Navigating the Digital Sea

Rob Bole

Creating Audience Value for Digital Public Diplomacy Campaigns in the U.S.

Let’s face facts. The U.S. information environment is a complete mess. It is rife with controversy and misinformation, swamped with overt commercial messages and influencers trying to sell you something…even if it is just themselves. Our information platforms and providers are confused and fragmented. The U.S. media laws and regulations woefully out of date and controversial.
Into these churning waters the ships of state – allies and adversaries – try to make progress in engaging the U.S. public for political, economic, and cultural reasons. Leaving aside the bad actors who utilize disinformation as a weapon, smart public diplomacy is more challenged than ever. Which is ironic considering that tools and channels to connect and engage – from TikTok to Clubhouse – continue to roll out seemingly on a weekly basis.
In recent times, I worked for the Obama Administration on efforts to counter violent extremism and Russian propaganda with information. During those years engaging and, yes, influencing foreign publics, I had a first-row seat on how to successfully build trust with foreign audiences in difficult places and how they value information as powerful tools for self-betterment.
What I learned has helped me understand how America’s allies and friends can navigate the stormy seas of U.S. information economies to advance key public diplomacy goals.
The starting place, like all good communication, is understanding the audience. Unfortunately, most public diplomacy campaigns to engage audiences – to promote travel and culture goals, attract investors and business, or engaging U.S. policymakers on policy – too often focus on the tactics, technology, or techniques. These campaigns show the most interest in the nuances of Twitter vs. LinkedIn, or how to target audiences and having beautiful websites with bold, dynamic video.
While technical packaging of campaigns is essential, and something that Signal excels at with its aggressive focus on data, many campaigns miss an essential point: the purpose of influence is to not just provoke an online like or click but building a mutually beneficial relationship. Those relationships are not built of ephemeral engagement, but rather creating utility and substance.
At Signal, our first questions start with appreciating the interests, needs and wants of the audience. All public diplomacy efforts should start with empathy for the audience: what are the challenges they are facing? What outcomes and hopes do they have? Where can a communication campaign not just engage or attract, but provide actual value?
If your public diplomacy campaign is founded on providing value to the audience through information, insights, recommendations, instruction or education, your efforts will be repaid in deeper engagement and success, but also accrue trust and even loyalty.
This formula of value and utility in public diplomacy is equally applicable to policy, trade, tourism or cultural campaigns. For example, for the trade and investor goals, most public diplomacy campaigns are built to be only surface deep by attracting attention, rather than building a funnel of qualified leads and opportunities. These campaigns use lovely, exciting videos to tell their country’s business story buoyed by a plethora of facts about the sophistication of the infrastructure and business climate. These campaigns work solely on the side of the equation and the opportunity. However, they don’t consider how investors or businesspeople understand and address risk, or how common perceptions of the challenges of overseas markets warp that risk calculation or undervalue the advantages. They don’t focus on the resources and practical navigation of how to establish a clear business plan or access markets.
My colleague, Alicia Willard, will soon be writing in this section how Signal has developed a set of lenses and practices that help us understand audiences in ways that are common in marketing and ecommerce, but not widely utilized in public affairs. “User experience” or UX, is the practice of applying that first fundamental lesson of understanding the audience and its needs, in order to successfully execute a campaign or program.
In future posts, I am going to explore other challenges of “navigating the digital sea”, including misinformation, identifying audiences, and forming digital strategies that are best suited for Embassy public diplomacy programs in the U.S. We will dive into how data-targeting and even artificial intelligence is within reach of small, though innovative public affairs programs.
The foundation for success starts with the simple act of being human, finding that common ground of interest, understanding and values. The rest is just technique.

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