The State Department last week named baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. its newest American public diplomacy envoy.
The announcement was the government's chance to shoot some YouTube video and propagate paragraphs of blather about global dialog, young people, and how important it is that administration flunkies get to travel to far-away places to attend sporting events and have lots of cultural exchanges over ceremonial dinners.
You've got to be kidding.
If geopolitics were a sport, these days it would be cagefight deathmatch. The government rarely misses a chance to tell us that America is fighting for its very life. Media reports show us that lots of people who once liked us, or at least were happy to ignore us as they killed one another, now want to kill us. For sport, it seems sometimes.
In marketing terms, democracy – or simply the rule of law vs. divination by the perturbed – is losing the brand preference match against the brands that promise chaos, human misery, and endless, violent retribution. A generation of people around the planet is being successfully taught ways to not just resent everything the West takes for granted, but see it as provocation.
So the US government has hired Cal Ripken to organize baseball games and help kids think good things about America.
This would be laughable if the stakes weren't so high.
I don't mean to slight Ripken. He was an incredible utility player, and made history by showing up and playing the game with incredible consistency. He embodies the traits that I want to teach to my daughter, and attributes that I definitely think about when I think about what it means to be an American.
But diplomacy isn't about thinking, any more than branding is. It's about behavior.
The politicos have taken a page from the branding playbook, and think that they can make people think things...or that it matters. This approach has given us woefully symbolic communications, from the oft-derided "Mission Accomplished" stunt after the invasion of Iraq, to elevation of the vote there as an all-meaningful event.
Yet these symbols are empty. They fall on deaf or distrustful ears, and distract our vision from the things that really matter. Institutions. Routines of daily life. Necessities for family safety. Involvement in things, not just witnessing them...or falling victim to them.
Finding ways to deliver such behaviors, and ways to get people involved in them, is the communications/branding/public diplomacy challenge of our Times. We lose the debate if all we do is talk. Just like most corporate brand marketers lose consumers when they promote things that nobody needs, cares about, or can do anything with.
I can just see it now. The photo of Cal helping teach a shoeless Chinese kid how to hold a baseball bat. The caption will celebrate the expression of American values, the moment celebrated as a communications success.
But no cameras or captions will follow the kid as he’s returned to the factory and the loom, to which he will remain chained, until the next special moment of Americanness comes around.
No stack of clippings at the State Department featuring Cal, Michelle Kwan (another important diplomat), or similarly-staged events for their boss, Karen Hughes (a party player who got the plum travel-the-world gig), will change the way anybody lives. They stay focused on image and reputation, and wholly ignorant of the behavioral reality from which those attributes emerge.
When corporate marketers get this equation backwards, quarterly profits suffer. Bonuses are reduced. When the government gets it wrong, people keep getting killed, and its communications stay inert, on the sidelines.
Three cheers for Cal Ripken. He deserves his reputation. But there's nothing his reputation can do to help keep the team he just joined from losing.