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WORLD FOCUS: Public diplomacy

May 8, 2014
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Mike Holtzman, president of BLJ Worldwide, one of America's most prestigious public relations concerns, told the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette, "Despite the failures of the U.S. government to get public diplomacy right, I remain a devotee to the idea that the American people can engage meaningfully with people from other countries - even those with whom we have sharp policy differences - by working together in the spheres of everyday life, such as sports, culture, academics, medicine and the like. These types of dialogues and exchanges help establish our basic humanity and can promote understanding and goodwill between nations,"

Holtzman is a graduate of William & Mary and serves currently as a member of the Advisory Council of the Reves Center for International Studies.

He is credited with managing the successful global campaign on behalf of China's bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics and was named PR Person of the Year. As a consultant to the U.S. State Department, he was influential in framing the issues that relate to U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world.

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Mike Holtzman

Alas, he has cast a critical eye on how U.S. public diplomacy is conducted, particularly in the Muslim world.

"I would get the U.S. government out of the business of being liked," he said. "The job of the government, in terms of diplomacy, is not to be liked but to be respected abroad, to communicate our policies and values with clarity to friends and foes, and secure our vital national interest."

He noted that much of the world is suspicious of the U.S. government.

"It is not the most credible messenger to people at the street level," he said. "If anyone is paying attention to the events in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc., it is clear that the people on the street are increasingly calling the shots. Thus, it falls to the American general public to establish the kind of relationships that matter in a world where power is shifting to the masses."

I asked Holtzman what he would consider the most important ingredient of successful public diplomacy.

"The main ingredient is a credible messenger with a credible message," he said. "I wouldn't take my cues from a brochure issued by, say, the Turkish government. It is propaganda at best, birdcage liner at worst. Likewise, we shouldn't send our professional diplomats to engage with, say, Arab youth. It's dissonant. We need ordinary people with something to offer reaching out to their peers."

He explained that the government can facilitate the process by offering tax incentives to universities that locate abroad, grants for young filmmakers to make cross-cultural movies, and the like.

"But the effort must be well-coordinated for it to work," he said, "The private sector can make strategic mistakes just as easily as the government can."

He cited the blowback over Dennis Rodman's ill-fated "basketball diplomacy" in North Korea.

"I'm not sure the people of DPRK have a much better image of the U.S. now than prior to that stunt," he said.Holtzman, in several op-ed articles that appeared in the New York Times, Newsday and the Christian Science Monitor, pointed out, "To be effective, public diplomacy must be a function of publics, not government. Its messages must be real, not abstract. It is foolhardy to suggest that the U.S. government can quickly influence entrenched, violently anti-American public opinion in the Middle East. The creation of goodwill must fall disproportionately to regular citizens and private institutions. This means building relationships in the spheres of everyday life."

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.



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