THE BLOG
07/19/2012 12:19 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

American Artists, U.S. Cultural Ambassadors, Amplify Message Through Social Media

How to win hearts and minds in the international political arena? Use social media.

From Facebook to Twitter, social media extends the shelf life of government-funded appearances by U.S. artists deployed to such diplomatically sensitive areas as Libya, Iraq and Pakistan.

Generations of Europeans over age 50 remember tours by legendary Cold War-era jazzmen-turned-cultural ambassadors Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck.

Today's youth in nations of strategic interest are being treated to free performances by American hip hop groups, Latino-American dance troupes, writers and culinary arts experts -- followed by contact through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a variety of websites.

Aiming to "foster cross-cultural understanding and collaboration and to demonstrate shared values and aspirations," the State Department's Arts Envoy program has sent thirty-three music groups, eleven dance troupes, seven visual arts envoys, four theater groups, plus other specialists in literature, humanities, arts management and design, according to a state department spokesperson, on five to six-week long tours to foreign nations.

And the stress here is on "foreign" nations. They're not going to Paris, London and Rome. For instance, Canasta, an orchestral-based Chicago pop rock band, played in Mongolia, where mining and mineral interests are creating a boom town. Betty, a pop-rock women's trio from New York City, was deployed to Estonia and Lithuania. Battery Dance performed in Surinam.

In the Pleistocene era of the 1950s, after hearing cultural ambassador Louis Armstrong play in Europe, Africa or Asia, a jazz fan who wanted to relive that Satchmo moment would buy an album, record a radio show, or gaze at a static photo.

Today, once a cultural imprint is made by an American artist touring a strategically important corner of the world, that imprint isn't lost. It's amplified, repeated, shared, discussed and assumes a life of its own through social media. Live audience size matters less. Post-event marketing matters more.

Whether through a lecture or a workshop, a performance or an hour spent with students, the actual moment when an American artist visits some global hotspot on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour and makes person-to-person contact with a foreign audience isn't the end point of cultural diplomacy.

Thanks to social media, just showing up is just the beginning.

Targeting Youth, U.S. State Department-Sponsored Artists Enlist Social Media

Imperialism in all its guises -- cultural, military, economic, you name it -- has a pretty bad rep, and the very term "cultural ambassadorship" gives off the slightly musty odor of political incorrectness.

In the Obama administration, the underlying concept of diplomatically-inspired cultural outreach remains, at core, the same as it has been for decades: to "win hearts and minds" through showcasing American art, music, dance and literature, and thereby illustrating the diversity, vibrancy, creativity, energy and talent of our democratic-capitalist way of life.

Nuances matter, however. In Hillary Clinton's State Department the idea of cultural "ambassadorship" is being recast more enticingly in the wiki-world vernacular of equals: as "exchanges," "dialogues" and "conversations."

The re-framing reflects more than just a tech-fad.

Today's audience for the strategic, government-funded export of American culture in a variety of forms is, simply, young.

Officially, the Arts Envoy program (just one of several sponsored by the State Department) aims to reach "international publics who might not otherwise have the opportunity to engage with American arts professionals," according to the program's website.

But it's youth that counts, and for a reason.

"About sixty percent of the world's population today is under age thirty," said Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Ann Stock in a phone interview earlier this month.

"A lot of communication needs to be done for younger generations across the globe to get a balanced view of the US and democracy," she says.

And, youth can be reached online.

Sending the Simple Message in Post Conflict Zones: "We're Not So Bad"

How can the U.S. illustrate, as one expert put it, that "we're not so bad," especially in a post-conflict zone?

Take, for instance, our current relationship with Iraq. After expending untold dollars and lives in Iraq, the jury's still out on how that the citizens and leadership of that country will align itself, or not, vis-a-vis the United States. A lot remains at stake -- but there's something of a PR problem in the fact that for most Iraqis, the face of America is a militarized one.

Enter cultural ambassadors.

"When we can introduce audiences to this side of us it sends a signal that we want to be human partners to the Iraqi people, not just beneficiaries of their oil exports or military allies," said Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey in an email interview in June.

The notion of sending out a rock-'n'-roll group to perform at an orphanage in a small city in the boondocks of Iraq might strike some as playing at the social margins, but the experts don't see it that way. In their view, cultural tours by Americans can help build bridges, even if it's one brick at a time.

A simple joint project can create an apolitical oasis for people to work together. For instance, when Mary McBride's band toured Iraq, one of the indicators of success ticked off by Jeffrey was the "very pronounced commitment and engagement of Iraqi officials, beginning with the cultural ministry." Other criteria for success are publicity and Facebook and online contact.

Asked about how a performance by McBride in Iraq, where the biggest venue had a capacity of about five hundred people, could possibly impact international relations, Jeffrey replied, "To be sure, few actually saw the show, but many more heard about it from the media, and our experience has been that this invariably produces a positive impression."

As with any other content producer today, U.S. cultural ambassadors, too, are more successful if they use both traditional publicity outlets and connect through social media before and after their events.

The multiplier effect of social media is a win-win situation. The tours offer young men and women in Mongolia, Iraq, Surinam and elsewhere, the rare opportunity to connect directly with an American artist or group, and social media keeps them connected. The participating American artists like it, too, because their metrics improve as their fan base increases globally, adding an ineluctable cool factor (plus there's no question in this gig that they'll actually get paid, and well). Their Facebook friends and Twitter followers increase in number, and with luck the buzz will stir up demand for more appearances.

Launching Cultural Ambassadors: Once in Orbit, They'll Stay in Orbit

What's striking about the combination of social media and cultural ambassadorship is that long after the tour is ended, many participating artists, like rockets launched into perpetual orbit, will find it in their own self interest to stay engaged with international audiences, and to stay on message.

After the State Department whirlwind, whether they're in Peoria or Portland, they can stay connected to their fans across the globe, and in so doing, continue to represent an authentic American voice, a contact -- a very human face of America -- for youth in nations where the current governments might not be so favorably disposed toward the United States.

From an efficiency perspective, this people-to-people diplomacy is as smart an idea as fashion designers convincing consumers that wearing their logos on tee-shirts and handbags is really cool.

"We are trying," says Stock, "to connect with people in a way that starts a conversation, and perhaps change attitudes."

"With technology, " notes Stock, "It's easy to have a lifelong conversation."