Review by Anthony C. E. Quainton
The Last Three Feet: Case Studies in Public Diplomacy, edited by William P. Kiehl, Public Diplomacy Council/PDWorldwide, 2012, ISBN-13: 9781478112952, 196 pp. $14.99 (paperback), $4.99 (Kindle).
The Last Three Feet, the fourth in a series of books published by the Public Diplomacy Council over the past eight years, maintains the high standards of its predecessors. Editor William Kiehl has assembled an informative collection of articles, which bring to both the general public and more specialized academic audiences refreshing insights and professional understanding about the nuts and bolts of American soft power. The articles in the volume cover a variety of different and innovative PD programs using social media as well as elaborations of traditional activities including media monitoring (Pakistan), trade fair exploitation (Shanghai) and youth exchange programs (Brazil). Among these various stories the two most interesting come from Bahrain where PAO Rachel Leslie describes the challenges of trying to use social media in the midst of the Arab Spring demonstrations and from Baghdad where Aaron Snipe explains how the Embassy used social media to reach a wider audience than the traditional English-speaking elites with which the Embassy was in contact. Equally interesting is Embassy Jakarta’s experience with @America, a reinvention of the classical off-site cultural center, which permits Indonesians once again to get within those last three feet.
From these articles one gets a strong sense of the energy of contemporary PD officers and of their interest in and desire to be innovative in conveying America’s policies and values to skeptical and often hostile audiences. What is also striking about the many programs described in this book is the focus on youth. @American located in an Indonesian shopping mall and open during normal commercial, rather than bureaucratic, hours focuses on the 15-30 age demographic. Creative use is made of technology of particular interest to youth. In its first year it welcomed over 100,000 visitors. In Brazil the focus is on youth ambassadors and in Turkey on youth entrepreneurs. In virtually every article the emphasis is on the use of Facebook and Twitter, both quintessentially youth media, although that will surely change in the years to come.
This very fact of reliance on social media points to another facet of 21st Century public diplomacy, the need to cope with an extraordinary volume of activity. Virtually every article speaks in some fashion of the issue of volume. In Shanghai the American pavilion had to cope with 50,000 visitors a day. Before a visit by President Obama to Ghana the Embassy sponsored “Ask Obama a question” on its website and got 300,000 responses. When Embassy Brasilia had a two-hour web chat 40,000 individuals participated. These are stunning numbers. It is, of course, beyond the capacity of any one embassy or indeed of the entire United States government to deal with 300,000 questions. The new technologies make it possible to reach extraordinary numbers of individuals; particularly among youthful age cohorts, but to make these technologies truly interactive is beyond our ability. Indeed just reading this volume of messages, let alone assessing the significance of the messages being sent would be a challenge for which there is no obvious solution. This is, of course, a core public diplomacy issue: how to measure success. It is easy to quantify the numbers of tweets sent and received, of postings on interactive blog sites or the numbers of Facebook friends of a particular Embassy. But what do these numbers mean and how can we be sure that we are reaching those who can impact American policies and interests or that we are changing attitudes towards the United States in a positive way?
A second constraining factor, which emerges in many of these articles, is the question of language. One of the final sentences of Walter Douglas’ piece on PD in Pakistan is telling. “English”, he says, “can be a pernicious influence” His Embassy had relied overly on the English language media in Pakistan and had ignored the Urdu media. He and his team changed that and set up a daily analysis of the vernacular media. Here, however, one of the key shortcomings of American PD becomes apparent. Embassy Islamabad must rely almost entirely on locally employed staff to do this monitoring and analysis. Similarly in the examples from Bahrain and Baghdad, while the Embassy has Arabic-capable officers working on PD, the managing of the social media falls on the local staff.
Historically the Foreign Service Institute has concentrated on giving employees an ability to speak the local language and to a lesser extent to read it, hence the “S” and “R” ratings on which assignments and promotion depend. Virtually no attention is given to writing. Yet what is needed in the digital age is a capacity to write twitter feed, compose blog entries and post Facebook news on the Embassy’s wall. This in turn requires an ability to communicate in writing to the vast mass audience now being reached through social media. We are still almost totally dependent on local employees, whose loyalty we trust and whose language capabilities we assume, but they still remain a filter through which American policies and commentary must pass before it reaches a foreign audience. The problems encountered by the book’s authors strongly suggest that this is an area to which we need to give more thought, perhaps adding a “W” rating to the traditional “S” and “R”.
Ironically, while the book is entitled the Last Three Feet, as was the conference on which it was based, much of what is described is not about face to face contact, but about how to exploit hand held devices and computer screens to carry the messages that we want read and how to ensure that what we post on these screens will make it that last eighteen inches into the brains of our target audiences. In Jakarta the Embassy has faced up to this challenge. @American is a real last three feet endeavor using 18 inch technology which deserves to be replicated, even though centers of this kind raise issues of security and staffing which are quite different from the issues raised by reliance on social media alone. Jakarta is concerned about both personal and electronic interaction. That surely is the wave of the future.
The Last Three Feet deserves to be read by practitioners who can learn from the best practices of their colleagues, by a wider public audience that does not understand how American soft power is projected, and by academics who are charged with educating the next generation of public diplomats. This book fills an important gap in the literature and is a valuable resource that makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Public Diplomacy.