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How Not To Win Hearts And Minds

By Ilan BermanDecember 15th, 2008

I visited Moscow for the first time in the winter of 2002. After a day of back-to-back policy meetings, I stepped out on the town with a colleague. Our plan was to see the sights, and we headed for Red Square. On the way there, we strolled by a babushka peddling alcohol on the street, beverages displayed in front of her on a dingy blanket. Her hawker’s calls caught my attention, and I remember thinking, hearing her offer sips of beer for sale, that the Russians hadn’t quite gotten the whole capitalism thing quite right.

I was reminded of that episode last week, upon reading the latest offering from DipNote, the State Department’s online blog, about how Foggy Bottom is getting into the online instantaneous communication tool known as Twitter. The leading proponent of this new technology is Colleen Graffy, currently the Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy. On her online page, Colleen posts “tweets” about everything from the bureaucratic to the banal - including, but not limited to, her administrative meetings with U.S. diplomatic personnel abroad and her failure to bring a bathing suit with her on her recent official visit to Iceland.

One is left with the impression that, just like with that Russian babushka in Moscow, something appears to have been lost in translation. After all, public diplomacy and strategic communication are not about total transparency, although that can help gain the trust of foreign audiences. Rather, they are intended to communicate ideas and values to the outside world. When America speaks, the words need to inspire and empower.

That is the enduring lesson of the Cold War, during which Washington’s tools of strategic outreach brought hope to captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain, and over time helped bring down the Soviet Union. Color me skeptical, but I somehow doubt that email blasts about a U.S. diplomat’s frenetic travel schedule will accomplish the same goal against our adversaries today.

7 Responses to “How Not To Win Hearts And Minds”

  1. Colleen Graffy Says:

    I understand the skepticism that surrounds new media and, particularly, social networking. But if diplomats want to engage effectively with the public — whether foreign or domestic — in today’s world, we need to first listen, then connect, then communicate. And that includes communicating in the forums — and formats — that today’s audiences are using.

    As we listen to the conversations where people, particularly young people, are absorbing their information, we learn that, in addition to print, radio and television, we need to engage in new media and social networking. In “Twittering,” the personal merges with the professional. These audiences are not going to read a “tweet” that is all dry policy. Yes, I make myself vulnerable by including the personal, but my tweets have helped personalize the diplomatic role and shown that I am a human and not a humorless, impersonal bureaucrat. When I met with students at the University of Bucharest, or with Moldovan bloggers, in your words, I had gained “the trust” of the audience before I even arrived. By reading my tweets, they felt like they already knew me. The result: I was more effective in communicating about America, and we had a better two-way conversation. Isn’t that what public diplomacy is all about?

    The lesson of the Cold War was that winning hearts and minds meant communicating in a way that “connected” to people, whether that was through film or jazz or jeans. I would encourage other skeptics to not just pluck out the personal from my twitter ( but to follow others and see how they merge the personal with their interests, passions and work. In addition to the bureaucratic and banal, I also connect my tweets to video at and photos at so that people can learn about America’s public diplomacy first hand — and in an informal manner that puts a human face on a message that otherwise might not get through.

  2. John Bordeaux Says:

    It’s always interesting to see what people claim to be the “enduring lesson of the Cold War.” America inspired by communicating ideas and values, yes. However, what ALSO mattered was the illegal use of television satellite dishes in East Germany - as the Stasi could no longer control their subjects’ unfettered view into West Germany and beyond.

    Perhaps broadcasting carefully-worded inspirational messages connects with hearts and minds. However, building trust through conversations connects with shackled limbs and leads to change. Both efforts are essential to changing hearts, minds, and actions.

  3. Adam Krajchir Says:

    Colleen, I couldn’t agree more. The golden rule we all grew up with was “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and while the intention was sound, unfortunately the application of that rule has illuminated just how self centered we are.

    At least as it applies to effective communication and engagement, the platinum rule is “do unto others as they would have you do unto them”. It’s not a responsibility, it’s just effective. If we want people to understand, and ultimately if we want to persuade, we need to provide the meal in the form that is most digestible to our audience. This falls under the basics of establishing trust.

  4. Aarjav Says:

    I think Colleen is doing a great thing by participating in new media. Not only does she gain the trust of people before she meets them, as she mentioned, but having a conversation with young people both in the U.S. and outside, using tools like twitter, also allows her to learn about opinions she may not hear in meetings with diplomats.

  5. Amie F. Says:

    As a “regular” person who follows Colleen’s tweet, I have to say I think they are wonderful. It’s nice to read a quick update on what America’s diplomats are doing in the world, without having to dig through tons of articles and reports. As for the personal items, like Colleen said, it’s a good way to remind the world that bureaucrats are people too, who run out of milk or who’s cars die on them.

  6. Barbara Lindsey Says:

    With all due respect, it seems that part of America’s PR problem continues to be this “us versus them” dichotomy reflected, in part, in your post, in which communication is one-sided, unilateral and authoritative. Who decides that our form of government is a one-size-fits-all model? I find Ms. Graffy’s tweets informative and enlightening. For civic-minded Americans it is a unique form of job shadowing, especially for those considering public service. From my anecdotal experiences with those outside our increasingly permeable borders, this open and transparent communication creates a more receptive environment to discuss ideas, values and goals at the grass roots level. Isn’t that where most transformation occurs–as the American Revolution and our recent national election proved?

  7. Ilan Berman Says:

    It is clear from the number of responses to my original post that Colleen’s particular mode of messaging has struck a real chord. So, for the record, let me say that the sort of “personal” diplomacy she is practicing indeed has a place as an adjunct to official outreach. But, no matter how effective or emotive, it cannot be a substitute for it.

    There can be little doubt that we are failing fundamentally on that score. Public diplomacy makes up just over a tenth of the State Department’s official budget of just over $10 billion. Outreach to the Middle East - the principal battlefield in the current “war of ideas” - represents less than 1 percent of that sum. Our officials, meanwhile, don’t speak of the need to discredit the ideology of adversaries such as Bin Laden, only how we plan to “divert” foreign audiences from following them. All of which strongly suggests that we lack both the resources and vision to really make a difference on the ideological battlefield of the current struggle.

    My problem, then, is less with Foggy Bottom’s particular penchant for Twitter and other social networking tools, which clearly have some benefit, however marginal, to how we are perceived abroad. Rather, it stems from the lack of an overarching message from our government to the world about what we stand for, the stakes in the current struggle, and the reasons foreign audiences should stand with us rather than with our enemies. In the absence of such a clear message, we run the risk of our personal communications efforts eclipsing our official ones.

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