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.

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