Recent Disaster Responses Illustrate Evolution of Public Diplomacy

Posted by Siobhan Sheils
March 31, 2010
Women Carry Food Aid in Port-au-Prince

About the Author: Siobhan Sheils serves as an intern in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

This January, I joined the State Department as an intern on the Colombia Desk within the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Over the course of my internship, the region suffered a string of natural disasters: raging forest fires in Colombia; landslides in Peru; and most notably, massive earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

During these ten weeks, I have returned often to a question posed in the October 2009 issue of Foreign Service Journal: do tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs (like DipNote) allow the State Department to adapt to higher public expectations for communication and the global media revolution?

In May, I will complete a two-year graduate-level public diplomacy program at Syracuse University -- one of two graduate public diplomacy programs in the country. In this capacity, I have been taught to consider ways to evaluate public diplomacy. However, I have also learned that creating a calculus for influencing public opinion is notoriously difficult.

A definitive answer to the question posed in Foreign Service Journal requires more time than a brief stint as a State intern. However, it is clear that public diplomacy is not just serving a public relations, or “Brand U.S.” function; it is also saving lives.

For example, in the critical days following the Haitian earthquake, embedding Google's Person Finder application on the State Department website provided an entry point for the public to participate directly in the relief effort, expediting assistance through digital diplomacy. The State Department also helped to start along with the Red Cross the wall continues to provide a forum for individual offers of assistance, requests for help, and information exchange. These examples mark a new age in the way the State Department facilitates people-to-people engagement. This cross-border civic discussion directly supports U.S. national interests because dialogue can lead to mutual trust and understanding, which are increasingly important to peace and stability in an interdependent world.

To me, the U.S. response to recent natural disasters in Latin America shows an acknowledgement that people-to-people problem-solving is a major component of "21st Century Diplomacy."



New Mexico, USA
March 31, 2010

Eric in New Mexico writes:


Been some interesting ways to use communications tech for sure.

I don't know what folks will think of next, but I can see a day where the nation's Emergency Response System is compatable with an I-phone app, downloadable with instant access to every available resourse in the individual's area, and real time situational updates.

Need help? Enter your GPS coordinates and send for it.

How State could adapt that app to assisting in the kind of consular activity in determining the welfare of Americans caught up in international disasters is something to consider.

Public opinion is shaped by the governance it must endure on a daily basis, and technology isn't going to change that.
But better communications between people and the people in government never hurts the government's ratings with the people it governs.

It's the key to fighting apathy and misinformation.

So go right ahead and bust that urban myth that our government doesn't care what the public thinks, except around election time.

More power to you.

California, USA
March 31, 2010

Masood in California writes:

Public diplomacy is the way to go! Directly reaching out to the masses of the world by-passing corrupt governments.

United States
March 31, 2010

Oyster C. in U.S.A. writes:

I agree that technologies are indispensable to crisis management but I also feel more organization is imperative at all levels. One example is having numerous large portable screens that are highly visible to people in the event of a crisis. Scrolling information that states,Hospital A is closed reroute to hospital B.

Feeding station x,y,z, located at National soccer field, National Palace, Sunset Beach.

Providing a lot of information and good signage is key in mobilizing and organizing people. Also a large amount of help and aid stations would filter out more serious medical injuries. The screens could also state all bone fractures send to hospital Z. All head injuries/unconscious hospital Q. Pregnancies hospital/clinic Y. If people are armed with information they can make better decisions. Hospitals know in advance what injury they're receiving etc. so that doctors aren't having to guess and deal with injuries that aren't their specialty. We've experienced two major disasters in the recent past, New Orleans and Haiti and the level of disorganization is really scary. A lot could be done to improve reaction and first responder set up times so that people and equipment arrive in succesive waves like clockwork using military like precision. This is serious as the next major disaster could be around the next corner.


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