Monday, March 30, 2009

Language Matters

Shell Smith spoke at an event entitled "Dousing the flames: Public diplomacy in action" at the University of Delaware. She was said to "literally be the face of the United States in the Middle East" as she assumes her new position as the media liaison for the U.S. State Department. She will be the select few U.S. officials who will appear regularly on Arab television, radio and regional newspapers to present the U.S. point of view on key Middle East issues. The three ways that, she said, the U.S. can be more effective in its public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East are: 1. Policy changes, although outside the control of the public diplomacy office, will have the greatest change on overseas opinions. 2. Listening to these opinions and not just talk over them or ignore them. 3. Speaking their language will show them the respect we have for them.

Pretty basic and widely agreed upon things she said but the fact that she speaks Arabic stands out. There are very few American officials who speak Arabic and who are high up in the hierarchy to have significant weight. Shell Smith will be an asset because not only will she be able to communicate in Arabic but also have the discretion to stray from the official line enough depending on where and who she is speaking to. In the past, high level officials who don't speak Arabic have been disregarded as ignorant Americans by the local population and lower level officials who do speak Arabic have not been seriously heard. I think that this is a step in the right direction to appoint Arabic speakers in influential positions not only so that they can craft their message better but also because they have the authority to adjust their message better.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. It's high time the State Department moves beyond the memory of the Gonzalez disaster, and selected a media liaison with the skills to communicate with arguably its toughest audience--the Arab press. Officials that cannot talk the talk often only get a word in on al Jazeera news programs when the host butts in for them and delegates time to the translation. Beyond the practicalities, though, this sends a strong message that the U.S. really is capable of 'dialog' in the PD sense and is willing to try to meet the Arab world halfway in that dialog. All the great first steps from the Obama Administration on this front will have little staying power if there isn't an American voice reinforcing the message with interviews and quotes that are easily digestible and relevant to the Arab audience.

    Less encouraging than Obama's appearance on al Arabiyya, though, may be Shell's necessary self-selection of State Department direct media outreach in IB:

    "Shell Smith said she will use several outreach tools to communicate with the public overseas in order to address these and other serious political issues. These tools include the U.S. government owned and operated television station Al Hurra, Radio Sawa and the newly created Web site"

    Apart from perhaps Radio Sawa, U.S. IB in the Arab world doesn't have much of an audience to lend Smith an ear.