On Wednesday, March 3, an interesting event was organized during the visit of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Brazil. Significantly, it was called townterview – a mix between the ideas of “closeness” and participation embodied in town meetings with the press conferences organized for the traditional media channels. The event provides some interesting points for the debate about the current US public diplomacy strategy.
First of all, the event smartly combines the use of powerful television channels, a consolidated vehicle for public diplomacy and the use of new media. It was organized in partnership with Globo network, the biggest media conglomerate in Brazil, which has the largest audience on Brazilian television. It was also streamed worldwide through the Internet and advertised on Twitter and Facebook. Questions to the Secretary could be made online, on a bilingual page created for the event, and were to be answered live.
Secondly, it also made clear that public diplomacy is increasingly becoming matter of open diplomacy, in which the media and public opinion are essential and active actors in shaping diplomatic strategies.
Thirdly, it showed how resistant people still are to leave room for online participation, especially because it brings an uncontrolled environment and unknown audience into the picture, something that diplomats have never been keen about. More than 280 questions were asked online, but only two of them were actually forwarded to the Secretary. While the people physically present in the audience posed lighter questions about education and affirmative action, among others, the questions asked online criticized the role that the US has been playing internationally, especially in the Middle East.
If the United States really wants to pursue a public diplomacy 2.0 strategy, it certainly needs to put more focus on interactivity and to engage in debates with the public, no matter how tough and controversial they might be.