Governments set policy. Policy is propagated by propaganda. As propaganda’s force is felt, it is met with counter-policy and counter-propaganda from opposing governments. In this tug-of-war, an uneasy equilibrium prevails. Diplomacy is one means for a state to execute policy and project power. War is the other. In a free market economy, business is not subject to state policy — business does not project state power — even if many times there is an alignment of state policy with business interest. Therefore, through its products and services, a business can act as an unofficial ambassador. Through its cultural and commercial embassy, business can supply the feedback necessary to formulate effective state policy. In a digital, on-demand world it will be increasingly invited to do so.
American business displays a sensitivity to the world’s varied constituencies that is lacking in U.S. foreign policy. Through localization, American products enjoy wide cultural latitude. More often than not, however, U.S. diplomatic efforts are resisted. Allow me to present an example from within my own industry–online media. Studio One Networks specializes in syndicating independent editorials bundled with branded sponsorship. Wherever our content goes, our sponsors go with it. One of our partners is a leading multinational producer of consumer packaged goods. In 2008, we began working with the brand to reach the 11- to-15-year-old teenage girl audience in six different countries: Mexico, Russia, Germany, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. The brand recognized that to reach the pre-teen and teen audiences effectively, intrusive banner ads would not resonate. Instead, the feminine care brand would need to begin a conversation with these girls on their terms. The question for the brand was how to become a trusted information provider to young women in different countries. Together with the brand managers, Studio One conducted extensive market research to learn about media conditions, nuances of teen behavior and interests, and cultural attitudes towards puberty in the target markets. Our editors partnered with local journalists and editors to assemble a panel of international teen girls to create a program that would offer a consistent brand message, but localized on a country-by-country basis to ensure authenticity of voice and sensitivity to regional distinctions. The result was Girl World Daily, an interactive online magazine that speaks to teen girls directly in a voice they can trust.
What happened next was interesting. Studio One’s syndication model allowed Girl World Daily to create partnerships with editors and media in-country. This created an international bridge of communication and camaraderie. For example, we worked closely with Hello! magazine’s Spanish-language site, Hola.com, to better format our program’s look and aesthetic to reach the Mexican audience. The editor was delighted by how prompt and responsive the implementation was. Similar sentiment was expressed in European markets, France and Germany in particular. These partnerships have evolved into relationships, but to my point that business can go where state policy cannot: these local editors now entrust content creation to, and rely on, an American company for help in implementing their business model and extending its reach in their own countries, in their own cultures, in their own markets. This is, in effect, diplomacy on demand. The question is: Can this serve as the basis for a revised model of diplomatic action?
Here is the thesis of a media practitioner. The revised model for diplomatic action should observe the same rules that have found success in the commercial world of persuasion. The model would therefore reflect the understanding that single-source (statist) propaganda is rapidly losing its force and that foreign constituencies have many more choices than to accept willy-nilly the mandates of U.S. policy. Therefore, the new model begins with a sound understanding of the influence it seeks to extend, refuses to be a propaganda machine, and will become instead a conversation-starter; a set piece; a wonderful and rich coffee-table book of culture-graphics that engages and respects the prospective consumer of U.S. policy.
Diplomacy, like the media, will fragment in the coming years. Indeed, in the short time since I presented these thoughts in a speech last spring we have seen Wikileaks humble both the State Department and the military. If state propaganda can be so easily exposed (and if war is deemed too costly), then businessmen and women engaging in diplomatic action may become the best couriers of a renewed, progressive U.S. foreign policy: a policy that stands a chance of establishing our collective security.
Andrew Susman writes from New York City. He is the CEO of Studio One Networks, an internet content company that helped pioneer internet content syndication for mega brands and major media partners. Today Studio One reaches more than 200 million viewers globally through more than 1000 media partners in 17 languages.