Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan. Image by Darek_Smid via Flickr
Inspired by a recent reading of Warren Ellis‘ and Darick Robertson‘s exceptional sci-fi journalism epic Transmetropolitan, I’m going guns up on a number of communications issues affecting the communities through which I circulate in DC. Ellis’ self-described “outlaw journalist” Spider Jerusalem – fueled by copious amounts of drugs and madness in a delightful send-up of Hunter S. Thompson – promises his readership “The Truth. No matter what.” In his writing, Spider goes after all that is wrong with his beloved society, targeting everything from corrupt politicians to the public’s ignorance of special sub-cultures in their fine City. I find Spider’s epic story a galvanizing bullwhip across my back, forcing me off my Xbox-addled arse to write about some of the iniquities in government I see as part of my work. This will be just the first in a series of posts on subjects across the communications spectrum. I’m coming for ALL OF YOU.
Today, my first target is public diplomacy.
Readers of this blog should not be surprised by my intense disappointment in the modern public diplomacy (or PD) community. Today’s premeditated murder was spurred on by my attendance and yet another PD gathering in Washington, DC: a meeting of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD). On the shores of our august capitol, PD enthusiasts, practitioners, and executives met to talk about the same retarded problems they have been since before the U.S. Information Agency‘s (aka the USIA) absorption by the State Department during the Clinton Administration. Panelists lamented continued lack of resources for PD initiatives, the imbalance between the State and Defense Departments in strategic communication capability, and a dilapidated piece of shitheel legislation called the Smith-Mundt Act whose Cold War roots strangle in the crib any offspring of modern government communication and engagement initiatives.
At issue for you oppressed, tax-fucked Americans? These same people have debated this same issue for a decade with no charted course for reform.
Hunter S. Thompson would have brain-smacked you all by now. Be thankful for my gonzo. Moo hoo ha ha. (Image from TopTenz.net. Comedy shamelessly ripped off of Warren Ellis.)
“That’s not fair!” some asshole will undoubtedly object, choking himself masturbatorially on reams of “DipNotes” from PD officers both home-based and overseas, begging our pardon thank you very much, “We have changed SO. MUCH. in the Obama Administration!” Let not these purported achievements fill you with comfort, dear seekers of AWESOME, for they elicit mere “yays” from the govvies roaming the halls of cavernous Main State and snickering derision from their interagency compatriots behind the green doors of MacDill and Bragg and Langley. Progress made under Judith McHale‘s reign as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs registers as little more than a cursory reshuffling of office space for most of the strategic communication community. Progress that scores an administration enough points for a minor electoral anecdote but changes nothing. In fact, Dame Judith hung her Mission Accomplished banner on July 1st and dashed back to the private sector, a political appointment weighing under her belt for new boardroom dances with wolves.
They define “progress” as anything more than what the last administration achieved. The politicization of public diplomacy continues. Even PD Jesus Bruce Gregory’s voice cracked with torpor as he queried the Commission about any indication of motivation amongst The Bastards of Capitol Hill to make revising legislation like Smith-Mundt a priority. No one could answer with anything but googly-eyed evasion and exhortations of more progress. All bullshit.
Key to these liver spotted deliberations is the disconcerting lack of any personage on the Commission the age of, it seems, 60? 50? 40? Said Commissioners are charged with advising the White House and Congress on the current state of PD and any required changes. Have these venerable veterans achieved any of these changes in the past? NO. Debates continue unabashed under their scrutiny, but ultimately, no capable young saviors have appeared to dash the fuckery of this decrepit profession into some semblance of modernization. Instead, more meetings. Many, many meetings.
Is PD even a necessary discipline in the 21st century? This existential question should be considered by this Commission and more. Panelists admitted that as communication becomes more social and content ownership franchises more to the individual… does a government agency have any equitable place in this modern communication continuum? How much of said agency’s budget could be repurposed into something more effective, especially in This, Our Decade of Economic Anal Probity?
In truth, some kind of coordinative communication apparatus is probably mandated, but a standalone office of diplomats still trying to get Teh Brown Peeples to read our press releases is not the answer. The profession of public diplomacy itself has even been attacked indirectly by the wild success of independent citizen diplomacy efforts. As much as foreign cultures balk at the elitist diplomacy practiced by our leaders, they clamor for more of US. OUR people. Our CITIZENS and THEIR culture. It is THIS influence, the kind Americans exude in their daily interactions with EVERYONE, that fosters our best destiny in achieving any kind of global equilibrium where U.S. interests and foreign policy objectives are met.
So. What to do?
Less bullshittery. More AWESOME.
We need not more reportage of the latest personnel changes in State PD to accommodate engagement with people of different cultures online. Instead, we need INSANE RISK TAKING. We need programs that make managers shit their pants. We need BOLDNESS. We need MADNESS. We need BETTER. Everyone lives in fear of breaking the law (i.e., Smith-Mundt), but no one has ever been prosecuted much less charged for it. COWBOY UP, PEOPLE.
Retire the old. Empower the new.
If PD is to survive, it needs to stop chasing off all its talent. Instead of rewarding the tired old Foreign Service Officers in their Cold War era suits with prime postings and political appointments, recruit badass social communicators and rockstars. Were I the President, I’d beg Jack Dorsey to fix my State Department. I’d heap tons of cash upon Katie Stanton and Jared Cohen to keep challenging the system instead of being chased off by white-faced, skeleton-eyed Statey lifers. It’s time for PD to evolve and kill its parents.
Flexible, dynamic interagency doctrine.
Christopher Paul, RAND analyst and a speaker at the ACPD meeting, noted voluminous mountains of reports all describing the same problems with the US government’s PD and strategic communication enterprise. All of them, he said, cited failures in strategy, leadership, and resources. While this is true, understand that they can only be fixed with doctrine– legislated, enforceable operating procedures that name the leader and give them authority, power, and dollars. Said doctrine should be written and executed dynamically and train its future communications professionals to a standard of dynamism instead of the usual tired old PD goals shat out by Foreign Service Institute instructors.
An organization… or not?
Since PD people love to retread the same issue over and over, the ACPD discussion inevitably turned toward the idea of a rehabilitated USIA of the future or some such public/private organization that could strategically execute funding for PD or strategic communication programs. If you think this is the solution to your PD problems, I refer you to the abortion that is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for a case study in placenta cannibalization. Ultimately, we will not know if a new organization is needed until we agree upon one final yet primarily critical issue.
Communication is communication is communication.
In the ecosystem of government influence, we have public diplomacy. We have strategic communication. We have military information operations and its subordinate components. We have public affairs. We have countless different ways of describing the same thing, mainly because Our Bastardry In Office refuse to modernize legislation and policy to reflect the present day much less prepare for the ever-fluid yet super-AWESOME future. Instead of rewriting arcane definitions and arguing them over interagency turf, we need a frank and fundamental understanding by our entire government that all of these things are influence and communication is the mechanism by which we engage that influence, be it passively or actively, openly or surreptitiously. We need a pedigree for professionals charged to operate in this ecosystem and high qualifications for the ones assigned to advise senior leaders and decision makers.
Hope Is Not Lost
It sounds doomy and gloomy from the PD pulpit, doesn’t it? Well, here’s another lovely fact for you to chew on: NOBODY CARES. That’s right. Outside of DC, Americans could care less about a minuscule communication discipline practiced by a cadre of foggy eyed concerto directors and staffs of douchebags wielding postgraduate degrees from learning institutions designed to pump out partisanly political clones year after year.
Within this black hole of apathy lies opportunity. While no one is looking, those with the drive and the passion to make change – not ask for it – can turn the modernization of PD into an ecstasy fueled RAVE. The Executive Branch needs not the pusillanimous posturing of political poobahs on the Hill to create true strategic communication primacy in government right now. But to make permanent visionary change, we will eventually need to rustle Congress into the pasture of the future.
To achieve this, however, we need YOU – that’s right, YOU – to get up off your ass and MAKE THIS AN ISSUE. Every time you vote for the guy who likes to tweet dick pics to his mistresses, you screw us out of balanced, effective decisions. Stop sending immense wankers to DC.
Next Time On Strategic Communication Theater…
In subsequent posts, we’ll explore more about what this weird world of strategic communication and influence looks like from Washington. Many of you dear AWESOMESAUCERS have no idea what I’m talking about, and that’s part of the problem. So look for a series of “WTF…?” posts detailing simple explanations of complex processes, systems, and disciplines related to Our National Communication Nightmare.
The gloves come off.