exchange programs have been our single most effective public diplomacy tool in the last 50 years. There is no substitute for bringing people here and letting them see for themselves what America is like.
McKenna: It seems like viral marketing, where people go back and tell their friends.
Hughes: Precisely. So we've really expanded our exchange programs. When I came, the year before I arrived, we had 27,000 people participate. This year we'll have almost 40,000. And I'm working on a budget where we're hoping to [increase participants] to more than 50,000. Obviously, Congress has to approve the budget, but that's the proposal that we're working on.
We're also looking to amplify that: How can I share the exchange experience with a broader audience than just those who participate. Well, in Indonesia, we partnered with a radio station. Once a week they interviewed Indonesian students who were attending high school in Colorado about their experience in America. We did a survey before the program started and we did a survey of the listeners of the program at the end of the year and we were able to show that over the course of the year that young people who listened to that radio station had a much more positive view of America at the end of the year after hearing their fellow Indonesia young people talk about America. In addition, their parents were much more likely to let their young people come to the US after hearing the good experiences that the Indonesian young people had in America.
So, yes, we're taking a private sector practice of measuring and evaluating and using it to look at our programs.
McKenna: Can public diplomacy mitigate controversial US public policies such as the Iraq war or Guantanamo? Or do people just misunderstand the policies?
Hughes: No, some people disagree with some of our public policies - no question about that. People will always disagree with some actions. We disagree with what other countries do. You [won't] change their minds about that. But you might try to explain the rationale in a better way.
McKenna: Another criticism of the new communications plan is that it may be fine, but the budget of $850 million or so is not enough compared with, say, the Pentagon's $480 billion budget.
Hughes: We need to do a better job with the assets we have, and that's what this is about: Giving tools to our ambassadors to encourage them to get out more and engage with media. We have a lot of resources, but we need more.
I've been an advocate for increasing the public diplomacy budget, and it has increased substantially since I've been here, from $677 million to $845 million.
I'll continue to be an advocate because we must rebuild our ability to engage with the rest of the world. At the same time, we need to do a better job with the substantial assets already in place.
McKenna: So that's why you created the hubs in Dubai, Belgium and London?
Hughes: Right, so in Dubai, we know have a spokesman whose job is to get on the air and in Arabic explain American policies and represent American values on the stations that are operating in Dubai. Previously we had the public affairs officer in Dubai whose job was the bilateral relationship between the UAE and America, not to go on the pan-Arab media. We have to do a better job with what we have: Arming our Ambassadors with information; putting our spokespeople on the air; engaging with the media more around the world.
McKenna: What can people in the PR industry do to help?
Hughes: We have lot of partnerships that we'd love to have them join. That's been another new thing we've created for the first time in public diplomacy: an office of public-private sector partnership, and we have leveraged more than $800 million in private sector contributions through that office. So we've created, for example, a partnership to help rebuild Lebanon and create new employment opportunities in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Israeli-Hezbollah war last summer. I led a group of legislators to Pakistan who had a special interest in helping Pakistan after the earthquake. They raised more than $100 million to build schools and clinics in Pakistan in the aftermath of the earthquake and provide some disaster relief.
We have partnerships to bring women business leaders to America and help mentor them. We have the new journalist partnerships. We have an office now and encourage people to call that office and we'd love to engage with them, because obviously America's engagement with the world is important to the business community and important to the readers of PRWeek. It's not just a job for government; it's a job for all of us.
McKenna: Is that how you developed the plan, in consultation with the private sector?
Hughes: Absolutely. With the new communications plan, we've consulted very broadly with the private sector. We had the summit with the PR Coalition. I personally have met with a number of public relations executives. We also received permission from a firm, Praxis Media, to use a PR planning tool in our new strategic communications plan. It's a great tool, the best I've seen, an ABCDE tool on how to plan for any message before you try to deliver it - who's the audience, what do they know, what do you want them to think, [and] what kind of event or communication would be most effective.
McKenna: Is that what you've used for political campaigns?
Hughes: In dealing with an American audience, I've tended to rely more on my own instinct and experience as a former journalist and communicator. But I think when you deal with multiple audiences across the world that this is very helpful to think about what is the mindset. So this is a private model, not a campaign, more of a corporate model, using private sector communications tools. In terms of exchanges, we've looked at who are the most likely to bring people to America, and it's the travel and tourism industry, it's the higher education community, and it's the business community.
McKenna: There have been complaints about visa processes.
Hughes: That's been something we've worked very hard on. For example, one of the things I really focused on was working with our consular affairs office to improve our student visa process, because I think it's so important. What happened was that in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the number of student visas dropped pretty dramatically as we instituted new security procedures. Then, even when we were able to improve and streamline the security procedures and were able to issue student visas more rapidly, the perception lagged the reality. So around the world people still thought it was hard to get a student visa, but now I think we've reversed that. Last year we issued a record number of student visas, I think 591,000. Again that is very important for our country. Because I travel the world, and I know your readers probably have the same experience, the leaders in business, science, government, around the world, many of them have been educated in the United States, and that's an enormous source of intellectual capital for our country and I think it's very important that the same be true 20 or 30 years from now.
Key points of the US State Department's national strategic communications plan
US public diplomacy must underscore commitment to human rights and support those who struggle for freedom and democracy
While nurturing common interests and values between Americans and other people across the world, the US and its partners must isolate and marginalize violent extremists
Strategic audiences include "key influencers," such as clerics, journalists, business leaders, and more; "vulnerable populations," such as youth, women and girls, and minorities; and mass audiences, reachable through US government broadcasting entities and foreign media
Priorities include education and exchange programs, modernized communications, and promotion of American good deeds, such as help after disasters
Public diplomacy initiatives should be coordinated across government agencies, including the White House, National Security Council, the State Department, and the Department of Defense
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