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Behavioral Scientist

Reflections on Public Diplomacy: People-to-People Communication


J. Gregory Payne
American Behavioral Scientist 2009 53: 579
DOI: 10.1177/0002764209347632

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American Behavioral Scientist
53(4) 579­–606
Reflections on Public © 2009 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
Diplomacy: People-to-People sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0002764209347632
Communication http://abs.sagepub.com

J. Gregory Payne1

Abstract
Various governmental and one nongovernmental public diplomacy efforts are outlined
in this descriptive essay that focuses on the importance of open communication at
the grassroots level as a requisite for the establishment of meaningful and sustaining
relationships and the development of trust. State Department-sponsored visits to
Russia, Uzbekistan,Azerbajain, and Turkmenistan are described and challenges noted, as
well as the background and initial phases of the first grassroots effort after 9/11—the
Saudi American Exchange.

Keywords
public diplomacy, grass roots, soft power, leadership, terrorism, public affairs, public
relations, people-to-people communication

While the ongoing debate and discussion continues globally on an agreed-upon defini-
tion of public diplomacy, its parameters and its value are readily apparent and for the
most part undisputed. Central in the dialectical discussion is addressing the question
of whether public diplomacy is solely a program of the government or whether a non-
governmental organization (NGO), business and corporation, or private individuals can
sponsor such public diplomacy initiatives (Snow, 2005). Inherent in both perspectives
is that effective public diplomacy is rooted in strategic people-to-people communica-
tion in the effort to establish a sustaining relationship. And, fundamental to achieving
success in such vital communication, regardless of the sponsorship of such activities,
is a commitment to build a relationship with the targeted public through grassroots
encounters. In an age of instantaneous technology and the daily evolution of new chan-
nels and means of transmitting messages, the take home lesson in public diplomacy is

1
Emerson College, Boston, MA

Corresponding Author:
J. Gregory Payne, Emerson College, 120 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116
Email: zulene@aol.com

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580 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

that nothing works better than the people-to-people approach, that is, two or more
individuals sharing a conversation in an effort to further understand what they share in
common, as well as developing a mutual respect for their respective differences (Brown,
2002). The overriding objective of all public diplomacy efforts should focus on con-
structing and encouraging this vital ongoing relationship at the grassroots level.
What follows are reflections of several personal public diplomacy experiences
I have had, ranging from government-sponsored initiatives and programs in the State
Department, International Republican Institute, and other governmental agencies
to NGO-sponsored programs, educational exchanges, and my own grassroots effort in
the wake of 9/11. A common theme running throughout these experiences, despite the
most dramatic political and economic crises, is an abiding belief in the power of public
diplomacy to bridge the cultural, political, economic, and religious gaps worldwide.
My public diplomacy focus is not on governments or sponsors but on people com-
municating with people and the productive relationships that hopefully ensue, further
develop, mature, and continue to manifest additional creative projects, exchanges, and
events that further understanding and mutual respect.
One lesson evident in the examples provided in this essay is that even when people
disagree, sometimes very vocally, with the foreign policy of a current U.S. adminis-
tration, there is still a worldwide intense interest in the American people, the American
way of life, American values, American products, and American culture. The United
States still represents, for many around the world, a dream they hope once in their
lifetime to realize with a visit to America. Another lesson and challenge is that
America and its citizens need to match this interest with a passion for knowledge
about other countries, cultures, and peoples. One of the biggest challenges facing
public diplomacy advocates is that, prior to new laws mandating each citizen to have
such documents, almost 75% of Americans did not have a passport. This means that
international travel and direct contact with people outside the United States, in
another country and culture, are severely limited. For the vast majority of
Americans, their perceptions and “reality” of the world come from the media, com-
plete with their limitations and biases (Bennett, 2005; Jamieson & Waldman, 2004;
Merskin, 2004; Payne & Matsaganis, 2005). It is hoped that these personal reflections
will provide meaningful insights that aid others in their understanding and use of
public diplomacy efforts as a means of reducing conflict and mitigating differences
deeply rooted in history, or the product of a crisis.

Strategic Communication Aimed at Relationships


What are some of the basic tenets of effective public diplomacy that permeate
the reflections and experiences that follow? The fundamental requisite for initiating
a positive relationship dynamic is the establishment of trust between the involved
parties—knowing the true intentions of each other, carefully defining what words
and concepts mean to the parties, discussing differences, and ultimately accepting and
respecting the other viewpoint (Iivonen, Sonnenwald, Parma, & Poole-Kober, 1998).

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A meaningful relationship is the product when both parties honor their word, keep
agreements, and further the joint obligation to keep the communication process moving
forward. If there is miscommunication or communication breakdown as a result of
third parties, the media, contextual factors, or a difference in their respective meaning
attached to verbal or nonverbal symbols, the parties in a meaningful relationship—
through their open and honest direct communication—check with each other to see if
the message that each decoded was indeed that which was intended, to ensure that the
discourse reflects their respective mediated realities. This requires exceptional listening
skills and open, honest, and free dialogue about the objectives and mutual understand-
ing sought in the communication act (Cull, 2008).
Strategic listening—especially when it occurs across cultures and within scenes
and contexts where stereotypes are rampant in the mediated reality of the news media
and traditional political discourse, complete with expected and emerging conflict-
ing agendas—includes listening with one’s ears to the verbal message and realizing
that words are merely symbolic for the meaning we are attempting to communicate.
Such meaning is a product of our own direct experiences but also affected by culture,
politics, religions, and society.
Strategic listening also requires focusing on interpreting the nonverbals of the other
party within his or her own cultural communication context. Listening to, decoding,
and recognizing such culture cues enables one to appreciate and assimilate different
values of body language, time, place, scene, and acts, both figurative and literal, and
other variables that can cause communication breakdowns. The first step in establish-
ing trust and building the needed meaningful relationship, so fundamental to effective
public diplomacy, is a free and ongoing dialogue on an initial topic of interest, with the
intent to continue the communication process in other areas of concern as familiarity,
respect, and trust evolve. After establishing a modicum of common ground, shared
beliefs, and some common values, thereby inviting a trusting context, the conversation
can begin to explore areas of conflict and disagreement without fear, due to the mutual
respect now held by the involved parties (Fisher & Ury, 1991). Achieving this status
is all dependent on the patience and success of relationship building.

Top-Down Communication Breakdown


Too often in the past, public diplomacy efforts have been unidirectional—the
United States going into a country with a prepackaged, one-size-fits-all program about
democratic values with the expectation that audiences would naturally be receptive to
such a message and would automatically and actively take steps to implement such
values and programs into action within their country. We have always operated with
the assumption that others deep down within their soul want to be us. Even when the
U.S. Information Agency (USIA) was on the ground with a web of experts in policy
and public affairs, which is no longer the case now that public diplomacy efforts have
been consolidated within the activities of the State Department, such messages often
failed to achieve their targeted objectives (Snow, 2005). This was in part due to a lack

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of appreciation of strategic communication that require both parties—the sender and the
receiver—to be actively engaged in the process and adjusting the messages based on
strategic listening and feedback to hopefully establish the much desired relationship.
Part of the communication challenge is new as well as lingering doubt within
the target audience of the true purpose or intention of the message content, given the
government, or its agents, as messenger—and with the past and present context
of what some view as unpopular U.S. foreign policy decisions. The naive post-9/11
decision by Madison Avenue marketing guru Charlotte Beers to sell the United States
like a brand product to worldwide audiences continued to reflect and exacerbate the
static unidirectional communication act (Snow, 2005). Instead of engaging in a
conversation and dialogue on why such negative feelings about America existed and
exploring the reasons supporting this perception how ever much we might disagree
with them, the effort was to produce a slick ad designed to be inserted in programming
on television and radio that only further aggravated the divide between the West and
the Muslim world.
Most recent, although well intentioned, the lecture-oriented campaign of Karen
Hughes, designed to win hearts and minds in the Middle East, lacked a listening com-
ponent from those we were trying to reach (Khouri, 2007). It was further handicapped
by the fact that Hughes was a close friend and aid of President Bush, whose Iraq policy
remains extremely unpopular among most of the Arab audiences (Feulner et al., 2008).
As in the days of Aristotle and consistent with his teachings in The Rhetoric, ethos
(or credibility), trustworthiness, and expertise of the speaker are of paramount impor-
tance in establishing trust and building the relationship between the source of the
message and the target audience. Recent modifications to official U.S. government
public diplomacy initiatives, in the wake of a growing negative image of our country
worldwide not witnessed since 1968, have stressed the need for more of a two-way and
interactive communication approach that focuses on feedback and constant adjustment
of message and stance to meet the expectations and interests of the target audience
(Snow, 2005). As of this writing, there also is more focus on exchange programs and
projects that feature less preaching from our own perspective and political pulpit and
more practical and experiential strategies and tactics that reflect the targeted public’s
perspective (Dizard, 2004; Kennedy & Lucas, 2005; Van Ham, 2003).
Effective public diplomacy is a two-way street with reciprocal influence on both the
source and receiver involved in the ongoing communication process. It is from this
vantage point and strategic communication perspective that the following essay focuses
public diplomacy.

Russia
Encouraging democratic reforms, open elections, and a free and fair media are
ongoing objectives of many public diplomacy initiatives. Achieving these objectives
mandates helping the media cover and report elections fairly, as well as providing stra-
tegic advice on campaign messages and techniques, political advertising, and debate

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tactics to candidates, emerging political parties, and the public in an effort to


encourage a civil society.
My experience as an invited observer on behalf of the International Foundation for
Electoral Systems (www.ifes.org) for the first free parliamentary elections in Russia in
December 1993 was a historic, on-the-ground opportunity to provide such practical
insights. Equally important, it was an opportunity to dialogue and form relationships
with Russians from all political and social strata at a very crucial time in their history.
Topics of assigned lectures and ongoing conversations included how political com-
munication could be used to motivate a lethargic post-Soviet era citizenry to vote, to
offer strategies to help those running for office distinguish themselves from the many
candidates vying for office, to develop rhetorical techniques on how to refute claims
of the opposition, and to provide insights on succinct sound bytes that would enable
one to be persuasive and successful in television and radio appearances, as well as per-
sonal debate tactics, among others. Suffice it to say, those Russians involved in the
emerging and ever-dynamic political process were very eager to try a Western perspec-
tive in an effort to win the votes of the Russian public.
Given the emerging free media, after years of state-controlled messages, there
was great interest among media professionals on journalistic insights and practices in
covering open elections; how to evaluate press coverage, especially that of the most
influential television station, Ostankino, to detect any bias, in this case, in support of
the pro-government candidates. One reason for such interest was that President Yeltsin
had reacted to criticism of himself and the proposed constitution by banning 10 newspa-
pers from publication. To Western visitors, as well as an emerging group of democratic
advocates in Russia, such actions represented more of a step backward than forward
toward democratic values and free press practices. All involved at this historic time
appreciated and acknowledged that any step forward into unknown political territory
would also be accompanied by periodic slippage and movement back to old habits. The
hope was that any slippage would be temporary until more stable footing was evident
by those in power at this most difficult time.
I was an invited guest of the Freedom Channel, a not-for-profit organization founded
to support the development of democracy in Russia, and the trip included myself along
with two other academics and political advertising guru Ken Swope, whose resume
included crafting campaigns for U.S. presidential candidates to local advocacy con-
tests at the state and local levels. It also was sponsored by the U.S. National Endowment
for Democracy. Our stated objective on this trip was to coach Russian politicians on
how to campaign and to help teach the local news media, through theory and practice,
how to cover the first ever constitutional and parliamentary elections.
One of the objectives of the Freedom Channel was to encourage the nascent inde-
pendent media in Russia to develop an ethic of responsibility, professionalism, and
public service in nurturing democratic values and economic reforms in Russia. Given
the pervasive transition taking place in Russia, there was an immediate need for equip-
ment and technological expertise from the West to train locals as well as provide access
to international markets. More important on an individual level was the immediate

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need for a turbo jump start in imbuing an appreciation of critical thinking and analyti-
cal skills among journalists.
This foray into the first such democratic election provided a rich educational
experience, with strong evidence that messages and techniques must be consistent
with audience expectations and be rooted in politics, history, and culture. The
disconnect and cultural divide of East versus West was evident from day one in
Moscow. A major objective of the two Russian media professionals and emerging
political advertising gurus feverishly working on the campaign, Natalya Serova and
Tatyana Smorodinskaya, was to convince the Russian public that taking part in the
electoral process by voting re”ally mattered. One popular political spot that they
produced prominently showed a slot machine with various heads of the rival candi-
dates popping up, as the voter pulled the lever. The voiceover commanded those
viewing to “take a chance—maybe we all will win.” The unstated alternative was
that if one didn’t participate, that is, gamble on playing an active part in determining
the future, the problems of the status quo would continue. This meant more bare
shelves in the stores and a public in search of a leader to provide vision for the future.
It was clear that no one was happy with the present—the painful transition from the
USSR to what many hoped would be a more open society. Yet, anyone familiar with
Russia’s history was dubious at best that the citizens would opt for anyone other than
a strong leader who, at least in part, would tell them what to do.
One of the more remarkable observations made during hours of dialogue with
Ms. Serova and Ms. Smorodinskaya was the inherent mistrust of television as a
news medium among Russian citizens,” observed Kevin Mercuri, a fellow attendee
and media consultant. “Decades of government control over content bred doubt and
suspicion among many citizens. This would be a significant hurdle for Serova and
Smorodinskaya if they were to successfully leverage television as a political commu-
nications medium.
The trip also provided me the opportunity in 1993, as a professor and as chair of the
communication studies department at Emerson College in Boston, to negotiate to bring
along graduate students to experience this unique historical moment. From my perspec-
tive, such a historical experience of being in Russia and dialoguing with the citizens
about this tsunami change in their political history was unparalleled in providing stu-
dents a unique educational experience. Through the trip, students, as well as all of us,
would have the opportunity to witness the elections, to note how the public reacted to
such events, and, most important from a public diplomacy perspective, to form rela-
tionships with Russians that could continue at the grassroots level in the years to come.
It also provided us with the opportunity to speak directly to officials within the polit-
buro, President Boris Yeltsin’s advisors, as well as the emerging specialists in political
campaigns, polling, and the new business entrepreneurs in Russia. Such personal
contacts, amid the paramount change within Russian society, provided us with the
opportunity to communicate directly and unfiltered by the usual political constraints.
Everything in Russia demonstrated Protagoras adage—in a constant flux. Furthermore,
the visit afforded us the opportunity to use such resources in planning for future

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conferences, joint projects, and exchanges with our newly found friends. They were
especially eager to come to America and see for themselves what capitalism was all
about.
The delegation was headed by Mikhail Kazachkov, a Russian citizen who had spent
15 years in a Russian Gulag, and Marshall Strauss, the director of the Freedom Chan-
nel and also an activist with the Democracy for China Fund. From our first meeting in
Moscow, the uncharted territory of free and open elections proved problematic for those
in power. After providing free airtime to Kremlin leaders of the 13 parties involved in the
election, President Yeltsin was visibly upset that some candidates used the opportunity
to criticize the proposed constitution, which would also be voted on as a referendum.
Yeltsin publicly warned that criticism of the constitution or the president was not allowed.
He subsequently threatened that anyone who dared to criticize him or the constitution
would lose the free air time that he had granted to each candidate.
It was readily apparent to all of us that for Yeltsin, democracy and freedom worked
better as vague rhetorical terms used to attack the communists and the tyranny
and dictatorship associated with the USSR. The post–communist period suggested
that translating democracy and freedom into action would be painfully slow and prob-
lematic. From our perspective, it appeared obvious that Yeltsin seemed to prefer the
autocratic leadership style of his communist predecessors. Although there were
serious flaws in this predilection, one had to remember that free elections were
unprecedented in Russian history. Yes, there tended to be more television coverage of
the pro-government parties, but at least there was some coverage of the opposition,
which was a step in the right direction. Radio broadcasts tended to focus less on the
candidates and the parties involved and more on describing the electoral process,
aspects of the constitution, and the role and power of the presidency. It is fortunate
that for those of us who did not speak Russian, the Moscow Tribune (1993a, 1993b)
and Moscow Times (1993a, 1993b) provided English-speaking visitors with appraisals
of the events surrounding the election.
During the trip and prior to the actual voting, we witnessed debate and discussion on
style as well as substance of the emerging Russian federation. One hotly contested issue
was when the hammer and sickle, the symbol of the USSR, would finally be retired in
Parliament, as well as what its replacement would be. Yeltsin advocated that Russia’s
new symbol be the Imperial Russian double-headed eagle, whereas others opted for the
Russian flag. In addition, there was reluctance for some of the new candidates running
for office to join any of the 13 political parties, due to the lingering suspicion and link-
age of membership of the word party forever associated with the Communists.
During the trip, we visited the KGB Press Center, the new “free” television station,
and the impressive and inspiring Pushkin Museum. Those of us interested in polling
were briefed on the first ever national poll in Russia, conducted by the Public Opinion
Foundation, which sampled the 13 geo-economic regions of Russia, all within the 11
time zones. It was the first time that an objective poll or credible census had been taken.
Given the omnipresent surveillance prevalent in the Communist era, many members of
the public were reluctant to participate in the poll, fearing that there was some sinister

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586 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

rationale for wanting their opinion. When queried further on this, the response was the
fear that they would be punished if they were critical of the government. It was another
example of the importance of trust in meaningful relationship building.
It was abundantly clear that throughout this massive society experiencing unparal-
leled transition was an absence of trust at all levels, as almost all of the systems and
structures of the past had been replaced or were being challenged. One of the major
themes of our work was to stress the Aristotelian concepts of rhetoric—ethos, pathos,
and logos—in constructing messages that were based on facts and extolling those we
coached to realize that telling the truth was the most important first step in establishing
trust with their constituents—a necessary and fundamental step to move forward
toward democratic values. Such dialogues and discussions found receptive audiences
in the media and among students from Moscow State University, where we formed
many friendships with professors who were enjoying the realities of glasnost. Auton-
omy and the newfound importance of the individual were taking hold among many of
the young and idealistic students in Russia.
Yet, many Russians openly yearned for the old days when the state took care of basic
necessities—rent, jobs, and, although not the best quality, food, clothes, and other sta-
ples on the store shelves. Now, most shops were empty—even shops surrounding the
Kremlin at Red Square and the country’s famous Gump Department Store had few
items for sale. Our message was that change would be a slow and painful process but
that ultimately the democratic ideals and values would take hold. The claim was a hard
sell. It was a topic of conversation at almost every meal, which also translated into
consumption of various liters of vodka, a Russian cultural staple that all too often dulled
or completely stymied the American ability to respond to such questions. It was later
learned that the custom of serving guests continuous large amounts of vodka reflected
not only hospitality but also utility. It was believed by many Russians that foreigners
were more truthful when their senses had been dulled by delectable doses of vodka.
It was at such dinners with Russian advocates for democracy, former communists
who resisted such changes, university professors, and common citizens that frank and
candid discussions yielded understanding and respectful differences that could not
occur without such face-to-face and grassroots meetings. Conversations were always
peppered with nostalgic references to the USSR’s superpower status of the past and
openly fearful concern of what the future would bring for a society historically ruled
by despots and authoritarian leaders.
Also noted by Mercuri, was that while many Russians may have yearned for the old
days, they also yearned for a way in which they could profit from the nascent capitalist
system happening outside their doors. Our time in Russia coincided with the largest
influx of new car buyers in the country as well as previously unrealized opportunities
to engage in entrepreneurial endeavors. Indeed, we met several entrepreneurs who
were in the midst of moving their business off the black market and into government-
sanctioned legitimacy.
It’s no accident that the emergence of a larger capitalist system—at least in the
cities—occurred during Russia’s democratic revolution. The desire to partake in the new,

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entrepreneurial arena where the poor can become rich travelled hand-in-hand with political
reforms.
It was in these encounters that seeds of future joint projects and activities were
sown. From this trip came an agreement with the Russian Embassy in Washington for
plans for an international conference on women and the media to be hosted in Boston
by the Center for Ethics in Political and Health Communication at Emerson. There were
also several student, academic, and professional exchanges that were initiated on this trip.
The Russian political advertising team of Natalya Serova and Tatyana Smorodinskaya
came to Boston the following spring, teaching students in political advertising the appeals
and strategies they had employed in their public service announcements urging
Russians to vote. Five Russian students visited Boston and attended classes at Emerson
and Harvard for 2 weeks. During the Moscow trip, discussion with Professor Svetlana
Koleseik centered on a joint exchange program with Moscow State University and
Emerson College, whose mission in communication was very appealing to the emerg-
ing entrepreneurs and politicians in Russia. A speakers program, jointly organized by
the Freedom Channel, Emerson College, and the Russian Embassy in Washington,
D.C., featured noted professors and professionals visiting Boston and Washington.
Other queries were less serious and somewhat comical. With the ability to now
receive alternative media rather than state-controlled television and radio stations,
Russian citizens were awash with alternative messages from new sources, many coming
from America. American corporate media were quick to be part of the new communi-
cation landscape, but the program choices were driven not by civic need but more by
market demographics. Such demographics revealed a generally destitute Russian public,
and so the programming tended to be reruns of not the greatest American TV. I was
often asked by politburo members, as well as average citizens, about characters in
the soap opera “Santa Barbara,” which was shown multiple times a day. Sadly, I knew
nothing about the Catholic Father’s affair with a member of the parish.
One incident clearly established truth in the claim of incredible power of the media
in forming perceptions about a culture, a country, and its people. During a dinner the
night before the election with several politburo officials and business leaders, I was
asked if I had a “thigh master” and how many times I used it daily. I, somewhat sur-
prised by the inquiry, responded that I did not have this exercise gadget. The next
question was, when was Suzanne Somers, the popular TV star who was featured on
the thigh master infomercial, which ran almost nonstop on the television in my hotel
room, running for political office in the United States? I asked why they had con-
cluded that Somers would run for office. The smug response was that she had done
advertising on television and that such exposure was a good entry into politics in
America. Again, I asked for clarification and glanced to see if my guest’s vodka glass
was empty. It was not. My Russian colleague replied, “Well, Ronald Reagan got his
start as an actor, and then he sold Borax soap, and then he was elected governor, and
then elected and re-elected president of the United States.” It appeared to be a sound
and rational construction of an argument—at least from his perspective. He further added,
“The commercials helped Reagan master television . . . I think that is why he was as

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588 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

effective as your president—he sold America like he did soap, and the actor in him
knew how to appeal to an audience.” I was at a loss for words in attempting to refute
my Russian colleague’s claim.
In retrospect, what seemed to be a ridiculous assertion at the time was prescient in
terms of future perspectives of public diplomacy in the United States. In 2002, after
9/11 and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and sagging ratings of American public opin-
ion, Charlotte Beers, Madison Avenue marketing executive, was tapped by the Bush
administration to market America in ads just as she had marketed Uncle Ben’s Rice
(Anholt, 2003; Skuba, 2002; van Ham, 2003). It is unfortunate that the slick “Muslim
in America” series of the government’s public diplomacy effort, directed to those areas
of the world that had low opinions of the United States and designed to show how
happy Muslim Americans were in the United States, fell short in the effort to refute the
negative image.

Uzbekistan
There are numerous U.S. governmental agencies and programs charged to carry
out public diplomacy initiatives. Each administration leaves its mark in this area by
either curtailing or expanding such programs. Ronald Reagan advocated a proactive
American effort in “engaging in a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and
fortitude of the next generation to determine its own destiny.” Through Reagan’s lead-
ership and a bipartisan effort in 1983, Congress created the National Endowment for
Democracy, made up of four nonprofit, nonpartisan democracy institutes to carry out
this work: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Insti-
tute for International Affairs (NDI, 1993), the Center for International Private Enterprise
(CIPE), and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS). In 1994,
the International Republican Institute (www.iri.org) focused much of its efforts in the
newly autonomous countries of the former Soviet Union.
In April 1994, I and a colleague, Dr. Scott Ratzan, were selected as visiting
scholars of the IRI for a 10-day workshop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Our mission, as
defined by the IRI and Senator Robert Dole who sponsored our candidacy, was to
advance an appreciation and development of critical thinking skills by having inten-
sive workshops and seminars with students of the University of World Economy and
Diplomacy, an elite institution where future leaders of the country were trained.
Our curriculum—the product of meetings and discussions with IRI members, Senator
Dole, and others—included decision-making skills, negotiation, advocacy and
debate, and strategic presentational skills.
With these strategic objectives defined by the IRI, another obvious effect of our
visit was that we were the first Americans whom these students and many Uzbeks had
ever met. It also was one of the first U.S. academic exchanges since Uzbekistan, the
central Asian country on the ancient Silk Road, had become an independent country
following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Known for its plentiful cotton fields, melon
plantations, and mud-walled homes, mosques, and bazaars—all decorated to reflect

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the red sand desert sky—the country, although now autonomous, was ruled then and
now in 2008 with the iron hand of President Islam Karimov.
With the presidency holding all the power in the country and only token influence
by the judiciary or legislature, Karimov, who was raised in a USSR orphanage and who
rose through the Uzbek communists politic, was criticized then and now by interna-
tional observers for not holding fair and open elections throughout his tenure. Critics
charge that although opposition powers are permitted to exist, they are not allowed to
have a legitimate role in elections. The media in Uzbekistan was then and even more
now under Karimov’s complete control. The impression in 1994 among most Uzbeks
was that although the Soviet Union no longer ruled the country, there had been little
change in the way the country was governed—top down and with little, if any, chance
for the common citizen to influence the decision-making process.
On the first day of our arrival, when we walked out of our dilapidated Soviet era
hotel in Tashkent, we found students outside the door wanting to engage in conversa-
tion. When we asked them to join us for coffee in the cafeteria, they responded as if
they had been asked to enter a palace. We learned that Uzbek citizens were forbidden to
enter hotels designated for foreigners. The rationale was obvious; the government did
not want dialogue that could dispel its spin on the West and its mantra of how good
life was in Uzbekistan. We urged the students to join us for coffee that day, and the
dialectical encounter continued at the same time for the next week while we visited
their country. It was obvious to the visiting Americans that such deliberative conversa-
tions were very much desired by the students, the next generation of leaders, but denied
by the government who wanted nothing to change or challenge its hold on power.
Within this context, there was great excitement about the seminars by the American
professors from the students who proudly introduced themselves at our first meeting
at the university. Posters announced our events and the topics to be covered. It was also
clear that the older gentlemen and women in the audience were not from the university
but were sent by the government to monitor our lectures and content. They seemed less
than pleased at our major point in the communication lecture that individuals can make
a difference and initiate change within a culture, as well as our insights on advocacy
and individual decision making and involvement in building a civil society. There also
was intense interest in anything American among all citizens whom we met. I immedi-
ately gave away two pairs of Levi jeans to two students who bluntly asked when I first
met them if I had jeans. They were overjoyed to receive this American clothing staple.
The autocratic top-down communication and decision-making style of leadership in
government also permeated the educational system, as was evident in our first lecture
at the university. One of the educational topics we chose was negotiation, due to the
emphasis on the inherent critical thinking, deliberation, and leadership skills required
to find common ground in the effort to have a win-win situation for both sides. Our
rationale was that students, many of whom would inherit leadership positions in the
government and other areas of Uzbek society, could advance democratic ideals and
values if properly trained and if they understood and practiced negotiation theory and its
strategies and techniques. We also recognized this as an important exercise and

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590 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

opportunity to plant the seeds of leadership and the individual responsibility of each
citizen as an agent of change in a society undergoing transformation, but with a strong
passive participant past in the days of Soviet rule.
After lecturing on basic negotiation theory and practice, the class was divided into
groups, each consisting of four students—two to a team. A case was given to the stu-
dents with directions on what side they were to role-play. We explained the objectives
that each team was trying to attain. The students were given time to deliberate and to
strategize with their partners. They were instructed on the steps of how to initially begin
negotiating on a potential agreement and the process of reaching a decision within the
“win-win” framework.
After the designated time had passed for the negotiation exercise, we asked students
if they had arrived at a decision. The response was no. We assumed that they needed
more time, so another 15 minutes was allocated. We then inquired as to their progress.
Their response again was that no decision had been reached. We asked if they needed
more information or clarification. Their response was no. After this exchange contin-
ued for another 15 minutes, we asked what was delaying their decision. The reply was
uniform among all groups: “We are waiting for the Russian to come and tell us what
to do.” We were struck by this response and took a break to discuss what our reaction
would be to this ingrained perspective.
The behavioral standard of past decades—of the Russian dictating the decision—
would be a hard habit to break, even among the youth. Beginning then and echoing the
theme throughout our visit, we explained that the era of the Russian making all deci-
sions and telling Uzbeks what to do was over. Each citizen now would need to perfect
his or her individual decision-making, negotiation, and communication skills. We
reintegrated that in a democracy, each citizen has an obligation to contribute to the
deliberative effort, to be an active participant in the decision-making process. We also
pointed out that critical thinking skills and opposing viewpoints were encouraged to
ensure that the decision reflected the very best input from various diverse perspec-
tives. Furthermore, it was emphasized by us that the duty of the students was to ensure
that this new appreciation of essential ingredients of a civil society took root in their
country. From that point forward, the negotiation exercises were a new sport in which
each of the students was eager to learn how to deliberate and negotiate the win-win
decision. It was a most satisfying experience in that we left the group with an appre-
ciation of the power of communication and decision making.
It was readily apparent from this experience in Uzbekistan that grassroots, people-
to-people public diplomacy efforts should be a priority, especially within contexts
in which any type of diverse viewpoint—a fundamental requisite for democracy—is
new and alien to the culture and past political practices. Not only do such academic
exchanges provide the opportunity to have lectures, discussions, case studies, and prac-
tical exercises of democratic values in a university setting for students and citizens,
they also nurture another important opportunity. Through the close personal inter-
action, citizens from the host country have the ability to form their own opinions about
the visiting professors and guests. It is hoped that this can help reduce the use

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of mediated stereotypes of Americans in general. It was abundantly clear to both


professors that we had not only helped educate Uzbekistan’s next generation of leader-
ship but also dispelled some of the negative stereotypes of Americans.
Another by-product of this experience is the relationships with the students and citi-
zens of the country. Four of the students we encountered have continued to communicate
with us, one of whom came to Boston and took part in a special seminar in Los Angeles
on the role of media in democracy. During the 2000 Florida recount, I also received a
phone call from a student who reminded me that I had told his class that the courts
should never interfere in elections or issue orders to stop counting votes in an election.
He asked me to explain what was going on in Florida. I, like many Americans, was
at a loss in providing a credible explanation, but it did demonstrate the strength and
enduring quality of the relationships formed in such programs.

Azerbaijan
In February 2004, following the closure of the USIA, with public diplomacy initia-
tives now handled by the U.S. State Department, I was selected to be a visiting scholar
for the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan. With Baku as its capital, Azerbaijan is the largest
of the Caucus countries at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, with
Russia to its north, Iran to its south, and its nemesis, Armenia, to its west. The proposed
topics for my lectures and speeches focused on civil society initiatives: building the
necessary organizations and encouraging the development of divergent viewpoints,
especially those rooted in democratic values. A major area of emphasis was nurturing
the development of a free and open press and solidifying the expectations of students
planning careers in the media. My assignment also included speaking with NGOs and
other democratic-oriented organizations. A brief synopsis of the political context of
Azerbaijani sheds light on the importance of such objectives.
One of the most popular topics of discussion during my trip was concern and advo-
cacy among all levels of society for America to help Azerbaijan regain control of 16%
of its land, now occupied by Armenia as a result of a war between the two countries
over disputed territories of Nagorno–Karabak. A land dispute with roots dating back
at least to the 5th century, the controversy was fresh in the minds of the public as a
result of a 3-year war, initiated by a past Azerbaijan president, Abulfaz Elchibey, a
staunch nationalist. Elchibey, the first democratically elected president, was removed
by a military coup, and a former Soviet leader, Heydar Aliyev, assumed power in 1993.
There were at least two failed military coups to remove the autocratic Aliyev, who
remained in power after winning an election in 1998, marred by charges of vote fraud.
Following Aliyev’s death in 2003, his son Ilham Aliyev assumed the powers of the
presidency amid more charges of corruption and favoritism and the use of strong-arm
tactics designed to control all functions of the government.
Immediately prior to my visit, there had been deaths in the streets of Baku as a
result of the state smashing any dissent against the Aliyev regime. Given these events,
the role of the press as a means to report news objectively and its resistance to

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592 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

any control or censorship by the government were daunting challenges. These


challenges were the major themes of my lectures. Citizens knew firsthand that any
dissent could result in government repression. Yet, even within this context, there was
intense interest in learning the role of the press as a watchdog rather than lapdog of
government. It also was clear that most citizens interested in nurturing an independent
press recognized the importance of timing and in building coalitions in growing such
values in Azerbaijan society.
There was also a common theme of advocacy in the communication. At every event
that I attended in Azerbaijan, I was lobbied to persuade the United States to be involved
in some negotiation effort to regain control of the land lost in the war with Armenia.
One student pointed out that this issue was “more important than Iraq, and if America
is going to be the policeman of the world, it needs to intervene especially given the oil
reserves of my country.”
The political context and suspicion of U.S. intentions—that our political interests
are inextricably tied to our economic interests—were evident, and for what appeared
to be good reason. Halliburton was readily present in the capital of Baku and other
cities throughout the country as its consultants were providing advice to Azerbaijanis
about further development of their vast oil and gas reserves. I had been mistakenly
told by one American after breakfast at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Baku to get on a bus
because it was departing immediately. Assuming he was from the embassy, I immedi-
ately boarded the bus only to find out that it was full of petroleum engineers from
Halliburton heading to the oil fields. I promptly asked to get off at the next stop and
explained to a surprised group that I was here for other business. It proved to be a
useful lesson to Americans. Just because an American is in a country with oil reserves
does not mean that he or she is in the oil business!
My first lectures were to students at Khazar University and Baku State University
on strategies and tactics of political campaigns and the role of the media in democra-
cies. Prior to its invasion by the Red Army in 1920, Azerbaijan was the world’s first
Muslim democratic republic. There were seeds, albeit short lived, of democracy, in
Azerbaijan. Students at both colleges were fascinated by the role of political adver-
tising in American politics. They marveled and were perplexed that such commercials
were so short in length and entertainment focused rather than issue driven. Some of their
questions—how can people really make sound decisions based on the vague material
presented in such ads?—mirrored my own thoughts and were a challenge to answer.
Inherent in these discussions was infatuation that individuals at the local level could
be involved and make a difference in the political process.
There was also great interest about why America had invaded Iraq. The argument
was that if honesty is the mainstay of democracy as I had maintained in my lectures,
why did the American people still support the war if there were no weapons of mass
destruction, as argued by President Bush and his administration? Once again, the ques-
tions were similar to those at any college in the United States. What was clear was that
the Azerbaijan students enjoyed the free-spirited dialogue and debate that character-
ized our discussions, which was a different pedagogical style from the unidirectional
style—professor lecture to student—traditionally provided by their teachers.

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I also delivered lectures to practicing journalists at the Baku International Press


Center and conducted workshops on ethics and journalism for local mass media
professionals at the Azerbaijan Media Council (AMC). The AMC initially had been
formed to build a bridge—between the media and the public, and the media and the
government—in the effort to foster trust within society. Based on democratic princi-
ples, one of the AMC’s goals was to resolve problems that might arise as a result of
questionable articles or journalistic practices, rather than have such issues decided in
the courts, as had been the norm in the past. When courts had been involved, given the
influence of the president at all levels of government and society, the result had been
to the detriment of free speech and open media.
The role of responsible and effective media in democracies also was the
theme for workshops at the Baku Press Club. My activities with this group of young
idealistic professionals were on how to organize and run a press conference, prepare
press briefings, and write and disseminate effective press releases. The issue of
transparency, accountability of media and the government, and the courage and
professionalism required of the media to keep this as its foundation were major topics
of discussion. A meeting with Internews Azerbaijan, an NGO that provides television
programming and distribution as well as equipment and loans for new media projects,
revealed another positive force in Baku for objective and unbiased news in its training.
The emerging market-driven economy invited increased interest in the future of adver-
tising and marketing communication and their relationship within a free and
independent media.
The trip proved to be an excellent opportunity to engage younger entrepreneurs
in marketing, public relations, and public affairs, as well as burgeoning politicians and
media professionals with a very positive outlook, despite the present constraints, on the
future of their country. It emphasized the importance of relationships and open
dialogue with advocates of civil society initiatives. One product—the Azerbaijan
Public Relations Association—demonstrated the positive effect of educational
exchange programs. The president of this young group of PR professionals was a
graduate of Boston University whom I had met at a conference in Boston, as I
discovered in our conversation.
An enduring and positive asset of such grassroots encounters is how many of those
whom you meet are motivated by your words of encouragement, however brief your
conversation, and how these people continue to hone in on their leadership trajectory
and continue this relationship after the trip.
One such student, Jeyun Huseynov, has kept me apprised of his plans and his goals
since our meeting in Baku. He attributes his drive to the conversations we had in Baku.
Last summer, he realized a lifelong dream of visiting the United States through an
internship with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., after which he visited me in
California. He recently was selected as a recipient of the Edmund Muskie Scholarship
Program from the State Department, which will allow him to obtain his MA in the
United States. According to Jeyun, who is a fervent advocate of democratic ideals and
values, the turning point was my lecture in Baku, which is the strongest evidence of the
value of such grassroots efforts.

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Turkmenistan
Today’s wired world offers even the most remote locations and closed societies the
opportunity to be in touch with the rest of the world, as long as you have an Internet
connection. A 10-day public diplomacy visit in March 2007 to Turkmenistan, bordered
by Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and the Caspian Sea, demonstrated the validity of
this claim. It also exemplified how advocacy, NGOs, the Fulbright Program, and spe-
cial events can help further the goals and benefits of an open society and democratic
values within a closed and autocratic country. Of course, on all of these treks, the
reciprocal advantages of experiencing and seeing life in such a distinctly different
geographical region and culture are unparalleled and certainly much richer than vistas
afforded as a normal traveler.
In many of these countries, it is difficult if not impossible to obtain a travel visa.
Turkmenistan is a case in point, as it is widely viewed as one of the hardest countries in
the world in which to obtain a tourist visa. In addition, given the Western media’s ten-
dency, except possibly for that of the BBC, to ignore news from this region, visitors,
except for those whose academic or professional expertise is rooted there, have little
knowledge or perceptions of countries like Turkmenistan, conquered by Alexander
the Great and ruled by despots throughout history and a republic of the USSR until
1991. As Lippman would argue, there are few “scripts” within our heads concerning
life in such areas like Turkmenistan.
One script for aficionados of carpets is that the Tolkuchka Bazaar in Ashgabat is one
of the largest in Central Asia. Bargaining on the best prices for such Turkmen goods has
continued since Old Nissa was founded in 2 B.C. when the country’s population was
nomadic horse breeders. Islam’s history is evident with the deep tribal roots and a day
visit to the ruins of Seyit Jemalletdin Mosque of the medieval ages and Central Asia’s
largest mosque, the Spiritual Mosque in nearby Kypchak.
This trip, which had been postponed several times for various political reasons by
the Turkmenistan government, occurred 3 months after the unexpected death of Sapar-
murat Niyazov, an iron-hand post-Soviet dictator, known for his excessive cult of
personality and his self-proclaimed “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of the Turkmen People).
Niyazov’s self-perceived popularity expanded in the 1990s. He announced grand archi-
tectural plans to transform Ashgabat, already replete with statues and adoring pictures
of himself with his diamond-encrusted fist on his chin pondering the future, into a
shining city of what now appears to the visitor as overly ornate marble buildings, many
of which are empty. Too often, these building projects displaced citizens living in mud
and clay houses, which the government chose to remove without any payment or plans
for relocation. Niyazov’s commitment to having a fit nation of well-toned walkers is
evident in the much-publicized “Health Road” for hiking enthusiasts, in the Kopetdag
Mountains that surround Ashgabat, with miles of paved roads that are extravagantly lit
at night.
Niyazov’s self-proclaimed historical importance to his country and its dominant
religion of Islam is well documented. One controversy involving devout Muslims

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centers on the Turkmenbashi order that the Spiritual Mosque prominently display his
writings found in the “Ruhnama,” Niyazov’s nationalistic book of the soul, along
with the writings of the Koran and of the Prophet Muhammad. The power and preva-
lence of the Turkmenbashi’s writings in society are pervasively evident. Turkmen are
required to read the “Ruhnama” and to know it almost verbatim as a requirement to be
admitted into college. Niyazov also renamed the months of the year after his family,
beginning with January now named after the Bashi. In 1999, Niyazov was named
President for Life. The Arch of Neutrality in Ashgabat has a pure golden statue of
former President Niyazov that rotates in order for his face to always face the sun during
daylight hours.
Given his pervasive presence everywhere, Niyazov’s sudden death left a vast
power void. It was filled by Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, not Ovezgeldy Atayev,
the Chairman of the People’s Council who was subsequently removed from public
service. Berdimuhammedow received 89% of the vote in a special election held in
February 2007.
Such a dominant mediated reality presents distinct challenges to advocates for the
growth and development of organizations that provide diverse opinions, debate of the
issues, open access to communication systems, free media, and deliberative and critical
thinking skills—all requisites for democratic systems to grow and flourish. Insisting
on a policy of “neutrality” in all international matters, neither Niyazov, the current
president, or any of the top officials have been educated in or visited the West. Their
perspective is emphatically ethnocentric. Many citizens who lack contact with the
outside world—and this would be the vast majority of the population without access
to the Internet—believe that Turkmenistan is revered by outsiders. I was repeatedly
told by locals that Turkmenistan is at the center of the world in its importance.
The power of the media in forming a public’s “mediated reality” is quite evident
in the Turkmenistan adventure both from a Western and Turkmen perspective. Before
my departure from the United States, many friends in America expressed concern
about my being so close to Iran and Afghanistan. Given the U.S. administration’s label
of Iran as part of the axis of evil and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, such concern was
entirely expected, especially through the lens of the Western media. Would I be safe?
Would the terrorists be a threat? I immediately asked this question when I arrived in
Ashgabat. It was readily apparent from conversations with the government as well as
the people on the street that there is no fear of Iran or of any influx of terrorists from
Afghanistan. The official belief is that if Turkmenistan remains neutral and solely con-
cerned with its own internal matters, there will be no problem from its neighbors.
A totally different mediated reality of the world is evident within the perspective of
the Turkmenistan news, which is state controlled. There is no cable access to the out-
side world for the general public. Accordingly, the framing of stories and the ongoing
narrative is that Turkmenistan is the center of the universe. The president is shown daily
receiving visitors from countries around the world, as the announcer provides a glow-
ing context of Turkmenistan’s economic progress and the respect that other countries
have of its political leadership and of the Turkmen people. Furthermore, in 10 days of

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visiting Ashgabat, Dashgouz on the Caspian Sea, and Turkmenbashi City, there was
not one news story on anyone or any topic outside Turkmenistan. The only access to
any such international perspective was through the Internet, and this was limited to
those with access in hotels, some NGOs, and the embassy.
A major theme of lectures to students at Turkmen–Turkish University was the use of
new technologies and innovative strategies and special events in promoting the
goals of organizations and businesses. Inherent in this discussion was the importance
of individual leadership at the local level in building the necessary framework and
decision-making process for civil society initiatives. A major point of these lectures
and dialogues was that credibility is one’s most important asset. I emphasized that one’s
word or promise is the most important characteristic that one has as an individual.
I pointed out that if you lose your credibility, you lose your trust among your friends
and the public. To illustrate that in the United States one can criticize our elected
officials without fear of reprisal, I gave examples of credibility issues of former
President Nixon with Watergate, President Bill Clinton with the Monica Lewinsky
incident, and, an example they could readily appreciate, President George Bush with
his claims of weapons of mass destruction in going to war in Iraq. I pointed out that
I was a guest lecturer of the State Department but that our Constitution guaranteed me
the right to dissent and to criticize my government. Students were intrigued by this
freedom. They were especially interested in the steps of constructive critical thinking
and negotiation and the concept of the win-win solution, as well as the process of
feedback in the communication process. At Turkmen State University, a major focal
point of the dialogue was the power of the youth vote in American elections and the
lessons that the youth, as emerging leaders in Turkmenistan, should take from such
experiences in America.
One of the more memorable learning experiences was with a group of devoted
health care professionals and advocates, whose activities on HIV/AIDS were supported
by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding. Discussing the com-
munication media and strategies available to reach targeted publics, especially young
people, our discussion moved beyond the traditional brochures and lectures to more
innovative messages and means. I played a rap song that one of my Emerson students
had written in lieu of a debate project. I explained that I was dubious at first when he
had proposed the alternative assignment but that, in retrospect, I found that in this
instance, I, the teacher, learned a lesson from the student. We listened to the message
and concluded that it conveyed the same message as the pamphlet but it was via a
medium—music—that guaranteed much more attention and interest among our target
group—teenagers. Our dialogue at the meeting resulted in the decision to locate a
group of students of the same demographic in Ashgabat to determine if this musical
message had a similar reception among young Turkmen. After locating the group and
playing the rap song, “Be Prepared,” it was gratifying to see the usually reserved
Turkmen students rise from their chairs and start dancing with each other and singing
the lyrics of the song. An important lesson to remember in public diplomacy is that
music has no boundaries.

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At the universities and at NGO meetings of nascent groups like the Mejlis Commit-
tee on Human Rights and Liberties, my message was that independent groups could
make a difference in contributing to a democratic future in Turkmenistan. In mapping
out avenues that could be pursued to achieve these objectives, we discussed political
campaign strategies and techniques to reach targeted publics. Government spokes-
people later informed me that such individual work was not pertinent in Turkmenistan
due to the acumen and wisdom of the great Turkmenbashi. My hope was that lectures
on critical thinking skills would empower people within the country to assess the
credibility of this and other claims.
Discussions with journalists in Ashgabat on the role of the press revealed an appar-
ent generational divide. Initially, my lecture and discussion focused on the nature of
the “news” and its function in society. After speaking of the need for the press to
be the “cop on the beat” and as a watchdog for the citizens and the community
interest, I asked if some of the 300 or so present could offer some examples of such
vigilant practices in Turkmenistan. There was silence. Finally, a journalist in his 70s
replied that there was no such need to be a watchdog in Turkmenistan, because the
“government knows what is best.” His position was that the role of the press was
to communicate the government’s message to the people. When asked how any
difference of opinion between citizens and the government would be resolved, he
once again replied that it would not be a problem because there was agreement by
the Turkmen public that officials knew best. I immediately realized that according
to this journalist, Plato’s Republic was being played out in Turkmenistan. Journalism
was a means for those in power with all of the KNOWLEDGE to communicate it
unchecked and unquestioned to the people. I replied that this view of journalism
seemed like propaganda, or at least public affairs or public relations, not journalism in
the true sense of the term. Others in the audience seemed to agree, if not verbally then
at least through nods and other body language.
Coinciding with my trip to Ashgabat was the Central Asia Fulbright Conference,
which I had been invited to attend and address as a keynote speaker on public diplomacy.
I was speaking to an audience already converted as avid advocates of the public
diplomacy promise. This gathering, which featured professors from the region who
had visited the United States as part of the program, was a testament to the benefits of
such people-to-people, grassroots efforts.
At a post-conference reception hosted by Charge Brush from the embassy, many of
the honored speakers spoke of the life-changing experiences they had in visiting
American universities. Both myself and the immensely charismatic Bert Ransom, a
fellow State Department lecturer and former confidant of Rev. Martin Luther King,
reflected on the optimism and interest in American values evident among those we had
encountered in Turkmenistan. Throughout his work in Turkmenistan, Burt highlighted
the work of Dr. King in his lectures and discussions, noting the importance of the indi-
vidual in bringing about change and identifying injustices in society. We discovered
that our rhetorical tandem approach worked well with our audiences. Burt’s passionate
and sermonic rhetorical message of inspiration fired up interest in some of the

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democratic concepts concerning critical thinking, media, and decision making that I
outlined in my lectures. A special documentary on Rosa Parks commemorated the
Martin Luther King Birthday celebration as young people watched how one woman
helped change the course of history in the United States by refusing to change her seat
on the bus. One of my major objectives, as well as Burt’s, was to ensure that our audi-
ences began to appreciate their ability to be a part of furthering freedom and democratic
values in their futures. Letters that I have received from Turkmen since my trip sug-
gest that our seeds seem to have taken hold.

Personal Perspectives on Grassroots and Public


Diplomacy:The Saudi American Exchange
The events of 9/11 and their aftermath—especially the personal experience I had
in helping console a friend and family who lost a mother and wife in the attacks—
radically changed my perspective of teaching, politics, and life. What I had traditionally
taught in my communication classroom—finding common ground, negotiating con-
flicts and finding a win-win solution, and advocating critical thinking skills—were
clearly woefully absent in much of the global public sphere.
The idea that I, one person, could make a difference seemed a daunting challenge
and, for many friends and colleagues, an arrogant vantage point. Yet, it was similar to a
feeling that I had encountered in 1968 when I listened to a speech by Robert F. Kennedy
in Indianapolis during the presidential primaries. I had gone to the speech as a conser-
vative Republican, former head of the Young Republicans in high school, with the
expectation that I could refute and rebut any claims made by the despised liberal Kennedy.
Something transformational happened in the speech. I felt inspired to move forward,
to change course, and to get involved in a new direction. I followed my instinct and,
although later traumatized after the assassination of RFK in Los Angeles, this proved
to be a turning point in my life.
September 11 was a similar turning point. After going through the horrible ordeal
of being with a motherless family, I once again felt an inner impetus to help establish
a meaningful global dialogue on the grassroots level, to try in some way, however
minimal, to move the communication process forward. A major reason for this involve-
ment was that the mother of one of my students, Tita Puopolo, was on the first flight
that had crashed into the World Trade Center. In an instant, with the impact of AA
Flight 11 and the north Trade Center tower, my notes for crisis communication, a class
that I was scheduled to teach fall 2001 at Emerson College, suddenly took on new
relevance—true praxis—turning theory into what I hoped could be healing steps for a
family and possibly some meaningful insights into this senseless tragedy.
After hearing of the loss from a tearful and terrified Tita in a phone call, I literally
moved into the Puopolo home in Dover, Massachusetts, for 2 weeks. Commuting back
and forth on the train to Boston where I would teach my class and then return to the
Puopolo home, I tried to help in any way I could. Some actions involved family issues,
endless phone calls, media requests, and DNA samples.

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On that first day, I was consulting and consoling family members when the realiza-
tion and numbness wore off that Sonia would not be coming home. Sonia had not
jumped from the plane, as Tita had first concluded. Tita, understandably in total shock,
abruptly planned to drive to New York to find her mother at a hospital on the afternoon
of September 11. After all, a sobbing Tita told me, the last thing her mother told her as
she left the house for the airport was, “Remember, Tita, your mother is a survivor.”
This, according to Tita, and a vivid example of the desperate narrative of denial found
among friends and family members in a crisis situation, was the clue and the hidden
meaning that her mother had survived. In reality, it was another attempt by a grief
stricken daughter to reject the reality of her mother’s death. Handling this issue
called for some application of Plato’s benevolent lie. I told Tita that before we went to
New York to find her mother, we should upload some photos of Sonia onto the Internet
“so the hospitals could see the picture and check to see if Sonia was a patient.” It was
a foil that worked to keep her occupied for another few hours. It eventually evolved
into a fitting memorial Web page tribute (www.soniapuopolo.org) that continues to
grow to this day. It was within this awful time and the wretched sadness that engulfed
the Puopolo family that I realized, within myself and apart from the Puopolo family,
that there was more ahead than just the painful healing that—however slow—would
eventually take hold.
It was on September 11 that the Saudi American Exchange (SAE) was launched,
just hours after the attacks and informally in a telephone conversation between myself
and my former student, Faisal F. Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. I spoke with Faisal from the
Puopolo home. He conveyed his shock and sadness and disbelief of the events. He had
known Sonia Puopolo and was a good friend of Tita, whom he had met when both were
students in the master’s program and my students at Emerson. The major theme of the
call, after the tearful condolences and conversations with the family, was the agree-
ment between Faisal and myself “to stay connected,” especially within the mediated
war of words that now permeated the airwaves and bandwidth. It was a simple phone
call and communication process that would continue in the days, weeks, months, and
years to come and would nurture the SAE, whose mission and purpose remains suc-
cinctly simple: “furthering understanding through communication.”
Although neither Faisal, myself, or his protégé, Mohamed Khalil, were aware of
the philosophy, the perspectives, and substantive research of public diplomacy at the
time, our concept and the eventual mission of the SAE echoed the thoughts of Edward
R. Murrow, the broadcast icon who headed the USIA in the 1960s: “interaction of
private groups and interests in one country with those of another . . . [and] the transna-
tional flow of information and ideas” (Snow, 2005).
The SAE was a product of the tragic crisis that had engulfed not only family mem-
bers of those involved but governments and peoples around the world. Today, it is
an example of the truth in the adage that a crisis is a disruption in the status quo
but also an opportunity to move forward. From this brief conversation on 9/11, the
SAE would be the first grassroots public diplomacy effort after 9/11. Its activities
would be highlighted on NBC’s Today Show as well as in other global media (see

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600 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

www.saudiamericanexchange.org). The SAE has been featured at the Jeddah Economic


Forum twice and praised by President Bill Clinton at his inaugural Global Clinton
Initiative in New York in 2006. It has garnered praise from Queen Noor of Jordan,
Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki bin Faisal, former ambas-
sador to the United States, and Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others.
The SAE’s cross-cultural products and travel exchange programs, involving more
than 600 people from more than 20 countries who have visited Saudi Arabia and the
United States, include academic papers, electronic, print, and new media interviews, Web
pages, global communication projects, lectures, and forums (real and virtual), all with the
same message of “furthering understanding through communication.” The SAE’s last
student exchange involved the Harvard Business School’s Trek to Saudi Arabia in 2007.
Its collaboration with the LA (California) Program provided internships in media, mar-
keting, advertising, and public affairs (see www.laprogram.org) for students from the
Middle East, where there are few and sometime no journalism or media programs at
universities. The objective of the LA Program participation was to provide the tools for
students of the region to “tell their own stories” by teaching them how to make, edit, and
produce short documentaries as well as their work at media internship sites.
Plans are under way for another student exchange in 2010 to the Kingdom, a global
marketing project involving students and young professionals from five countries, and
another international group participating in the LA Program in political communication
internships to see firsthand the experiences of the U.S. presidential campaign in 2008.
All SAE activities provide students from different countries and cultures the oppor-
tunity to dialogue with each other in their joint work on projects or to actually live and
communicate daily with each other during their SAE experience. From these types of
interaction, participants gain understanding of similarities and differences in cultures,
concepts of time and punctuality, preferences for food and dining, styles of leadership
and partisanship, political and religious perspectives, and other norms and morays of
our shared global village (O’Dowd, 2007).
The SAE, as an agent of public diplomacy, embodies much of the traditional per-
spectives as well as new approaches and strategies. It moves beyond the traditional
notion of public diplomacy as restricted to and as a product of a governmental effort
(Melissen, 2005; Potter, 2002). In fact, one explicit requisite is that it does not have
a formal affiliation or receive funding from any government or governmental agency.
The rationale for this decision is that in such a post-9/11 politically charged atmo-
sphere, any governmental affiliation from the West or Middle East could adversely
affect the credibility of the organization. This does not suggest that there is no
communication with governments or their agencies. Quite the contrary, it would be
impossible to plan or implement the student exchange visits and activities, especially
in Saudi Arabia, without the cooperation and support of the governments and their
respective offices. An important requirement of the SAE in our exchange programs is
arranging for participant visas, following the formal invitation from a Saudi citizen to
a foreigner to visit the Kingdom.

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The divisiveness and proclivity to engage in stereotyping after 9/11, rather than
in rational and deliberative discourse and critical thinking, were evident in a story
related to procuring visas for the first trip to Saudi Arabia. One by-product of such
cultural exchanges, even without the high stakes context of a 9/11 tragedy, is the dif-
ferent perspectives of time in global cultures. This was evident as we prepared to take
the first group of American students to the Kingdom in spring 2002. With the trip less
than 3 days away and myself growing increasingly anxious, I finally received a call
that I should take all of the student passports to the Washington, D.C., Saudi Arabian
Embassy for the visa processing. One problem was that I had a class on the evening
that I received the call, and the embassy needed at least 1 day to process the 25 visas.
This required that I take a shuttle flight down to Washington to leave the passports with
the embassy and then return the same day on a shuttle so that I could teach my evening
class. The visas for Saudi Arabia would be processed the following day. I then would
fly back to Washington, D.C., that afternoon to pick up the visas and passports. This
would allow our group to board a Saudi Arabian jet as scheduled in New York to Jeddah
the following afternoon.
After arriving at Logan Airport in Boston early in the morning, I purchased a round-
trip ticket to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., and boarded the U.S. Airway
shuttle, taking a window seat. Prior to the cabin door closing, I received a call from a
former student from Bahrain, Ali Qassim, who was in Boston for a visit and who
wanted to meet for a later dinner. I told Ali that I would meet him after my class that
evening. I then received another call from my colleague, Mohamed Khalil, an assistant
to Prince Faisal, who wanted to make sure that I was on my way to D.C. to deliver the
passports. I assured him that I was on the plane. During the flight, I completed all 25
visa forms for the students, obtaining the needed information from their passports,
which I placed, when completed, in the empty seat next to me. A businessman in the
aisle seat was engrossed in his Wall Street Journal during the trip, showing little, if
any, interest in my work. One annoyance I experienced was that the person in front of
me kept attempting to recline the seat beyond how it was designed. Other than this
minor issue, the flight was perfect.
Upon arriving at Reagan Airport, I left the plane and entered the terminal. Suddenly,
a man in a dark suit approached me and said, “Dr. Payne, can we talk with you?” He
was accompanied by four other colleagues. My response, as if there was a choice, was,
“Yes, why?” Surrounding me with his colleagues, the gentleman asked for my driver’s
license and also asked to see my briefcase, where I had the student passports. He
explained that the passenger sitting in front of me on the plane had heard me speaking
on the phone to two men with Arab names. She also had seen me with several passports
when she had passed my row on the way to the bathroom. She had concluded that
I was planning on bringing Saudis into the United States. She had notified the
stewardess of the U.S. Air flight, who in turn notified the pilot. The pilot had radioed
to Reagan Airport this information and it was passed on to the FBI, who now were
surrounding me and asking about the situation.

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602 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

Prior to my being able to respond, and as the crowd gathered around to see what
was happening, the gentleman asked me if I had ever been arrested or if I had a
record. He told me to be careful with my answer because they planned to run my
information through the various national security computers to check out my identity
and past. I nervously responded, “No.” He reminded me that I should think hard
because if I provided inaccurate information, they would have to continue the ques-
tioning in an area outside the airport, which I concluded was an FBI office building.
I again said, “No,” and thought to myself, “How do I explain this to my class tonight?”
He asked me to respond to the facts that he had presented. A curious crowd of
observers surrounded our discussion. I told him the truth. No, I was not involved in
bringing Saudis to the United States (although the SAE would have liked to have
sponsored such an exchange but was unable to do so given the restrictions on Middle
Eastern students entering the country). I told him about our exchange program and
our plans to visit Saudi Arabia. I explained that I was bringing passports to D.C. so
that I could get visas processed to take American students to Saudi Arabia, not to bring
Saudis to the United States. At the time, I wondered to myself which of the explana-
tions caused him more concern.
He then asked me where I taught and what courses I was teaching. I told him
Emerson College but that I also taught courses at Tufts and Yale. I continued that at
Emerson, I was teaching “Politics and Terrorism,” “Communication and Terrorism,”
and “Crisis Communication.” He said, “Well, that is interesting!” The good news was
that I could tell from his body language that even with these answers—which might
seem to fit in to the pattern of a terrorist—he was beginning to realize that my efforts
and intentions were positive, not negative. A colleague of his brought back my
documents. I was relieved when he returned them to me and told me that I was free to
go. Nothing had come up on my record to suggest further security concerns.
During our dialogue, I noticed a passenger who had been on the flight who was
eyeing the unfolding events and the discussion with great interest. I immediately con-
cluded that this was the woman in front of me on the plane who had initiated this chain of
events. The entire scenario was caused by the fact that I spoke to “two men with Arab
names.” It once again punctuated the importance of our efforts in public diplomacy
with the exchange program. The rest of her imagined narrative reflected the mindset
that the country was in at the time. All Arabs were suspect, and all events and people
connected with Arabs were part of the ongoing and dangerous conspiracy.
After leaving the passports with a courier who had come to Reagan National Air-
port from the Saudi Embassy, I returned to the gate and handed my return boarding
pass to the attendant for the next flight from Washington to Boston. The individual
from the FBI who had interviewed me had informed me that due to the inquiry and
notification by U.S. Air to the airport officials at Reagan Airport, I most likely would
be flagged for the next few months for secondary examination at airports. He was
right. I had my first secondary search as I checked in to board my return flight to
Boston. An interesting by-product or coincidence was that my 80-year-old mother was
also stopped repeatedly after this event.

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Payne 603

As I entered the plane for the shuttle flight to Boston and my class in less than
3 hours, I made eye contact with a flight attendant. The concern in her eyes conveyed
to me that she was the attendant whom the passenger had notified on the flight from
Boston and who had then notified the pilot who radioed Reagan officials. At first,
I thought that I would try to explain the situation, but on second thought and due to
nervous exhaustion, I decided to take my seat and try to relax on the return trip. In ret-
rospect, the incident provided a vivid case study of the polarization evident in America
after 9/11 and the penchant to rely on stereotypes and hunches in our attempt to make
sense of the world around us. It also provided a firsthand experience of why our work
in the SAE would be so vital.

Lessons Learned and Future Recommendations


From the experiences outlined in this descriptive essay, it is evident that the concept
of public diplomacy is practiced and valued at the governmental as well as at the grass-
roots, nongovernmental-affiliated levels. Both approaches, to this writer, have their
strengths and weaknesses. Public diplomacy, as a formal governmental approach, pro-
vides access to the elected decision makers and opinion leaders of a targeted country
and is often the only means by which communication with the leadership or the public
can occur, especially in countries where such leaders have unchecked power. Working
with these governmental officials assures access to specific publics and support for
implementation of specific projects. This official cooperation and approval by the leader
elite can also assure credibility with public spheres within such countries (Brown,
2002; Melissen, 2005; Zaharna, 2004). Another strength of governmental public diplo-
macy programs is that even though such programs are not funded to their ultimate
potential, there is, nonetheless, financial support and follow-through on designated
and approved projects. In addition, in most targeted countries, governmentally sup-
ported public diplomacy programs receive more press coverage in the traditional print
and electronic media.
Disadvantages of such governmentally sponsored public diplomacy programs
can include distrust by targeted audiences. The degree of suspicion is dependent on
the popularity of the governmental leaders as well as the targeted country’s public
opinion of the foreign policy initiatives and the elected leadership of the United
States and its effect on their own government. The financial advantage mentioned
above also can be a disadvantage or invite misunderstanding or mistrust because of
obvious links to the U.S. government. For example, those supporting such programs,
either as advocates or as interested audience members, in targeted countries are
frequently under suspicion of being paid by the U.S. government and therefore
advancing the U.S. agenda. The result is an assault on an individual’s most impor-
tant asset—credibility. Press coverage of such programs also can have a double
edge, especially if the host country has a history of censoring journalists and
supporting a controlled media agenda. In this case, the public merely views any such
news as propaganda.

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604 American Behavioral Scientist 53(4)

The most compelling advantage of grassroots, people-to-people, nongovernmen-


tal public diplomacy programs is that they tend to be more credible to the targeted
audience. In such efforts, there is no governmental involvement and therefore no
agenda setting/controlling function. Nongovernmental public diplomacy programs
tend to foster more open dialogues among the participants who tend to provide con-
structive criticism of the status quo. On the other hand, such initiatives are often
ignored or given minor coverage by the official press, which frequently dominates the
media landscape. This challenge is often offset by alternative media, blogs, sms, you
tube, social networking, and other electronic media outlets that are less controlled by
the government. These alternative media potentials are negated by some governmental
efforts to control, restrict, or even ban electronic media. Yet, in today’s wired world,
such censorship is increasingly difficult to enforce.
The major challenge in such nongovernmental public diplomacy efforts is securing
and maintaining funding for programs and initiatives. As a result, there is all too often
a gap between a well-intentioned and successful public diplomacy project and a sus-
taining secondary effort. The independence of these efforts from official government
agencies can also create roadblocks and frustration in obtaining approval for visa/
passport entry, access, travel, security, and safe passage home.
Given the emerging importance of the public diplomacy efforts at the grassroots,
business, and governmental levels, the challenge for advocates is to combine such
efforts in a coordinated manner that would enable each entity to carry out its specific
plan or program while complementing each other. Some might dismiss this goal as
too idealistic. Yet, there are some current examples that combine the governmental
financial and logistical support with nonpolitical objectives and NGOs. From my own
involvement as well as my dialogues with proponents and skeptics of such efforts,
the U.S. educational exchanges, primarily the Fulbright Program, are an ideal on which
we should model such public diplomacy efforts. The history of public diplomacy in the
United States, from its inception in the USIA to grassroots, people-to-people efforts,
is one for Americans to be proud of. The frenetic response of the government with
varying strategies in the wake of 9/11 seems to have swayed us from our intuitive
public diplomacy compass. It is past time for all of us to get back on track.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests


The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or pub-
lication of this article.

Financial Disclosure/Funding
The author received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.

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Bio
J. Gregory Payne is an Associate Professor in Emerson College’s Department of Communica-
tion Studies. He is Director of the Center for Ethics in Political and Health Communication, and
has taught at Tufts University’s Department of Family Medicine and Yale University’s Global
Marketing, He received Ph.D at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and earned an MPA
from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His expertise is in political
communication, public diplomacy, crisis communication and health communication. He is the
general director of the first grass roots public diplomacy effort in the wake of 9/11, www.saudi-
americanexchange.org. He currently is the director of a public affairs/public diplomacy project,
www.redisoverosarito.org which is dedicated to presenting an accurate picture of Rosarito
Beach, Baja Mexico, within the context of President Caledron’s war on drugs.

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