BBG 's PR gurus come and go quickly, wrong strategy remains


BBG Watch Forum -- Behind the HeadlinesAl Kamen reported in his Washington Post In the Loop column that longtime State Department employee Diane Zeleny, who several weeks ago got a new job as director of communications and external relations at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, announced that she is leaving her post. She told her colleagues that she will be leaving shortly to start a job as VP for Strategy and Communications at the Legatum Institute. The Institute is based in London, but she will work mostly from Washington with frequent trips to London and Dubai where Legatum has offices.
“I just got here, that’s true, and if I could be two people, one would stay here,” Diane Zeleny said in an email. She also wrote that “there are many challenges, but I think most can be overcome with creativity, dedication and humor… all of which you have in abundance.” Nice words from an accomplished public relations professional, but we don’t think that BBG employees alone can save the agency from itself.
The problem is not public relations experts whom the BBG tries to hire and can’t keep. The problem is the BBG’s distorted sense of mission pushed upon inexperienced members by incompetent executive staff. Of course, if BBG members knew enough about international broadcasting, journalism, human rights, and violations of media freedom in countries like China and Russia, they would not allow themselves to be led astray. Unfortunately, most don’t, and one outside PR expert cannot win against a number of BBG executives with their own bureaucratic agenda against the Voice of America and its journalists specializing in human rights reporting.
Diane Zeleny could not help the BBG because its current strategy of dealing with countries like China and Russia, as well as dealing with Congress, is way beyond help. It’s not Diane Zeleny who should be leaving but those who came up with this strategy.
This is not the first time the BBG tried to get a PR guru to help defend an indefensible position. As the previous board was ending VOA radio and TV broadcasts to Russia in 2008 and firing VOA journalists, BBG members tried to hire Paula Zahn and John Cochran to be their spokespersons. Neither took the job.
The strategy that the BBG should have been pursuing is simple: work closely with Congress on producing uncensored news with a human rights focus — something that BBG journalists would do anyway if not prevented by BBG executives and consultants who want softer news less likely to offend dictators and more suitable for local placement and social media — and deliver them using all available platforms (multimedia).
Rather than compromising with authoritarian regimes to get on their regime-controlled networks, use channels that these regimes cannot control or easily block: satellite TV (can be interfered with but less likely to be jammed than shortwave radio), shortwave radio (can be jammed in some limited areas but never completely), and yes, Internet and social media — but never make them your only program delivery option to countries like China and Russia.
Again, it’s very simple: hard news, human rights, no compromise with authoritarian regimes, multimedia program delivery, non reliance on any single platform, building partnerships with media freedom and human rights NGOs, Congress, independent journalists abroad and your own journalists. Then and only then, the BBG can have a successful PR strategy.