How to Communicate Official Policy to a Globalized World

We have the latest technical messaging tools, but we still speak to foreign audiences as we do to our own citizens.

Jen Psaki was President Biden's press secretary until March 13. File photo.

In February, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, reporters covering the White House asked Jen Psaki, President Biden’s press secretary at the time, why the administration wasn’t willing to satisfy Moscow’s “security concerns.” In her response, Psaki compared the Kremlin to a fox “screaming from the top of the henhouse that he’s scared of the chickens.”

As director of the State Department’s Dubai Regional Media Hub, one of six centers around the world that manage international messaging and information, I started thinking about how best to convey Psaki’s comparison to our audiences across the Middle East and North Africa. Would a direct translation into Arabic work? Or would it be better to explain the remark’s meaning without using the fox-and-chicken analogy? With a potential audience of hundreds of millions, our hub’s mission is to ensure that as many of them as possible have access to U.S. government policy messaging in Arabic when consuming news.

As government officials and spokespeople, we think we are used to globalization, but when communicating to the world, we aren’t always fully “globalized” in language and culture. We have the latest technical tools, yet we still speak to foreign audiences as we do to our own citizens. Americans love to use sports metaphors and typical American phrases, including slang. When we post one of them on social media, people in other countries who don’t understand English run it through Google Translate, and it makes no sense to them.

Some of our greatest communicators sometimes forget that they speak to a global audience. In 2011, not long after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama defended his decision not to release photographs of the dead al Qaeda leader in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.” My colleagues and I, working in the Middle East at the time, were all too familiar with the swirling conspiracy theories, suggesting that either the person killed wasn’t bin Laden, or that he wasn’t actually killed but taken secretly to the United States.

“There is no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden,” Obama said. “It is important to us to make sure that very graphic photos of someone who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool. That’s not who we are.” Then Obama added, “We don’t need to spike the football.”

Get the Diplomatic Diary

I was learning Arabic in Morocco at the time. In class the next day, I had to explain that “spiking the football” in that context meant “showing off” — but the message was lost on many in other countries. I was reminded that the old divisions between domestic and foreign audiences no longer exist. We are now speaking to a global audience, all the time.

Even ordinary people in the Arab world started recognizing the new reality more than a decade ago. In its early days in the late 1990s, the Qatari-owned pan-Arab TV channel Al Jazeera used subtitles when broadcasting interviews with people on the streets of other Arab-speaking countries, because of significant dialect differences. By the time of the Arab Spring in 2011, however, when a reporter asked passers-by for comment on what was happening, some began to take a moment to compose themselves and responded not in their own dialect, but in what is known as “modern standard Arabic” or “television Arabic.” It appeared as if they understood the importance of communicating to a larger international audience at a historic time.

Those of us in diplomacy need to learn that skill and perfect it. Language is like a sport or musical instrument — you have to practice it every day. In my hours-long language classes each week, I learn not only vocabulary and sentence structure, but cultural nuance and interpretation. When I’m interviewed in Arabic, I know that someone in the United States can look up a phrase or sentence on Google Translate, and if I mess up, my bosses in Washington might hear about it.

Back in February, I brought up Psaki’s fox-and-chicken analogy with my Arabic teacher in Dubai, who is originally from Syria. I could just translate the phrase for a local audience, she said, and it would probably be understood. But foxes and chickens have cultural baggage in many places, so she suggested using something more straightforward: “As if the executioner is afraid of the victim.” That’s exactly what I said in dozens of interviews about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Every time, the interviewer nodded in understanding.