Sonenshine: Public diplomacy has to look beyond drone strikes, news cycle


Efforts at public diplomacy can still succeed in countries where drone strikes have led to outrage against the United States, said Tara Sonenshine, the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, in a talk at the University of Maryland on March 27.

Sonenshine recalled a recent trip to Pakistan where she held a question-and-answer session with students, who immediately asked how public diplomacy could persist there amid drone strikes and after the United States had entered Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden without notice or permission. But after the forum, the undersecretary spoke one-on-one with many of the students, and she said that despite their sharp criticisms in public, they wanted to know how they could join an exchange program to study in the United States.

"You have to be willing to accept that you might not be popular on a given day," Sonenshine said at the event, hosted by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. "You've got to be willing to ride it out" and to tune out the news cycle in order to address long-term issues such as education, employment and health, she said.

Another challenge for public diplomacy is how to measure the impact of its efforts to counter violent extremism, especially online engagements, which might take the form of a Facebook post, a short YouTube video or a response to remarks made in the comment section of a website.

"How are we possibly going to know if we're moving the meter?" Sonenshine asked. "Terrorists are not exactly willing to participate in surveys."

Indicators of success have to be unconventional, she said. When al Qaeda leaders complain about the presence of State Department officials on their online forums and urge visitors to ignore them, that's a sign of success, she said. When foreign governments and citizens set out to replicate the State Department's digital outreach to counter violent extremism, that's taken as a positive sign as well.

Opinion studies also indicate that the State Department's messaging is effective, or at least "make me believe it's worth a try," Sonenshine said.

For more:
- go to the event webpage (webcast available)

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