Sunday, July 31, 2011

Captain America

Captain America: Source
In my ongoing pursuit of nonacademic entertainment, I went to see Captain America Friday night and was pleasantly surprised.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I love movies, both art house dramas and popcorn flicks, though my expectations tend to be considerably lower for the latter category. Captain America falls solidly into popcorn territory: American badassery at its finest, with buckles swashed and derring done.

Captain America starts out as Steve Rogers: a scrappy fighter with can-do gumption and lots of heart, whose feisty spirit is trapped in a puny little body as ill suited to acts of heroism as it is to leading-man status. Fortunately, for both the Allied forces and the modern moviegoer, he won't stay that way for long. Thanks to some fancy pseudoscience, the little man soon becomes a big man -- though he continues to fight for the Little Man against bullies of all stripes, and it's not long before he's taking on Hitler and the Fuhrer's psychotic colleagues. 

That includes this guy, who at one point observes that "arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say you do it better than anyone." And that's the thing about Captain America -- he's not arrogant, exactly -- though his enemies say otherwise. But he's proud and fierce and he doesn't give up. He follows his heart and he never compromises. Which is great in Nazi Germany and comic book climates where the boundaries between good and evil are clearly delineated with bold pen strokes.

Like the latest X-men movie, Captain America is set in wartime (the Cold War for the former, WWII for the latter) with U.S. interests juxtaposed against those of a menacing foreign ideology (communism and Naziism). But Captain America doesn't delve into the murky grey areas of morality that the X-men franchise has explored. Here, there are good guys (Allies) and bad guys (Nazis), and there's never any question of which side our heroes will choose -- only whether they'll be allowed to fight.

Because the Captain is initially kept off the front lines and his talents are channeled into fundraising, as he's encouraged to shill for U.S. war bonds and stir up patriotism at home. He's good at it -- of course he is -- but we all know he's destined for more than that.

Americans love a hero whose fight is clear. U.S. foreign policy, as I've observed before in this space, is often swayed by Wilsonian rhetoric toward Rooseveltian hard power politics. The American people may be leery of hard power ideology, but that doesn't mean they reject hard power altogether. And the comic book realm is a perfect example of this, with its emphasis both on letting might make right -- in the right ideological context.

Captain America is slated to appear next in an upcoming Avengers film, set in the present day, and it will be interesting to see how his ideology translates into the murkier Tony Stark era of double-dealing, where the lines between the public and the private sector are as fraught as those between the U.S. and its enemies ... whoever they may be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Xinhua in Times Square

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Panda. Source
OK, China may not be buying the world a Coke -- but it is leasing real estate in the same neighborhood: Times Square to be exact, where its logo will soon be rubbing shoulders with that of Coca Cola and Samsung, among others.

According to Reuters, China's state-sponsored Xinhua news/PD agency "will take over one of the highest-profile advertising locations in New York's Times Square starting Monday, in perhaps the most visible step in its recent American expansion."

If this sounds familiar, it's probably because you're remembering China's recent Times Square ad campaign, which received less than enthusiastic reviews (with Chinese reporting, of course, being one notable exception).  

Xinhua will replace a 60' x 40' sign currently emblazoned with the HSBC Bank logo, but while it's bound to increase Xinhua's recognizability, the public diplomacy implications of the move are less clear. The influence of the state on Xinhua reporting is fairly clear, and it's unlikely that many New Yorkers (or Americans in general, for that matter) will mistake it for an independent news source. 

I've written before on China's media expansion and its implications on the (forgive me, I'm about to get really geeky here) noosphere. That's right, I'm referring to the global abstraction of ideas that eventually become meaningful influences on foreign policy. 

China seems to recognize, both ideologically and financially, the importance of state-sponsored information institutions in a way a U.S. PD scholar can only dream of. More and more, I'm starting to agree with Secretary Clinton that the U.S. may be losing the information war... 

Clinton called it realpolitik. Arquilla and Ronfeldt would have called in noopolitik. Either way, it boils down to this: ideas matter, and in an information-saturated global environment, the nation whose ideas get the most traction has a serious political advantage.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

KVIFF Highlights

I've been home nearly a week now and find that when people ask me about the film festival, I keep recommending the same films. I've already mentioned my enthusiasm for Troll Hunter and Attack the Block, so today I'm linking to a few of my other favorites.


This is a feature film about a teenager with cystic fibrosis, surrounded by visions of the paths his future might take. His older brother is wasting away with a more advanced form of the disease. His companions at the hospital are pushing the limits of their endurance, trying to make the most out of what is likely to be a limited lifespan. His best friend, who's never had to live with compromised health, lives his life unburdened by the consequences of his actions. Under the constant pressure of other people's expectations for him and an awareness of his physical limitations, Tom must cope with his disease and decide which path his life will take. Hans Van Nuffel manages to direct a compelling story without sappy sick kid cliches.

Sunflower Hour

This is a charming, if uneven, first effort from Canadian director Aaron Houston. A mockumentary about "the seedy underbelly of puppeteering" in the style of Christopher Guest, Sunflower Hour focuses on the auditions of four wildly inappropriate candidates for a children's television show. The ending's a bit sloppy, but the film as a whole is entertaining and very funny, with excellent performances by Amitai Marmorstein and Ben Cotton in particular. (For the record, they know about the typo -- they just haven't had a chance to fix it.)

The Other F Word

This trailer doesn't really do it justice, but The Other F Word is a really touching documentary about punk rock icons who have become fathers and struggle to reconcile their anti-authoritarian careers with the need to become authoritarian figures in their own families. Ultimately, it's not about punk rock so much as the process of growing up and deciding when to challenge the system and when to embrace it. And the soundtrack rocks, naturally.

I'd also give a nod to Win Win, Flowers of Evil and The British Guide to Showing Off.

In a lot of my classes, we've discussed the cultural influence of films -- specifically in terms of how Disney and Hollywood have helped define people's images of the United States, and how Bollywood and Nollywood and the BBC have done the same for their respective countries. But at an international film festival, it's easy to see how quickly the lines get blurred, in part because so many movies are international co-productions and in part because it's clear that the audiences for such productions aren't strictly domestic.

I think it's probable that film industries contribute to a nation's reputation, but I think measuring that influence would be almost impossible. And that got me thinking about the USG-Sundance project Film Forward, which I wrote about last year. It may be time to revisit that thread and see what progress it's made...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jiggity jig...

This used to be my metro stop.

After a harrowing flight -- complete with turbulence, airsick seatmates and a last-minute aborted attempt to descend into Dulles -- I'm back in the States and just about over my jet lag.

I had a lovely time in the Czech Republic, as I always do, and from a totally nerdy standpoint, I enjoyed getting some foreign perspectives on international politics from my friends.

This wasn't my first trip to Europe. I did a semester abroad in 2002, and lived there from 2003-2005 -- a period in which U.S. foreign policy wasn't enjoying raging popularity. And at the time, I found myself responding a little defensively when people started to criticize the States, which they did frequently.

I, too, was unhappy with the war. I had attended protests and signed petitions against U.S. engagement in Iraq, so I could sympathize with other people's criticisms. But I frequently found myself getting frustrated when people judged the U.S. solely on its policies, without stopping to consider the land, the people, the culture -- all the things I love about the country.

I wasn't one of those people who sewed a maple leaf on her backpack, but I found myself going back and forth in my attempt to defend and explain the United States to other people, which I was frequently asked to do.

Old Town Hall
This time I returned with a degree in public diplomacy and a new perspective on U.S. policy and diplomacy, but I still found myself torn between my desire to defend my nation and my personal dissatisfaction with specific actions and policies.

One evening when I was out with friends, the conversation turned to the U.S. culture and its tendency to refuse to accept failure as an option. The table acknowledge that this had two results.

First, Americans refuse to quit until they've solved a problem. This is something people love about them. Second, Americans refuse to compromise. This is something people hate about them. Americans like to believe that all problems have a solution -- and there are more than a few Americans who believe that the U.S. is uniquely equipped to solve global problems.

It made me think of American exceptionalism (in its current understanding, not the original, with its anti-communist connotations), which is difficult to explain when you're the only American at the table and you're surrounded by people from democratic nations where the literacy, child mortality or employment rates are better.

Jan and the Hussites
And it made me think how much American exceptionalism would benefit by embracing compromise as a desirable diplomatic tool -- not as a sign of executive weakness.

Mostly it made me think how nice it would be to have a foreign policy based on the serenity prayer: policymakers with the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Every year, the weather in Karlovy Vary is completely unpredictable. The temperature can drop -- or rise -- about 40 degrees over the course of the week, and sometimes in the course of the afternoon.

A few days ago I dashed outside for some fresh air on my lunch break, and was delighted to see that it was sunny. Sunshine! On me! So exciting! I indulged myself for 20 minutes before reluctantly returning to the closet. It is worth noting that the closet is located in a room without windows, which is located in a hall without windows, beyond which are more rooms -- which do have windows, but tend to keep their doors shut. So you have to walk a good two or three minutes to so much as see a window once you get to the office.

Which is why I was so surprised when a colleague came in 15 minutes later and said, "You just missed the most fantastic thunderstorm." Evidently the heavens clouded over mere minutes after I left my perch, pelting festgoers with heavy rain. By the time he made it back to the hotel, it had already cleared up.

I'm not positive, but I think this is what lives in our office when we're not there...
Last night I left around midnight (it was a rough day) and got as far as the entrance before I realized it was pouring. And not just pouring, but storming -- the good kind, with really dramatic streaks of lightning ripping up the sky. I decided to take the long way home, and swung by one of the colonnades that houses the hot springs here. I was pretty much soaked by that point, so I ducked in and stared out at the rain and the lightning. It had a very Sound of Music sort of feel.

My editor yesterday said of the festival, "It's like childbirth, you know? It's painful at the time, but then you finish and forget and a year later you're ready to come back." And I knew exactly what he meant. Because I've been locked in a closet for about 15 hours a day for over a week now, but I get outside for a few minutes of sunshine, or to sit in the rain and watch a storm roll over the valley, and I just love it. Maybe it's the oxygen-deprivation talking, but I really do love it here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

One day more...

Just another day at the office:

Cross-cultural communication breakdown

I just had this actual exchange:

C: I just heard a very disturbing word for my girlfriend.
Me: What was that?
C: He said, "How's your muchacha?"
Me: ...
C: What is a muchacha anyway?
Me: It means 'girl.'
C: Ooooh. I thought it was one of those cuddly monkey toys.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In case you're curious...

...this is what I've been working on this week:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

Proofreading, porn and alien invasions

Attack the Block: Source
After another 13-hour day in the closet, my colleagues and I decided to reward our perseverance with a midnight screening. We went straight to the cinema after we wrapped up here, but were still at the tail end of an ominously long line.

KVIFF likes to have big audiences, so their policy is that if you show up to a film and there are still empty seats five minutes before it opens, they'll let you in until the house is full. This is a great policy, particularly given that KVIFF is often referred to as a sort of "backpacker's Cannes" because this town is crawling with backpackers and students. There's a camp set up for them just out of town, although some stay in hotels closer to the action, and they're all here to see films on the cheap.

It gives the festival a very young, enthusiastic vibe. But it also means that lines to get last-minute admission can be quite long.

One of the perks of a press pass is that it lets you jump the line, which is what we did. I felt a wee little bit guilty about it, but given that it was only my second film in the cinema I didn't feel too bad. Here's a trailer, if you're interested.

It was definitely one of the better films I saw yesterday. Often we'll grab a video from the video room and watch them in between working on proofs. It passes the time, and sometimes they're related to research for specific articles. Yesterday, the proofreader got one which sounded good from the description, but ... I just don't know how to describe it. Some sort of hybrid between Japanese pornography and musical theater, involving an amphibious sort of water sprite that loves cucumbers. I'd link to the trailer here, but it is not even remotely safe for work.

We spent a good deal of time speculating as to why that particular film had been selected by the programming staff, and the best I could come up with is that they'd never seen anything like it before. I don't think anybody has ever seen anything like it before. And it disturbs me a bit that, now that I've seen it, I can no longer say that I've never seen anything like it before.

But fest flicks are always a bit of a grab bag, I suppose...

Cleaning house

I often struggle to keep my desk clear while I'm at the festival -- one of the hazards of working in a storage closet (ironically) is that there isn't much space left over for storage. But this year I've managed to do a fairly good job, arranging everything into neat little piles and ruthlessly casting off unnecessary papers at the end of the day.

If you were to look at my desk now, all you'd see would be a dozen copies of the paper, two magazines, two large catalogues, three or four small catalogues, one industry guide, a camera, a watch, a polka-dot umbrella, a cup of coffee, a pair of headphones, several business cards, a DVD, a guide to speaking Czech (which I haven't touched since I got here), a note pad, invitations to a handful of industry events, a hair clasp and my sunglasses.

This is a personal record.

However, every morning I come in with the suspicion that fairies have somehow been adding stuff to my desk. Or possibly my editor. Or else the newspapers have started spontaneously reproducing, because they are stacked up in messy piles that I definitely don't remember leaving there last night...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Morning commute

I passed an enormous plush radish on my way to work this morning. The poor soul within it was walking uphill as I was walking down, and I was very sorry to have left my camera in the office last night because it looked awesome.

Among the many odd aspects of this festival is the bizarre influx of business. During the winter, Karlovy Vary is a sleepy little spa town. But during the festival, the town imports businesses from all over the country. Clubs send satellites to set up shop for two weeks in vacant palaces (this was, after all, a favorite vacation spot for European royalty and celebrities a few centuries back, so there are plenty of palaces to fill). And the sponsors have all got tents and exhibitions and mascots and things, so you walk down the street and pass by a Chester Cheeto-esque representative posing with two backpackers, or a handful of festgoers pedaling away on stationary bikes for charity, or, you know, an enormous radish stumbling uphill, and it's all a bit surreal.

Or maybe everything feels surreal after yesterday, when I managed to spend 16 hours in the Thermal. To be fair, I was only working from 10 to midnight. The last two hours were self-inflicted, as one of my colleagues and I were determined that we would see a movie in the cinema before we left -- as opposed to the way we normally watch them, slouched in front of our computers in 15-minute increments in between edits.

As press, we're entitled to four free tickets every day. But because we tend to be so busy during the day, the midnight screenings tend to be the easiest option. Which is how I ended up last night at a Norwegian horror flick called "Troll Hunter," which was much better than you're imagining. In fact, I'd say it was excellent. I would fully support Ain't It Cool News' description of it as "pretty damn spectacular."

Think Blair Witch Project -- only the kids are out to discover whether the legends of a troll-rich region in the heart of Norway (protected, natch, by a top-secret bureaucratic cover-up) are true. Their investigations lead them to a strange man who seems to know more than he lets on, so they follow him late at night down a creepy unmarked road, film gear in tow. You will never guess what comes next. Unless, of course, you've ever seen a horror movie. In that case, you know exactly what's coming next.

Fun fact: The Norwegian word for "troll piss" seems to be trollpis. I'm probably spelling that wrong, but it sounds exactly the same. It really is a small world after all...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Execution Dependent

So the other night when we stayed up until sunrise talking about all sorts of nerdy things, as if we were in an Ethan Hawke movie, the filmmaker told us about a conversation he'd had with another industry professional where the man had referred to a project as "execution dependent."

Well, what does that mean? We wanted to know.

And evidently it means that the success of the project is dependent on its execution. In other words, it has to be good in order to succeed (like an independent film by somebody unknown) as opposed to a movie like Harry Potter or Fast Five, which is going to succeed regardless of whether it's well executed or not -- which is not to say that it will be poorly executed, simply that its success is unrelated to its quality.

The conversation drifted into the realm of journalism and film at that point -- and for the most part I think there was a consensus that journalism and film ought to be execution dependent -- but privately I started wondering about what it means for public diplomacy to be execution dependent. One of the recurring themes of PD is the need for metrics and the difficulty of assessing a project's success. There is an idea, I think, that most PD is and should be execution dependent -- but are there any reliable popcorn blockbusters in the world of PD? I'm not advocating for a strict diet of easy fixes, but I'm wondering if there might not be benefits to recognizing a few empty calorie, economic alternatives that could pad out a more sophisticated PD grand strategy?

I suspect that to some extent, that's what a lot of PD 2.0 is. It's cheap, relatively easy and can reach a large audience quickly -- but it's effectiveness has yet to be proven. Those who read this blog know I go back and forth on the merits of PD 2.0. Ultimately, I believe it's a vast source of untapped potential -- but I'm not convinced any nation or group has fully tapped it yet.

Late night copyediting

Late night copyediting.
Since the English section has a staff of four (one editor, two writers and a proofreader) we all tend to work 12-15 hour days, and we all end up pitching in to help each other with our tasks -- which is why I've cut so many of these entries off when we get our proofs in.

As I mentioned before, we all care a lot about grammar. I mean a lot. Two days back the proofreader and I had ... not an argument, but a spirited exchange of views about semi-colons that took up way more time and energy than it deserved. And in our time off, of course, we somehow end up talking about grammar again. This is all well and good, unless a non-deranged person overhears you.

So today we had this exchange while going through the first proofs:

Me (with way too much enthusiasm): Hey, if you're on to something, are you on to something or are you onto something?
Proofreader: I believe you're on to something.
Me: I thought so!
(At which point I look up and see the Czech writers making Significant Eye Contact with one another.)
Czech writer: Ah.

The distinction was probably clearer for the native speakers....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Joy of Lex

It begins...
Last night was the opening gala, so we all got kitted out in our glad rags and went down to the Hotel Pupp. We were late wrapping up the paper, so we were late to the party -- arriving around midnight. We actually passed Dame Judi on her way out, but it was a little awkward as we were both wearing the same dress.

That's not true, of course. Dame Judi's was significantly nicer than the one I had on, but we did pass one another on the floor. Things were starting to wind down by the time we showed up and I don't think most of us planned to stay long, but a group of writers from the English and Czech sections sat down at a table outside, and a director I'd interviewed earlier in the day came over to join us, and he turned out to be pretty cool, and then it was 3:30 in the morning.

It was a group of six and included one American, two Brits, one Irishman, one Czech and a Canadian. Among that group, I think all six of us would have described ourselves as writers, and quite a few of us would have described ourselves as editors or current/former teachers. There was also a Fulbright scholar and a person who works for RFE, so I pretty much had all of my favorite topics covered.

Among other things, we discussed the following:
* methodology
* social media
* international communication
* film
* cross-cultural differences
* RFE and Smith-Mundt laws
* study abroad
* the Fulbright program
* international language lessons
* phrasal verbs (!!)

In other words, I totally geeked out. Not gonna lie, there was a lot of grammar talk going on.

I had a glass of wine when we got to the party, but stopped drinking soon after. Nonetheless, I allowed myself to succumb to peer pressure when the rest of the group wanted to hit up another bar after the party, which is how I ended up collapsing into bed after 5am, with sunlight streaming in my window. 

Needless to say, we've all been a little sluggish today... Even though I stopped after one wine, I struggled to drag myself out of bed at 9am, and was mortified when I got to the office to find that I was the last one in.

I'd planned to say more about some of the above topics --particularly those that relate to this blog's regular focus -- but it looks as if I'm going to have to run off and make an interview, so stay tuned for a follow-up on that topic.

From the malapropidioms department

Highlight from last night's conversation -- After I turned down the offer of a beer in favor of water, my editor came up with this: "It's like that saying, you know, you can lead a girl to water, but you can't make her drink. And I think there's a horse in there somewhere...."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

We had a bit of a break around 8 o'clock, so I ducked out to grab a bite before the proofs start rolling in. Today's the first day of the festival, which means the Opening Ceremony and all sorts of stars rolling up to the red carpet downstairs. I don't generally go to the red carpet, but I happened to be outside (I'd forgotten to get a photograph of a director I interviewed earlier in the afternoon and had to track him down at his hotel, then race back) so I managed to see Vaclav Havel and his wife pull up.

On my way back from the restaurant I ducked into the restroom and found one of the hotel staffers inside cleaning with a bottle of what I can only assume was napalm. I took one lung-scorching breath and almost passed out, but am happy to report that the restroom is unquestionably clean. Seriously, there is no way any germ could possibly survive that wash.

Proofs are in! Dashing off...

I never really understand the Opening Ceremony dance... Source

Thursday, June 30, 2011

KVIFF: Day 0 -- part two

I escaped from the office about an hour ago and saw that the rain had cleared up. The breeze is still cool, which is fine by me, especially if it lowers the temperature in my bedroom.

We had the usual first-day issues, but all in all things seem to be running smoothly. I hesitate to type that, lest I end up jinxing the process, but it looks as if we'll be out of here before 11, making this a less-than-14-hour day all together, which is excellent, especially for the first day.

One of the exciting developments this year is the renovation of the open-air outdoor cinema, which has been out of commission since before I started working here. Its opens tomorrow night with a free screening of Jane Eyre, open to the public -- as opposed to the simultaneous invitation-only screening in the Grand Hall. I was tasked with writing the photo caption and was hit by one of those moments of great and terrible genius:

Open Air Opens with Open Eyre Opening.

Obviously that's not the one we went with.

KVIFF: Day 0

The view from my bedroom window.
I should have taken pictures yesterday, when everything was gleaming and bright. Today's our first full day of work, and--like clockwork--we awoke to rain and a significantly cooler temperatures. But weather in KV is like weather in New England: If you don't like it, just wait ten minutes.

No complaints from me about the weather, though. I'm on the fourth floor this year (fifth floor, by US standards) and it gets a little toasty in my room. It turns out I've actually got a room to myself this year--the initial assignment was a mistake. It gave me a twinge of a picked-last-for-kickball sort of feeling for just a minute, but there are plenty of advantages to having a solo room.

Another view.
It's fairly spartan: all white walls and blonde wood. It's a narrow room, just wide enough to hold one small table, one wardrobe (with one high shelf and two hangers), one small trashcan, and one bed (white pillow, white duvet). High on the wall opposite the bed is a tiny blue-green painting, the one spot of color in the whole room.

I've been spoiled in years past by having to share my bathroom with only one person. This year, my shower is at the end of the hall. But it's a clean, well-lighted place and it's much closer to the Hotel Thermal (where the press office is located) than the hotel we stayed at my first year on staff. That one was halfway up a very steep hill and it was a brutal walk at the end of a long day.

Someone from the film office just walked in with two of the videos I'd requested, so I've got to run. More later!

The inflatable theater from another angle.
Espace Dorleans: the inflatable theater.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

KVIFF: Day -1

Fun for the whole family! Especially the part that hates fun. Source
Tomorrow's our first official day of work, but most of the staff is already here. I arrived around 3:30 and made my way to the hotel. My room is on the third floor, which should be good for my calves, and I'm sharing it with one of the Czech writers.

I'll apologize in advance for any spelling errors in the next few weeks. The spell check feature on this blog has switched to Czech and I don't know how to fix it, so you'll have to rely on my personal spelling skills, which are less than perfect.

My first assignment is to cover a sidebar--that is, a non-competition category--on Greek cinema. I'm not sure if there's a direct connection between the dissolution of the economy and the bleakness of artistic output, but the Greeks seem to be a pretty dark bunch. I watched Dogtooth a few nights ago and couldn't decide which scene to have nightmares about first--which is not to say that it's a bad movie. It's been well received, and with good reason. But it's the kind of film that gets under your skin. Like a burrowing parasite, only slightly more grotesque. Nonetheless, I've been enjoying them and the article is slowly coming along.

Of the English staff, only our translator is here, so I have our closet of a staffroom to myself. That's not hyperbole--we are literally in a closet. The chairs and tables and other odds and ends that occupy this room for the rest of the year have been hauled out into the hallway, and five desks have been set up inside. I've claimed the one nearest the door, which tends to be a good spot until my editor loses something off of his desk and decides to borrow one of mine--which he can do without moving since this is, after all, a closet. But aside from the occasional filching hazard, it's a good desk. By which I mean it's close to the coffee machine.

With any luck, I'll have time tomorrow to take a break from movie-viewing to take a few photos of the town. As far as I can tell, everything looks exactly the same as it did two years ago. By the time I showed up, they'd already rolled out the crystal globe statues and the flags and blown up the enormous inflatable cinema that sits at the foot of the Hotel Thermal like a swollen tick. So everything appears to be ship shape. More updates as events warrant....

Monday, June 27, 2011

Brand X

A thoughtful screed against branding asks how a focus on branding can limit the integrity of a message:

"When I was a hungry young reporter in the 1970s, I thought of myself as a superman, an invincible crusader for truth and justice — even though, looking back at old pictures, I now see that I resembled an emaciated weasel in unattractive clothing. My goals, however, were unambiguous, and heroic: 1) Get great stories that improve the world. 2) Get famous. 3) Get doe-eyed young women to lean in close and whisper, “Take me.”

Note the order. First came the work.

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.” That’s because we know that, in this frenetic fight for eyeballs at all costs, the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent."

Weingarten's column is specific to journalism, but the question pertains to nation branding as well.


Like gingerbread houses for grownups. Source
Twenty-four hours from now, if all goes well, I'll be in Prague--jetlagged and disheveled and cursing myself, once again, for my appalling Czech language skills.

This will be my sixth year covering the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for the Festival Daily, and my first trip to Europe since 2009, as my travels in Mexico prevented me from attending last year. I've blogged about the experience before, here and here, and I look forward to posting updates again, once I've settled in.

Here's a quick primer on the festival: The first seeds of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (or "KVIFF") were planted in 1946, when a non-competition festival was launched in Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně, another popular Czech spa town. Before the festival really had a chance to establish itself, the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia pushed it in a new direction. The communists allowed the festival continued, but with a decidedly socialist bent. This had the negative effect of emphasizing films that had more merit as propaganda than as art -- but it also resulted in an emphasis on films from Third World countries.

Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, KVIFF entered a new era. Today the festival continues to highlight films from developing nations, with several sidebars devoted to films from the Czech Republic and its central and eastern European neighbors. In terms of glitz and glamor, KVIFF can't compete with fellow category A festivals like Cannes. But what it lacks in glam, it makes up for in intimacy. Visitors won't walk away with a bagful of swag, but their chances of meeting and talking with a famous actor, attending a class taught by a favorite director, or watching an up-and-coming legend guest DJ at a local club are much higher.

I'm leaving in a few hours and I think my fellow travelers would appreciate it if I showered beforehand, so I'll close for now. If you have any PD/IC questions for the international film community, let me know, and I'll see if I can scrounge up some answers. Ahoj!

Friday, June 17, 2011

PD: No Laughing Matter?

 But not really. Source
My friends and I recently came across a deadly book called "5,600 Jokes for Every Occasion," whose entries--barely recognizable as humor--would have made the most hackneyed vaudevillian cringe. Here's an example of the sort of hilarious exchanges the book contained:

She: What can I wear to prevent sunburn?
He: A jacket! 

As one of my friends noted, that's not a joke; that's sensible advice. The entire book was filled with these militantly unfunny offerings, prompting me to reflect with sympathy on the plight of the humor-impaired.

That thought was in my head again this week as I read an Atlantic article about Cambodian comedians who double as government mouthpieces. Here's a riotous quote from a popular comedy program cited in the article:
Krem: Phnom Penh municipality now has less garbage and is cleaner. Do you know who did that?
Oeurn: Who?
Krem: It is because of Excellency Kep Chuktema, the governor. He has educated people and broadcast it on television not to litter, so now there is less garbage and no more bad smell.
I apologize if that hilarious punchline made you laugh so hard that you did yourself bodily injury. I myself am so amused I need to wipe off my computer screen due to an unfortunate snarfing incident. No, really. Please go on and tell us more hilarious stories about the government's civil programs! OK, snarking aside, I realize that a great deal of humor is culturally informed, and I will be the last person to claim that I have my thumb on the pulse of the Cambodian humor scene. But can I be alone in thinking the above exchange ... lacking?

According to The Atlantic, this yukfest is a common occurrence in Cambodia, where "comedians" often double as bodyguards for the nation's prime minister. Or, to be more accurate, the government's armed bodyguards frequently perform on comedy programs.

As writer Julia Wallace notes, "The country's dozens of 'colonel comedians' underscore the extent to which [prime minister] Hun Sen and his CPP have consolidated power over the past two decades, successfully marginalizing not just rival politicians but also dissenting artistic and cultural voices."

Because nothing shuts down a heckler faster than a comedian who's packing heat.

The article focuses mostly on the domestic impact of the state-centric "comedy," but there's a takeaway for all people involved in message transmission, be it domestic or international.

On the one hand, it's nice to see that Australian reporters don't have a lock on misdirected attempts at humor, but I do think this is a limited strategy. By all means, use humor to make a point, but propaganda with a punchline falls into a category that's all its own. If I may paraphrase: explaining political policy through a joke is like dissecting a frog; you understand it better, but the frog dies of it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

IC Fail

From time to time, manIC likes to honor ordinary human beings who, in the spirit of GOB Bluth, have "made a huge mistake." Australian newsman Karl Stefanovic's recent attempt at humor isn't really disastrous enough to merit a GOB award, but his ham-handed joke mangling, coupled with his self-satisfied/hysterical chuckling, deserves a special sort of recognition.

Karl, you haven't really made a huge mistake. But by blowing an opportunity for cross-cultural communication and making a fool out of yourself in front of an internationally renowned figure (and a television camera), you've earned an honorable mention in the manIC files. Kudos, sir.

(And for the record, Karl, since you seem to be struggling to understand why the Dalai Lama didn't respond to your hilarious routine by snarfing his coffee and collapsing on the floor in a fit of gleeful hiccups, I don't think ignorance of pizza is the explanation you're looking for....)

Watch the video below:

Friday, June 10, 2011

X-men and IR

In my continued quest of brainless summer fun, I joined some friends to watch X-men: First Class yesterday. Alas, the latest flick from the franchise proved more resistant to my quest for non-academic pursuits than my last foray.

Maybe it was because I watched it with international relations scholars, or maybe because X-men has always been a more thoughtful franchise. Whatever the reason, I couldn't help but observe several IR threads running throughout the movie. I know, I know. I'm a huge nerd.

Before you completely despair, I will say that X-men: First Class has all the hallmarks of a popcorn classic: attractive leads, snappy one-liners, bright explosions and incredibly stupid memes ("Remember: Mutant and proud").

But the film, like many X-men stories, focuses on the contrasting world views of two of its most charismatic and powerful mutants: the idealistic Professor X and the realistic Magneto. (Lest the symbolism of their balanced-in-opposition stances escape us, they are frequently depicted playing chess: Look! The director tells us. They are smart! Balanced! Yet opposed!)

The idea is that Professor X and Magneto are both members of a small but powerful minority, and they disagree about how those powers should be used. Magneto, a strict realist, adopts a traditional approach, arguing that ordinary humans will feel threatened by the growing power of the mutant community. Fear will lead to attack, powered by a desire for self-preservation. In order to protect themselves, the mutants must band together against a common enemy.

Professor X is the idealist, arguing that the strength of mutual interests and cooperation will override traditional balance-of-power politics, particularly if non-mutants can be persuaded to recognize mutant powers as a resource for good.

The resolution of this argument is ambiguous, and Professor X and Magneto fare no better in reaching consensus than their IR colleagues. Ultimately, there is always evidence to support both sides of the coin. That may be what makes X-men such an enduring franchise. The nature of the enemy is unpredictable and changing, giving their villains and heroes greater depth than some other comics. The nature of their struggle is not rooted in a simple good v. evil binary, but in the the response of ordinary humans to revolutionary change.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dog Days of June

Mmmmmm. Source
The great thing about living in D.C. is that you never have to choose between sweltering heat and oppressive humidity -- for the bulk of the summer you can have both! I was thinking about that this morning when I received a phone call informing me that my afternoon interview had to be postponed, as the entire block on which the interview was to be held has lost power.

This news reaches us on a day when the D.C. authorities are warning that the weather is so hot and nasty that it's actually unhealthy for people to engage in dangerous activities such as being outside or breathing. It's the kind of heat that makes stupid intrepid people wade into the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in search the kind of relief that only an illegal dip into goose-murky water can provide. 

My interview had been scheduled for 1:15, by which point I imagine the high rises on that block will start trembling and shooting out Looney Tunish jets of steam from their top windows. I won't be there to see it, however, as I'll be directing my energies toward temperature-reducing pursuits in the comfort of my own backyard--such as training the dog to fetch ice cubes from the freezer.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chuck Norris, and Other Perfectly Reasonable Suggestions

Judith McHale. Source
Judith McHale is stepping down as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and returning to the private sector, the Washington Post reports. No official announcement yet, but the Post expects one to surface in the coming days, and as for her successor: "No word yet on a replacement."

Finding a replacement to lead U.S. public diplomacy and public affairs is a challenging task--one to which bloggers everywhere will no doubt feel themselves called.

Allow me to start the ball rolling here:

Robert Redford

Redford has experience in government, and we know he thinks outside the box and won't stand for government corruption. Plus, he's already got experience with cultural diplomacy, as evidenced by the Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue initiative, in which his Sundance Institute partners with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and other federal cultural organizations to promote cross-cultural dialogue via independent film.

Oprah Winfrey

She inspires near cultish devotion and encourages people to live their best lives. She's big on dialogue and collaboration, but has no patience for those who stretch the truth to their own advantage. Plus, as I understand it, she'll have more time on her hands soon.

Chuck Norris

He speaks softly and carries a roundhouse kick. And the U.S. recognizes the need to balance public and traditional diplomacy with realist geopolitics, or "diplomacy with a punch." Norris is no stranger to politics, as his 2008 endorsement of presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee demonstrates. And he could rival Oprah for fan devotion. Plus, he's pretty sure he did two tours in Iraq.

Tai Shan

Yes, I realize I have a problem. Source
OK, I know he's Chinese, but ... oh, who am I kidding? I'll use the flimsiest pretext to put a panda picture on this blog.

Ashton Kutcher

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know I'm not a Kutcher fan. But he is adept at the Twitter, and the State Department is making a major effort to embrace new media in its public diplomacy outreach. As he recently tweeted with great sagacity: "A follower a day keeps the haters away." Isn't that just the twenty-first century redux of "telling America's story"?

Betty White

Why not? She seems to be everywhere these days, demonstrating an admirable talent for both innovation and branding.

 Got more suggestions for celebrity PD leaders? Throw 'em down in the comments section.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Anti-Academic

Did I mention the jaw-clenching? Source
In addition to the many benefits of pursuing a Master's degree, there are a few down sides. Among these: you're less fun at parties, your pants don't fit as well as they used to, and you start using words like "monistic/emancipatory" in casual conversation.

For me, one of the great tragedies of higher education was never having time to go to the cinema. But this was addressed last night when my friends and I, in celebration of the completion of our studies, went to see the most non-academic movie we could think of.

If I had to describe Fast Five in one word, I think it would be "smashy." Yes, this was a great movie for smashing: people, cars, metaphors, the English language -- nothing escaped the director's penchant for pulverization. For two hours, things flew about and crashed together and emerged in a glorious, technicolor mess with a pulsing soundtrack. The movie was every bit as fast as the franchise title had promised. Also, furious.

Lest you think I have nothing positive to say about this movie, let me clarify: I found it highly entertaining. I thought the actors showed great range, drawing from an emotional spectrum that included everything from eye narrowing to jaw clenching. And the women proved to be adept at leaning forward whilst wearing tight clothing. Eric Rohmer it was not. But it was a fabulous vehicle for selling popcorn, and I enjoyed myself immensely.

I should turn this into a reflection on diplomacy somehow, or on the projection of American values via cinematic blockbusters. But it was recently brought to my attention by a concerned reader that my blog is far too academic and does not contain enough me-ness in it. So I'll leave it there for tonight, in the hopes of increasing my blogger bona fides by stepping away from academic navel gazing for a bit.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Not that You Asked, But ...

People are just about tripping over themselves to advise Obama on How to Address the Arab World in the Wake of Osama bin Laden's Death / The Arab Spring / The Exposure of the Colonel's Secret Sauce on Wikileaks, etc.

Helle Dale enters the fray with a piece in which she argues that the U.S. government should capitalize on the death of bin Laden to reassert its global leadership. With Randian confidence, Dale recommends that Obama "[reassert] U.S. leadership on the world stage rather than, as is his wont, bowing to global sentiments about American decline."

She offers four suggestions for the White House's public diplomacy outreach to the Arab World:
  • "Declare unequivocal support for the democratic evolution in the Arab countries as well as for the economic freedom that will advance critically needed growth and opportunity."
  • Advocate for oppressed dissidents.
  • Assert U.S. leadership without apology.
  • Use VOA as the message medium.
Dale is definitely focusing on a message-centric form of public diplomacy, in contrast with Seib's advice that the U.S. should move away from monologic messaging towards service activities. I've got a feeling Dale wouldn't be a huge fan of that proposal, but I'll save my conjectures for another day and focus on the actual text of her message.

The first two points seem like givens. In fact, they're so likely to feature in Obama's upcoming message that I'm surprised she thought them worth mentioning. Support for democracy, economic openness and human rights have long been pillars of the nation's identity as well as its foreign policy and it would be highly unlikely for the government to step away from them now.

The third bullet point gives me pause. As regular readers of this blog (also known as my parents) know, I prefer public and traditional diplomacy that promotes multilateralism, partnership, cooperation and mutual respect. While I recognize that the United States is clearly a global leader in some things, I am equally confident that the United States is not a global leader in all things, so I balk at any attempt to assert U.S. leadership without qualification.By all means, let us celebrate the nation's strengths -- but let's do so in a manner that is nuanced and accurate.

Finally, I like Dale's support for VOA. As I noted earlier this week, the BBG has impressed me with its attention to audience reach and effectiveness, although I'm not sure it should be the exclusive medium for message promotion. Actually -- hold that thought. I take it back. Let's make the VOA The Exclusive Medium for Obama's message, then stand back and watch the fun as all the major U.S. networks discover that Smith-Mundt prevents them from disseminating VOA content produced for foreign audiences.

That ought to jump start some serious dialogue on Smith-Mundt's effect (and effectiveness) in the modern media environment. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wonk This Way

Wonk if you love torsos.

I'd like to add my name to the American University students and alumni who are less than enthusiastic about the school's WONK branding campaign. This is not a reflection of my attitude toward the school--which I love--or toward any of the wonkish torsos that posed for the ads (you know who you are), but rather my skepticism regarding the wisdom of associating the university with a word that sounds like an enraged goose receiving the Heimlich maneuvre.

At its best, the word is jargon--incomprehensible to all but the wonkiest. At its worst, it sounds like the noise a dog makes before it gets sick on the carpet. But much as I hate the word, I have to respect its accuracy in describing the AU community and its enthusiasm for policy and education.

What other word describes the sort of geek who spends her morning at an open government meeting ... for fun? Nothing else could account for my nerdish glee when I learned the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was holding an open meeting today. Nor for the fact that two AU students and a professor were already seated when I walked in. I'd registered early, certain that the seats would get snapped up like Radiohead tickets, and was pleased to see that the room was full of people I knew--some personally, some by reputation. So clearly I embrace the spirit of wonkishness, if not the word itself.

One of the highlights of the meeting (for me, at least) was Jeff Trimble's presentation on the BBG. Granted, I've questioned the efficacy of some of the BBG's work in the past, but Trimble made a straightforward and persuasive case for the effectiveness of Radio Sawa, al Hurra, RFE/RL and other BBG broadcasting sources. In addition, he neatly anticipated my question about the decision to switch VOA Mandarin to a web-only platform, providing statistics about Chinese audiences and the BBG's "robust" anti-censorship mechanisms. Well played, sir. Even Kristin Lord was impressed.

Executive Director Matt Armstrong kept his comments brief, but I left with the impression that U.S. public diplomacy practitioners are making an effort to coordinate, evaluate effectiveness and streamline their efforts for maximum effectiveness. Of course, that's just one blogger's opinion. There were quite a few PD bloggers in attendance, and I'm looking forward to hearing their take on the proceedings.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Summertime, and the Living is ... Harder


Philip Seib, Director of USC's Center on Public Diplomacy, has some advice for U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab world: 

  • Encourage Israel to recognize Palestine's legitimacy, renew the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and offer assistance to new Arab regimes. Encourage Arab leaders to accept Israel's legitimacy.
  • Propose a Marshall-esque Plan to promote civil society and infrastructure building in underdeveloped Arab nations.
  • Redirect U.S. public diplomacy away from messaging toward service. ("In the Arab world, people simply don't care about such self-serving pronouncements. Anything that does not relate directly to their own lives is wasted effort.") 
While his suggestions won't meet with universal support (Shadi Hamid, for example, recently posted on Twitter: "Maybe the US should just hit 'pause' on Israel/Palestine & just focus on supporting what ultimately matters most: Arab democracy") his strategy emphasizes the importance of relationship-building and collaborative action. It's a strategy that recognizes the limitations of monologic public diplomacy. As Seib notes, Obama's famous 2009 Cairo speech "was beautifully written and radiated good intentions." After the speech, "Arab opinion of Obama improved significantly, and then it dropped like a rock. The reason? The beautiful words were seen to have been built on air, not on a foundation of policy. Arabs are a tough audience. They've heard it all before."

More significantly, it's a strategy that acknowledges the importance of promoting individual agency. Seib's suggestions aren't about the U.S. projecting a message or exporting policy. They focus on working with people in the Arab world to achieve their own society-building goals in a way that promotes peace and prosperity. Public diplomacy becomes the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness via the public sphere. It's a Music for the Jilted Generation approach that steps beyond open-source media to embrace open-source action.

Is it tenable? That remains to be seen. As The Washington Post reports, the hope of the Arab Spring is rapidly giving way to a harsh and challenging Summer. And the outcome for the region will depend on whether the Spring's rebels are able to direct their enthusiasm for overthrowing the old regimes into the difficult task of building new ones.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Best Face Forward?

And the award for Understated Segue of the Day goes to FP for this little gem:
"Towns around Daraa, [Syria] the southern city at the center of the protests, have reportedly been raided. A western suburb of Damascus has been cut off completely by government forces. Thousands of demonstrators have reportedly been arrested. Despite the crackdown, reports indicate that some demonstrations are continuing throughout the country. Syrian opposition groups say between 600 and 800 people have been killed since demonstrations began in March. Syria is now expected to drop its bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council." Emphasis mine.

Syria is reportedly considering a 2013 bid, and the optimist within me would like to believe that they'll take advantage of the delay to bring their own human rights record up to snuff--although there's not a lot of evidence to support that hope.

Granted, Syria wouldn't be the first country to sit on the UN Human Rights Council with a questionable human rights record, but its decision to drop its bid is telling. The move demonstrates a disconnect between domestic and international goals--as well as a disconnect between stated and demonstrated values.  This sense of disconnect isn't unique to Syria. The Washington Post today reports on two nations in similar straits: Libya and Bahrain.

Simon Denyer says that "Libya is simultaneously trying to play the roles of touch guy and victim in its dealings with the outside world as it unleashes venom and shellfire on its opponents but pleads for a cease-fire and dialogue." And Philip Kennicott states that "As international human rights groups and Western governments condemned Bahrain's reprisals against participants in the Arab Spring uprisings, one particularly cherished part of the country's image took a hard hit -- its reputation for promoting arts and culture."

Both articles underscore a divide between image projection and perception, between future goals and present realities--demonstrating the difficulty of controlling an international image in the face of domestic turmoil. Ordinarily I like to keep an open mind toward the workings of foreign cultures and societies, but in the case of human rights abuses like those we've seen documented in Libya and Bahrain, it's hard to be sympathetic.

I touched on the theme of international cooperation in yesterday's post, and it's one I've written on before. Multilateral action is an important component of traditional and public diplomacy because it promotes legitimacy (or at least the appearance of it), creates international bonds, and assists in the establishment or promotion of values and norms (van Ham's "social power"). And in terms of international norms and values, the UDHR principles have got to be at the top of the list.

Maybe it's my American upbringing, but in a word association test, the phrase "human rights" conjures up an instant response of "inviolable." The benefits of democracy and equality, and the human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are truths that I've always held to be self-evident.As Secretary of State Clinton has said, "In democracies, respecting rights isn't a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

America, the Exceptional

A provocative quote from Richard Cohen's essay in the Washington Post: "Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves."

It's a tough point to sell. What politician would cop to being unexceptional, let alone unamerican?  But exceptionalism is a problematic concept -- particularly when it's applied to justify unilateral action or arrogance, or when it limits diplomatic negotiation. There's nothing wrong with celebrating national values and characteristics, but there is a problem with overlooking the benefits of collaboration, cooperation and compromise.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Give Us This Day Our Daily Blog

The Vatican may be many things, but a public diplomacy power house it is not (see my previous comments on the subject here and here).

Just over a year ago, when the Vatican stepped forward to address not a new manifestation of the Catholic church's sexual abuse scandal but the pop contributions of the Beatles, I made this observation: "The Church needs decisive action and rapid responses. Otherwise its message will be shaped, distorted and dispersed by a sea of snarky bloggers before it can even begin, and the Vatican will find itself writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear."

Evidently, someone up there is listening.

The Vatican this week invited those snarky bloggers into the fold by hosting its first ever blogging summit. According to USA Today, this is part of a larger digital outreach effort: "The Vatican has taken several steps to promote and use Web tools in recent years, attempting to clear up miscommunication on false rumors like 'Pope okays condoms' and using the outlets to spread Catholic teaching and news."

Summit organizers underestimated the interest, and were only able to host 150 of the estimated 750 bloggers who expressed an interest in attending. So is the Vatican embracing Faith 2.0? Will the Holy See acknowledge the importance of rapid communication by establishing a cyber-campaign? While the blogging campaign represents a nod to the importance of modern communication technology, it seems to be just that--a nod. The article stresses that the Vatican has no plans to coordinate Catholic bloggers or start a blog of its own.

On the other hand, summit speakers did reflect an awareness of some of the Church's PD weaknesses. Fr. Antonio Spadaro began the panel by saying "the Church needs to listen" to the blogosphere. So it looks like a mixed bag at the moment. I'm curious to see how this plays out, and will definitely be checking in to see how it develops.

Check out blogger feedback on Twitter (hashtag #vbm11).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dual Britannia

This flawless smile defies you to
make a British dental joke. Source
Is this the face that launched a thousand tweets?

It is! About 237 per second just before the service, if you trust the London Telegraph.

But if the royal wedding didn't slake your thirst for all things British, rest easy! Anglophiles will be delighted to hear that the wedding--which attracted about 2 billion viewers, inspired millions of Facebook status updates, and brought an estimated £630 million into the British economy--was little more than an appetizer, a teaser, a "dry run" for 2012.

According to the Bearsden Herald, British Prime Minister David Cameron believes the London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee will present "a fantastic opportunity next year to show all faces of Britain both modern and traditional."

Oooooh, modern and traditional? Be still my corn-oil-clogged American heart! Kudos to the PM for recognizing the importance of branding and public diplomacy. And kudos for emphasizing multiple aspects of the nation's appeal. But let's hope Cameron navigates the rocky terrain of public diplomacy more successfully than Tony Blair.

In the 1990s, Great Britain--no doubt tired of its reputation as a dentally-challenged nation of stodgy, old-fashioned corgi-worshipers and cow-maddened, Cure-loving soccer hooligans--embarked on an ill-advised nation-branding campaign. (No, I'm not payed by the hyphen. But after that last sentence, I kind of wish I were.)

"Cool Brittania," as the campaign was dubbed, quickly became known as the Waterworld of nation-branding efforts: expensive, flashy and laughably unsuccessful.

From the Public Diplomacy wiki's entry on Nation Branding: "Intended to reinvent the U.K.’s image as an energized and liberalized nation, the campaign attempted to shed the traditionally formal image of Great Britain as well as reflect the shifting political model of the Blair administration... Despite the millions of dollars poured into the initiative, however, the campaign is largely considered a failure because of its limited focus, lackluster results, and the general perception, both within Britain and abroad, that the campaign’s gimmicky approach had actually hurt the nation’s international image."

Can Cameron avoid the pitfalls of his predecessor? Will the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee drive up the nation's global stock? It's hard to say. Judging from purely superficial early speculation, London hasn't truly grasped the full potential of branding. Let's consider just for starters the 2012 Olympic logo--a nearly illegible jumble of numbers that looks sort of like a tangram after a long night at the pub--and the mascots--which Jon Stewart described as "creepy one-eyed circumcised penis monsters."

OK, so they've got some room to grow. But still, by all accounts, the royal wedding was a great success--not just for the happy couple and their families, but for the nation as a whole. With a little bit of coordination, Cameron can keep the anglophilia going. But that's the catch, of course. You can't just rest on your laurels and assume that big events = big publicity = big love. You've got to put some work into it.

Just ask Kevin Costner.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On PD and Communication

It's not whether you win or lose... Source
Today is World Press Freedom Day and National Teacher Day -- two events that encourage us to honor two professions that influence communication flows and shape our understanding of the world.

With that in mind, I've been thinking about my last unofficial class in graduate school. Last Thursday, Chayden arranged a role-playing exercise for the last meeting of our Public Diplomacy class. Given his interest in LARPing, we were a little nervous about how the class would unfold, but we needed have worried.

With the assistance of PD blogger Chris Dufour, Chayden divided the class (or the meager portion that actually showed up -- the rest were presumably finishing the final paper) into four groups: public affairs, public diplomacy, traditional media and angry public/interest groups. Then they presented us with a scenario: Hours before the royal wedding, U.S. security forces apprehend a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent in London, in connecting with a bomb threat. They gave us a few details about his contacts (in Virginia, Guantanamo and Yemen) and set us to work to prepare our communication strategy.

We'd spent the semester studying public diplomacy, not crisis management, so there were a few stumbles. But for the most part, the students instantly adopted the communication personalities of their groups--with considerable creativity and humor. In the aftermath of the weekend's big news stories, a few of us have been talking about the exercise. Most of us were impressed by the prescience of the exercise. And to some extent we were impressed by our own ability to anticipate the official and unofficial responses of the public to a major development on the U.S. security battle--a success that might reflect as much on the predictability of those groups as on our own genius.

It was a fun class. People got really involved in their roles and came up with some very clever and very funny messages. I think the take-away Chayden wanted us to leave with was a greater appreciation for the complexity of the information environment. Public affairs and public diplomacy professionals can't control the narrative any more than they can control the news, not completely at any rate, because the world is constantly changing and new crises and victories and opinions and issues are constantly arising. To some extent, that's half the fun.

I'm starting to think PD isn't really a field for people who are focused on Winning, because it's so difficult to measure success and there's no easy rubric for gauging progress. I'm not saying that success is unattainable or that the end goal doesn't matter. I'm saying that the process is the most important thing. That's why it's essential to have confidence not just in the end product, but in the act itself -- the constant process of communicating and building relationships.