Friday, November 10, 2006

Beacon No. 100: Hughes Talks Talking to ALDAC


Some enterprising soul at State recently leaked one of Karen Hughes’ memos to the Washington Post. Its topic is “Speaking on the Record,” and it purports to allow officials at ALDAC—an acronym for “all U.S. diplomatic and consular posts”—some latitude in speaking to the media or in other public settings.

The Post helpfully printed a copy of the memo, which I will now present with some annotations:

1. Last year, I sent out a message detailing some guidelines for speaking on the record and engaging with media. With the launch of our regional hub effort, it is especially timely to reissue this message so that my policy on this is crystal clear. I also want to reiterate up front that media outreach, especially television interviews, should be a top priority in mission activities and when developing the schedules for visiting USG [U.S. government] officials.

Translation: Court the media.

2. I want you to know that my office and I are here to support you as you go out and do media. I know that doing any media, especially television, is a challenging endeavor. But it is a challenge we must address in order to effectively advocate our policies to foreign audiences. I also believe it is critical for Chiefs of Mission to get out on the media and to support their staff who do appear on television. When you do media, the stakes are high, but it's important. No one is perfect and there is always the chance that any of us will occasionally make mistakes -- that doesn't mean we should stop appearing on television or participating in press conferences. We need people out there giving our side of the story. The real risk is not that we occasionally misspeak, it's that we miss opportunities to present our views, and leave the field to our critics and detractors.

Translation: Chiefs of Mission are especially on the hook—get out there! Don’t worry so much about fouling up.

3. During my recent trips and meetings with many of you, I have heard concerns about problems with getting clearance to speak on the record to reporters. I promised I would send out a message clarifying my policy on this issue, and providing what I hope is clear guidance for you all in dealing with the press. In this message, I want to share "Karen's Rules" in the hope that you all will have a better idea of what I expect, and how you can react.

Translation: Following are some rules on media interaction, named for myself.

4. Rule #1: Think Advocacy. I want all of you to think of yourselves as advocates for America's story each day. I encourage you to have regular sessions with your senior team to think about the public diplomacy themes of each event or initiative. As a communicator, I know that it is important to get out in front of an issue or at best have a strong response to a negative story. One of my goals during my tenure at the State Department is to change our culture from one in which risk is avoided with respect to the press to one where speaking out and engaging with the media is encouraged and rewarded. I want you out speaking to the press, on television interviews preparing and executing a media strategy, and providing our points on issues. As President Bush and Secretary Rice have stated, public diplomacy is the job of every ambassador and every Foreign Service Officer. We want you out there on television, in the news, and on the radio a couple of times a week and certainly on major news stations in your country and region.

Translation: We are engaged in countering our adversaries’ day-to-day spin. Take risks to do that—but only within existing media strategy.

5. Rule #2: Use What's Out There. You are always on sure ground if you use what the President, Secretary Rice, Sean McCormack or Senior USG spokesmen have already said on a particular subject. I always read recent statements by key officials on important subjects before I do press events. My Echo Chamber messages are meant to provide you clear talking points in a conversational format on the "hot" issues of the day. You never need clearance to background a journalist though you should certainly pay careful attention to how your comments may be used.

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe ones, but you have more latitude when speaking on background.

6. Rule #3: Think local. Because your key audience is your local -- or regional -- audience you do not need clearance to speak to any local media, print or television. And, you do not need clearance to speak to media in your country, even if it is US based or from a US publication, if you are quoting a senior official who has spoken on the record on a particular subject. The rule of thumb to keep in mind is "don't make policy or pre-empt the Secretary or a senior Washington policy-maker."

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe words.

7. Rule #4: Use Common Sense to respond to natural disasters or tragedies. You do not need to get Department clearance to express condolences in the event of a loss, or express sympathy and support in response to a natural disaster. Obviously in the latter case do not commit USG resources for support or relief without approval from the Department; but do not wait for Department authorization to offer a statement of sympathy unless the individual or incident is controversial. Your regional hubs can help you in these instances as well.

Translation: You may freely show sympathy.

8. Rule #5: Don't Make Policy. This is a sensitive area about which you need to be careful. Do not get out in front of USG policymakers on an issue, even if you are speaking to local press. When in doubt on a policy shift, seek urgent guidance from your regional hub, PA [public affairs] or your regional public diplomacy office. Use your judgment and err on the side of caution.

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe words.

9. Rule #6: No Surprises. You should always give PA a heads-up in the event that you speak to U.S.-based media. This ensures that those who should know are in the loop on what is happening.

Translation: Speaking to American media trumps speaking with media in-country.

10. Rule #7: Enlist the help of the hubs (for those who have regional media presence) or my office if you don't get a quick response for clearance or help. The hub network is an extension of my staff, and we are here to support you in your efforts to get the USG position on the record and out in the media. Both Sean McCormack and I are committed to making sure you have what you need to advocate a US position on the key issues at your post.

Translation: We are available for consultation in advance of media appearances.

11. I know this is a departure from how you all have operated over the years. But forceful advocacy of US interests and positions is critical to our effort to marginalize the extremists and share a positive vision of hope for all countries and people. I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to speak out, and look forward to our aggressive promotion of US policy.

Translation: Now get out there and speak!

Public diplomacy is unavoidably an indirect pursuit, like farming: You prepare the soil, plant more crops than you need in the knowledge that some will be lost, care for them and, absent disaster, reap the rewards only much, much later.

However, in memos like the above, Undersecretary Hughes does not seem to be acting as a public diplomat so much as a spin controller. It’s her luck that the U.S. badly needs one of those too, and that President Bush and Secretary Rice seem happy to let Ms. Hughes do the job she chooses rather than the job her title implies.

But who, then, is to be America’s top public diplomat?

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item. I also highly recommend reading the Post’s article accompanying the memo, which quotes two organizational psychologists on the memo’s contradictory messages to U.S. diplomats—a group that is already excruciatingly well-trained and well-prepared to speak in public.)


phkushlis said...

As Eccentric Star pointed out, so what's new? Not much as far as I can figure out. These guidelines were in operation during Bush 41. The bottom line was - no one talked to the media on the record unless they quoted from an already given speech by 41 or Baker.

Paul D. Kretkowski said...


I see this more as a direct response to the Gonzales incident and as Hughes herself states, "I know this is a departure from how you all have operated over the years," which implies that there has recently been a crackdown on ALDAC freedom to speak with the media and that U.S. diplomats are chafing under the unaccustomed restrictions. Lacking a date for the memo, though, I can't correlate it with Gonzales and the arrogant-stupid affair.

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