150. Letter From the Director of the International Communication Agency (Reinhardt) to all ICA Public Affairs Officers1
As dog days slowly fade from the Washington scene, and as our newly created Agency settles in following reorganization, I begin herewith a series of letters (of my own composition, for better or worse) designed to share directly with you and your staff what I have attempted to share with your colleagues here in Washington: that is, my views with respect to those concepts and philosophy which will guide our operations.
I have an uneasy feeling that the letters—this one in particular—are each likely to be a trifle long; I therefore urge you not even to take them up until you have an uninterrupted period to concentrate and reflect upon each of them, yourself, before making them the subject of discussion with your staff where that seems appropriate.
In the course of the series, I want to address such subjects as audience identification, the related distribution and records system, the “new” personnel system, mutuality, libraries, English teaching, genuine outreach programs and several other questions with which we have wrestled over the years. The subjects themselves are not new, but over the years they have never coalesced to form operational touchstones. We have always had “good” activities, but precise shibboleths of professionalism have tended to elude us. I seek in this series to provide some bench marks for the Agency.
Discussions of most of these subjects have taken place in Washington (and with respect to some subjects, the discussions have been unduly protracted). Draft statements of policy have been prepared, and some tentative views have been conveyed to you. In a number of instances I personally have kept proposed policy statements from coming to you because I have not been entirely satisfied that our thinking—or our language—has been sufficiently refined. Now I believe we are ready to communicate effectively with you; I intend that within a relatively short time you will know where we stand on each of the above subjects.[Page 435]
In this first letter, I want to address the question of field operations, generally and philosophically.
From the beginning I have said—and have meant—that roughly 80% of this Agency’s work should stand or fall on the basis of what happens in the field. Service in Washington should be regarded only as an apprenticeship leading to greater service in the field. We in Washington have an obligation not to erect complicated systems which become their own justification and which do not contribute to smooth, efficient and effective work at posts abroad. Over the years, for example, I have thought that we have made the Country Plan process, or audience records systems, so complex that we have forced attention on systems rather than on effective communication. Conceptual and operational simplicity must govern our instructions to you. I hope we can meet our own standard.
I want to acknowledge at the outset that much of what follows and will follow in succeeding letters is not new. Much of it will already animate your leadership and work. Much of it you will already have heard in various communications from Washington, including my own statements. It is my simple intent to summarize for ready reference as we begin the first full year of our work together. So I hope you will accept this series of letters in that spirit, amending course where amendment is directed by the thoughts in this and following letters.
To begin at the beginning: the bedrock purpose of ICA is to deal with what Walter Lippmann once called the “pictures in peoples heads.”2 There is a tendency in a society as pragmatic as our own to deprecate the importance of the pictures in peoples heads. My own view is that it is important—fundamentally important—and sobering work, to be approached with tenacity and humility. I have quoted Oliver Wendall Holmes and H.G. Wells before. I accept, and hope that all of us accept, as literal truth the assertion that “man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.” I accept as literal truth that “human history is in essence a history of ideas.” I continue to agree with President Carter’s assertion at Notre Dame that “it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody.”3
Against that philosophical background, how do we give operational expression to the idea that ideas are important?
A PAO arrives in Germany or in Rwanda, encounters an advanced communications network or a comparatively simple one, inherits more [Page 436] or less complicated bilateral problems and opportunities, engages an extensive and informed audience or one considerably less so. In either case, and in all cases in between, what should the Agency reasonably expect of its principal representative in the field? How do we translate Holmes and Wells and President Carter into effective operation?
In rather short order, we should expect from the PAO a thoughtful rationale for communicating in a single distinctive country, a rationale which will withstand challenge by Ambassadors, by the American public and its representatives, or by Agency management.
This rationale should bear some relationship to USG goals and objectives in the country. It can be expressed in terms of the tensions—the explicit or implicit communications tensions—between the host society and the United States. These tensions can be revealed by disdain for American cultural and aesthetic values; by ignorance of our efforts to erect a humane, libertarian society; by outright opposition to our nuclear non-proliferation policies; or in other, sometimes hidden, ways. The truly important problems and opportunities may not be easy to identify; they may shift from time to time (but not from day to day); they may exceed both our reach and our grasp—some so much so that they should simply be set aside, others so slightly that we should work at their resolution even though that resolution may never be fully accomplished.
Where problems or opportunities are not likely to be effectively addressed by anything ICA can do, where we can only nibble at the edges but not do anything to relieve a problem—a trade imbalance, for example—we (you) should boldly state that fact, make it a part of the rationale. You will have no opposition from us.
The corollary thought, however, is that if you can reduce no tensions, contribute to the advancement of no USG objectives—and one must allow for this possibility theoretically—then it is your obligation and ours to shift resources to environments more amenable to ICA approaches.
Articulating one’s rationale, we should acknowledge, ought to involve at least some intellectual agony. We are not looking for warmed-over political reporting. And, indeed, I must extend a general compliment on the quality of the bilateral communications essays this past spring. Whatever the defects of the Country Plan instructions, the resulting documents were measurably more thoughtful, profound and subtle than many of their predecessors.
The second general step in field operations, of course, is to identify those in the host society whom one wishes to engage. We will have in your hands within the next few weeks a revised and simplified set of guidelines for audience analysis. PAOs at posts where the earlier version was field-tested appear to have found the structured approach to [Page 437] be of considerable assistance. I have personally delayed the sending of these guidelines as I have demanded greater simplicity. I will return to the question of “who” in a subsequent letter transmitting the guidelines. For the purposes of this letter, and as a general proposition, I do want to note my personal belief that our principal interlocutors should be those individuals and institutions in a society who create, communicate, debate ideas. For better or worse, it is the intellectuals—broadly defined—who set the agenda in virtually every society. Our purpose should be to stimulate their thought, refresh it where we can, understand the “pictures in their heads” and be certain that they understand our own. It is the “agenda setters” whom we are after. I must indicate one caveat: when we discuss libraries later, I shall indicate that the doors should be ajar for those who are not normally considered “agenda setters.”4
In most societies, questions of access, time and limitations on our own resources will force hard choices upon us: we cannot hope to communicate effectively with all of the “agenda setters” on all of the issues we would like. Choice is forced upon us; the quality of our choices determines our effectiveness. Intellectual agony presents itself, again.
Finally, the heart of this letter: our concept of communication.
I believe it is essential to draw a distinction between “programming” and effective communication. The very word “program” has been much abused in the CU/USIS/ICA lexicon, and we paid a certain price.
Neither USIA nor CU was ever acknowledged as full partners in diplomacy, nor in some cases even as important contributors to national goals. One effect of our perceived lack of relevance in the past has been at least a mild case of institutional self-doubt. It is simply human nature in such circumstances to justify one’s existence by being active. My observations of the past year suggest that we may be too active: too many activities, too many programs, too many reports designed for voracious Washington machines and, most importantly, perhaps too many objectives—and too little time for reflection.
I do not believe that activities or “programs” necessarily sum to communication. From our perspective here in Washington we will not be insisting on quantity: a few well-chosen people in the audience, a few well-chosen opportunities for the exchange of ideas among important “agenda setters,” a few discernible changes in the pictures in people’s heads should be our goals. More than that we can probably not accomplish.[Page 438]
I am sensitive to the demands levied upon you by your working environment, and particularly by your mission colleagues. Some—perhaps most, but certainly not all—of those demands are inescapable and simply constitute the familiar cost of doing business. We make proper allowance for this cost. I am, rather, addressing myself to those activities and objectives which are generated within the ICA post.
I also acknowledge the dilemma faced by many posts at which the environment offers almost inexhaustible communication opportunities. We must regret forgoing some in order to focus our minds and efforts on a few. The choice cannot be easy. But I, for one, would vastly prefer a few demonstrable accomplishments in the realm of ideas than a plethora of merely good activities and programs.
Indeed, I am troubled by the verb “to program.” In many instances, it seems to me, effective and stylish “programming” has come to substitute for—and possibly to get in the way of—effective communication.
A program is an event; communication is a process. Effective communication entails the establishment of connections, their sustenance over time, the refreshing of intellectual wells, repetition for effect, the articulation and focussing of post resources for mutual reinforcement. The outcome—without which all else is delusion—should be a detectable increase in the intellectual or social momentum on any chosen subject as a result of our activities. It would, I submit, be worth asking yourselves how many of your post’s activities are in fact contributing to an increase in such momentum or whether your post is spread too thinly for effective accomplishment of the truly important.
To risk a generalization: it strikes me that it is at large posts in environments characterized by numerous policy and other communications tensions, and at small posts with restricted resources and relatively heavy extraneous demands on time, that the potential conflict between “programming” and effective communication is likely to be most acute; in the former case because the opportunity to do good work is so great across such a wide spectrum; in the latter case because it is the constant human temptation to respond to environmental demands—and to stay busy. In both cases, the challenge is to knit specific program events together to form a seamless web so that the IV grant, the lecture, the VTR showing, the Wireless File distribution, the outreach article passed to the Minister of State—in short, the “program”—become a coherent process of communication on a few important subjects over an extended period of time. The specific “programs” or “events” are links which form a chain and the connector is the PAO and his staff.
The fact that audiences enjoy a “program,” ask for additional similar “programs,” and express admiration for the person or country producing such “programs” should not deflect us from our underlying [Page 439] purposes. Such emotional bonuses from our audiences may be desirable but should not be equated with communicating. We are not impresarios—although thorough knowledge of stagecraft is important in our business. We are communicators.
Let me be more specific. At the Brussels PAO Conference,5 I listened with fascination as a PAO described how over a period of years rising journalists in his country had had little or no contact with the United States. Many of these men and women were assuming prominent positions in prominent media. The PAO was not certain why these men and women lacked an American connection, nor did he seek to assign blame. He did describe the manner in which he handled the problem, which incidentally seemed eminently satisfactory to me.
My point in this is that it is a prime example of a problem which ICA can attack—but not by way of a “program.” Our first thought, one which would occur to the most junior of us, is to arrange IV grants—and we probably should. But the grant is a single link. What are the other links, other “programs”? How do we employ other post resources, including staff and time, in this important communication nexus? Indeed, should we drop less important “programs,” though fully described in the Country Plan, as we concentrate our forces to close this gap?
And, finally, have we built in some way of evaluating results—the “momentum”—as we begin the protracted communication process with such a group? In short, are we managing “programs” or a communication process?
A final note, which may strike you as much as it has me: at current budget levels, total expenditures at posts average close to $1,000 per working day per American. However one caveats the figure, it remains—or ought to remain—a sobering statistic. The obligations of individual and collective accomplishment which flow from it—day in, day out and to the taxpayer—are substantial. Important subjects, institutions and individuals must be addressed thoughtfully and importantly. The bottom-line question remains: are we making a detectable difference in the momentum of at least a few ideas?
There is far more left unsaid herein than said. You have every justification, indeed, for asking what else is new; the answer, frankly, is that my purpose was to summarize for reference and, where circumstances suggest, to try to provoke new ways of looking at old business. Still, in terms of concepts, philosophy—choose your own guiding word—the Agency expects no more and no less of its principal field representatives than that they have a rationale, a thoughtfully identified [Page 440] audience, a sense of communicating (as opposed to “programming”) and that they make a detectable difference. We have had too much theology, much of it esoteric, from Washington over the years. My intent in this letter has been simply to codify common sense, recognizing that it is one of our longest suits at field posts in particular.
I look forward to discussing this and other subjects of interest with those of you who will be at the PAO Conference in Jakarta this month6 and with others of you on subsequent occasions. With best wishes to all of you for a good year.
- Source: National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Office of the Director, Biographic Files Relating to USIA Directors and Other Senior Officials, 1953–2000, Entry A–1 1069, Box 23, John E. Reinhardt, Speeches, 1977–1978. No classification marking. Copies were sent to all country PAOs.↩
- Reinhardt is referring, presumably, to Walter Lipmann’s 1922 work Public Opinion. Lipmann’s first chapter is entitled “The World Outside and The Pictures in Our Heads.”↩
- See footnote 2, Document 57.↩
- See Document 154.↩
- See footnote 6, Document 125.↩
- September 25–26.↩