In this interview, PD’s Katharine Keith spoke with Joe Mellott, Special Assistant for the Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State.
1. Definitions of public diplomacy, including the role of public diplomats, abound. What, in your own words, is your job description? I think the simplest thing to say is: working on ways, as a government entity, to build relationships between groups in two different societies, two different cultures, two different countries. It is facilitating and increasing people-to- people engagement across borders.
What I see as my job description, as a public diplomat, is finding ways to facilitate that kind of interaction between people and to find groups with similar outlooks and so that the connections that exist between two countries are deeper than just government-to-government. I want to ensure that there are links between groups in society that can ensure that when we, as nation, come up against issues on which we don’t agree or don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on, there is enough other underlying relationship where we can come to terms with those issues and find areas in which we do agree in order to move forward.
2. What activities are imperative to doing your job and reaching your PD goals?
A lot of that starts with understanding markets that we are trying to be a part of and trying to work with. You don’t want to say, “I want to reach people through new media or social media,” if you don’t know what social media are important to them. You don’t want to say “I want to create a website where I can talk to people.” That forces people to come to your website, whereas it is much more effective to ensure that your message is actually on websites where people already go. So I think the heart of it is being very clear on what your strategy is, what it is you’re trying to accomplish; being very particular about what tools you have; and measuring the resources you have and ensuring that they’re going to be the tools that actually reach people where they are. That’s a very theoretical answer to that.
3. Describe a recent project that is demonstrative of your organization’s PD initiatives.
I am working as a special assistant for the Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy right now. One of the areas I focus on is South and Central Asia, which includes Pakistan. Pakistan is clearly a major policy objective for this administration and strengthening ties between the people of Pakistan and the people of the United States is central to what we’re trying to do with public diplomacy in Pakistan. Doing that is part of restoring our policies at the government level—we have communication at the government-to- government level that is not supported by relations that we’ve built people- to-people.
Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan in October exemplifies the approach we are taking. When Secretary Clinton went to Pakistan she made it very clear that one of the things she wanted to do was reinvigorate the long-existing ties between the people of the United States and the people of Pakistan. In August, when Ambassador Holbrook went to Pakistan prior to the Secretary’s visit, the conversations that he started-up with people were to say that we’ve talked about security, and while security is important, there are also a number of other issues that are important to us in our relationship with Pakistan. We have to look at how our relationship has, over the years, developed and where we want it to go in terms of supporting civic institutions that are part and parcel of the democratic institutions we want to see take place and we want to support. By doing that we can have another conversation in Pakistan about issues and that help strengthen ties and keep the conversation going even when times are tough.
Some of the specific steps we took in terms of public diplomacy are to ensure we have an active role in conversations that are happening within the media and getting information to the public about U.S. commitment to help Pakistanis with their issues on access to energy. We can’t allow other people to speak on our behalf. We can’t make policies that say, if this is a difficult media environment we’re not going to engage in it. Instead, we have to say that we will engage with them on issues that are of importance to them and start talking about how we’re working together. That’s a difficult position in a place like Pakistan where we haven’t had that sense of conversation for a long time.
There is also the issue that being part of the conversation is tied to the notion of respect and mutuality. If we are not there listening and are not engaging, then it sends the message that we only engage when it’s about us. Public diplomacy is a two-way relationship that has to happen all the time. That needs to be backed up with longer-term relationship building like exchange programs, highlighting aspects of American culture so that the people understand what we are as a people. So their expectations of what Americans are and what America represents are more in line with how we want to be perceived. Likewise it’s important for them to understand that in this conversation we developed expectations so it is a two-way street.
4. How does your organization establish its public diplomacy goals? Who sets the priorities? Is there an emphasis on specific issues or regions?
This is one of the things we’re actually looking at right now and talking about. Undersecretary McHale is working within the State Department to put together a public diplomacy strategy going forward and look at some of those issues. PD is a two-way street. It has to begin with a discussion with our hosts, because they’re the ones who have their ear on the ground and report back to us on the issues that matter. Where is the conversation that we need to be a part of? Who are the partners that we need to work with? But there also has to be leadership from above. There are also administration- specific goals that may change from one to administration to the next, but the means of conveying those sorts of goals have to be in place all the time. In terms of emphasis about specific issues or regions, we have to recognize there are aspects of public diplomacy that are about relationship-building that have to be long-term. You don’t build relationships by changing your focus every two years on those sorts of things.
5. Who are your strategic partners, within and outside your organization – in executing your projects?
Strategic partners are key to actually being successful in public diplomacy. It really depends upon the issue. I think our goal in the government is to say, “this is the issue we want to address. This is the audience in this particular place we want to talk to. What’s the best way we want to bring value?” So in terms of determining strategic partners I think you need to say, “What are your strategic goals? What do you want to do or what are the issues you’re facing in the particular country or audience you’re talking to?” And how do you find the right voices to forge those kinds of relationships so that it is not always such a government voice and other voices that explain the story of who we are.
Strategic partners are key: universities, student groups, business groups and private industry all play a role, which we use depends on the
6. What is the most constructive piece of advice you have received for practicing public diplomacy?
Listen. Understand what other people are looking for and think about what you are doing in terms of engaging other audiences. You have to figure out what the issues are that are important to them and talk about and engage on those issues so that they’re willing to engage on issues that are important to you. You’re going to be part of an exchange. Like in a conversation you cannot assume that what matters to you is going to matter to your audience.
7. Share a personal experience (good or bad) about PD in practice. Something that was surprising, interesting or otherwise influenced the way you practice public diplomacy.
When I was in Bangladesh in 2002 I was working at the consular office. If you’re engaged in cross-cultural communication of any kind, everything you do has an element of public diplomacy to it. I was working in a consular office in a majority Muslim country which we’ve had a longstanding relationship with. come to this country all the time and my work dealt with Visas. While I had a wonderful tour working in the Embassy there it was a very difficult time for Bangladeshis entering the United States. There were a lot of visa restrictions since that was the first summer new students were applying to go to the United States after 9/11 and they had to go through new procedures. So in the consular section we said, “We can go forward and not do anything about it and a lot of people probably won’t get their visas because they’re used to how things used to work and we could just not engage and leave the market in Bangladesh.” Or we could say, “Where is the audience we want to reach? Where are good students, and good business people who we want to come to the United States; whose interest in the U.S. we will continue to encourage and make them feel welcome despite what they’re hearing.” And that’s what we did. So my role as a consular officer became first and foremost as a public diplomacy officer. One of the things that mattered to us was not to lose that audience that was paramount to ensuring that we had good relations with the people of Bangladesh. We kept up that dialogue so that we didn’t lose the trust of the people that we wanted to be engaged with.
Interview conducted by PD Magazine Senior Editor Katharine Keith
Joe Mellott is Special Assistant in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Mellott joined the Foreign Service in 2001 and has served as Embassy Spokesman and Press Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a press officer in the European Bureau and as the action officer for Afghanistan issues and ISAF at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels. Prior to that, Mellott worked with the United States Information Agency in Washington and served as the Public Affairs Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, and as the Information and Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.