Media Outreach and Reaction at the U.S. Mission to Russia by Arik Burakovsky

by tuftsigl
Aug 26

Since arriving in Moscow at the beginning of this summer, I have been deeply submerged in the Russian 24-hour news cycle, sometimes to the point of feeling like drowning in an ocean of information. At the crack of dawn, I usually sit down on the subway with a free copy of Metro newspaper in hand as I ride to work, browsing through headlines and ads for concerts, art exhibitions, and theatrical productions. In Russia, as in America, the news never stops. Even when I return home in the evening, it is not unusual for me to find several breaking news alerts in my email inbox. As an intern in the Press Office at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, I have been actively involved in U.S. government efforts to engage with the Russian people. My mentors here have given me a unique educational opportunity to step into the shoes of a Public Diplomacy Officer in the U.S. Foreign Service.


Public diplomacy is all about establishing a dialogue between a government and a foreign population. I am currently learning a great deal not only about the daily happenings in Russia and the inner workings of the Russian media but also more broadly about how to communicate more effectively across cultures. A country can use public diplomacy to underscore certain aspects of its culture, political values, and foreign policy that resonate with people abroad. Through press relations and cultural and educational exchanges, the State Department intends to advance U.S. interests and values and foster mutual understanding between Americans and publics overseas. At a time of political and military turbulence in U.S.-Russia relations and the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, it may now be more important than ever before to find avenues to restore ties between Americans and Russians.


Without further ado, here are five main lessons that I have picked up over the last couple months working at the Embassy:


1)     Being on the ground is remarkably revealing. The Russian media environment is often difficult to navigate, especially for newcomers. It continues to shrink as a result of economic hardship and is becoming increasingly dominated by news outlets loyal to the Kremlin. The Press Office employs about a dozen Foreign Service Nationals, local employees who are native Russian speakers and know the ins and outs of the local media landscape. They help routinely monitor Russian news content, update the Embassy website, make social media posts, and foster relations with Russian journalists, experts, and media executives. To gain at least marginal favor from a local media organization, it is essential to have a solid grasp of its budget, structure, political slant, and audience. While the Bureau of International Information Programs in Washington can offer plenty of support to U.S. government outreach efforts to foreign publics, it is at U.S. diplomatic posts abroad where the bulk of it happens.


2)     Everyone working at the Embassy can play a key role in public diplomacy. With hundreds of staff shuffling around the compound every day, it can be hard to remember who does what. During my first week on the job, my supervisor introduced me in a Country Team meeting to all section heads. As the days went on, I met with many of them to talk about their complex work portfolios and how they interact with the Public Affairs Section. Their accessibility and forthrightness has never stopped amazing me. I once got to assist with a webchat on the Embassy’s Facebook page, during which Press Office and Consular Section personnel together composed answers to questions about U.S. visas. It has been exciting to see so many people here working side-by-side to foster communication between the U.S. government and the Russian people.


3)     The medium is always a crucial part of the message. The Embassy constantly strives to expand the readership it reaches by diversifying the news outlets it engages with. However, it runs into sizable stumbling blocks when it comes to dealing with media platforms beyond Runet, the Russian language online community. The growing climate of anti-Americanism in Russia has severely restricted U.S. government access to state broadcasters and newspapers. Blog entries and official statements are disseminated by the Press Office all the time, but rarely do they end up anywhere but on Internet forums such as Echo Moskvy. Even a combative interview of the Ambassador in an independent tabloid like Moskovskiy Komsomolets, as I got to witness recently, is an occasion worth a heavy pat on the back. Getting affirmative prime time television coverage of American officials is almost unheard of.


4)     Every step of the way counts. When setting up media interviews or inviting reporters to cover a cultural event arranged by the Embassy, it is important to pay attention to all logistics and guide the process along closely. For the Embassy’s 4th of July celebration at Spaso House, the Ambassador’s residence, I was tasked with creating a press plan to maximize positive coverage. It contained a timeline, a list of media products to be distributed ahead of time, directions about where to set up risers, guidance on social media, ground rules for camera crews and bloggers, and how to escort them around the premises. All the specifics had to be worked out with each of the organizers, especially the Regional Security Officer, who was responsible for granting access to and screening all journalists and their equipment. Despite my best efforts to get all my ducks in a row, I realized at the last minute that I forgot to ask the Information Management Office to bring Wi-Fi boosters for all guests to have unrestricted Internet access. As a result, hardly anyone tweeted about the party. Overlooking even the smallest of details can have crushing implications.


5)     Listening is often more important than speaking. I have witnessed first-hand how U.S. diplomats in Moscow intently pay attention to the views of the Russian people. Every morning, I help brief the Press Attaché about the content of Russian newspapers, television and radio transmissions, and social media. I tune in especially to polling data and opinion pieces by publishers and experts. Throughout the day, I monitor Russian newswires like Interfax and send short news summaries to Embassy principals. To go beyond merely scanning Russian news content, much of which tows the Kremlin line, I occasionally get to meet with journalists to hear their thoughts on the political, social, and economic situation in Russia. Since taking meticulous notes can appear rude in a candid, face-to-face conversation, in many instances I just have my memory to rely on. I constantly strive to send timely reports of my observations back to headquarters in Washington to try to influence the making of U.S. foreign policy.


In trying to engage with the Russian public, I have sought to clarify U.S. foreign policy at a time when its mistranslation, misinterpretation, and misrepresentation prevail in the Russian media. I hope that I have made at least a small contribution toward building mutual trust between Americans and Russians. My colleagues at the Embassy have truly inspired me by their patriotism, diligence, courage, and dedication to pursuing the goals of the State Department. This fall, I plan to take the Foreign Service Officer Test and begin applying to public affairs jobs in the U.S. government. I aspire to return to Moscow someday no longer as a humble intern but as a full-fledged American diplomat.

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