Public Media Camp: Hubs and Spokes and a Look at Measurement

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Recently I had the pleasure to participate in the Public Media Camp, an unconference focused on strengthening local and national public broadcasting. A good portion of the discussion focused on the disruptive and new opportunities being presented by Internet-based dissemination and social media.

Of Hubs and Spokes

While the focus on social media related well to my work in public diplomacy, the very structure of public media actually seems quite similar to the hub and spoke model of the central State Department in Washington and the various embassies, consulates and missions scattered around the world. As with public broadcasting, content is produced and disseminated in Washington and the very diverse missions overseas. Just as NPR or PBS in Washington balances the needs of their direct national audience with the needs of their affiliate stations, the State Department also has to support an international audience for its properties while meeting overseas mission needs.

Additionally, most public media outlets focus more on informing audiences and social change than increasing profits. Public diplomacy has similar goals: changing perceptions about the United States’ and its policies and creating a better environment for U.S. goals, such as democratization, improving religious freedoms and so on. Without profits as a baseline metric, both organizations aim for more intangible goals, such as those elucidated above. This makes measurement more challenging, with related knock-on effects.

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Public Diplomacy: From the Cold War to the Current Era

[image src=”” caption=”Visitors stream into the 1959 American National Exhibition. Moscow, USSR”]

Fifty years ago this month, on a muddy rain-soaked field in Moscow, a glittering pavilion quickly rose and a massive geodesic dome swiftly took shape. After only a few months of hectic construction the 1959 American National Exhibition opened to a curious Soviet public. The exhibit provided a unique window on American life to the millions of people who filed through the event over the next few weeks. The visitors saw examples of contemporary American life, from cars to homes to art. Young American guides, many barely out of college, led the curious Soviet public through both the general American story as well as their own deeply personal stories of life in the United States and, in many cases, how their immigrant families became American citizens.

[image src=”” caption=”Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev chats with a guide. Vice President Richard M. Nixon is at left.” align=”right”]

Soon after opening the 1959 Exhibition hosted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who toured the exhibits with then Vice President Richard Nixon. In what became a touchstone of the early Cold War, these cold warriors verbally sparred in the kitchen of the model American home. Both leaders argued for the merits of each country’s unique civil and economic models in front of an inquisitive crowd and, more importantly, rolling news cameras. The “Kitchen Debate” as it came to be known, informed the opinions of the two leaders and provided one of the most compelling unscripted moments of the long conflict.

Beyond the statecraft practiced in front of the cameras, public diplomacy was the chief goal of the Exhibition. The hope was greater understanding brought about by the cultural exchange would lessen tensions between the two great nations, turning enemies into, at least, adversaries. The personal stories of the guides were meant to show the diversity of the country while the various displays sought to highlight the strength of a capitalist economy.

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Lessons on Social Media Campaigns from Politics Online


Recently I attended the Politics Online Conference put on by George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. Although I was only able to sit in on a handful of sessions, there were a number of very useful gems on how you can use social media to further political campaign goals. I’ve focused on the lessons most useful for public diplomacy campaigns.

One of the major themes of the conference is the necessity to create authentic engagement when using social media. Without creating this authenticity, it is much more difficult to influence the intended audience since there is little personal connection with the message. Many lobbyists regularly emphasized that a handful of authentic, personal messages from constituents are more convincing than a mass quantity of relatively anonymous messages. Furthermore, genuine engagement between two parties (in this case politicians and constituents) can help create lasting communities and movements centered around specific causes, even if the engagement is conducted online.

Ideally this authenticity is created through direct personal engagement, a local focus and a tangible result. One example given was a campaign to influence legislation covering local food producers. To highlight the importance of these producers in local constituencies, a lobbyist organization used an online campaign to help local producers deliver care packages of non-perishable goods to their representatives. By using web-based technologies to make the constituent’s concerns tangible, the lobbyists were able to influence the final legislation to greater benefit local producers.

Many of the presenters also cautioned that campaigns can’t simply present themselves as grassroots and authentic, without actually engaging real people in the effort. Web users have gotten increasingly sophisticated and can often easily spot fake campaigns (otherwise known as “astroturfing”, a play on real “grassroots”). If a fake campaign is spotted, the repercussions can be serious and severely damage the credibility of the sponsoring organization.

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