Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Turkish Communications Failures

Turkish Communications Failures

It’s tough enough trying to run a foreign policy that sustains a delicate balancing act between your traditional Western alliances and the perceived need to play a larger regional role in the Middle East. It is doubly hard when you repeatedly shoot yourself in both feet with an inadequate, amateur communications policy.

The positions of the Turkish government on key issues like Iran, Sudan, Hamas, and Israel have created understandable concern in Europe and the United States. Is this member of NATO forsaking its traditional Western alliances in favour of radical Islamic movements?

The government’s response was to send a high-level delegation to Washington in an attempt to convince a sceptical Congress and Administration that nothing has changed and that Turkey is still firmly in the Western camp. This short visit was supposed to alleviate all the concerns that had been mounting for months as Turkey continued to act as Iran’s defence attorney, slam Israel repeatedly and loudly, and ignore calls to ostracize Sudan’s leader for the genocide in Darfur.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Turkey’s political positions, the last minute decision to send the delegation demonstrates clearly the country has no idea how to communicate its policies in open, fairly sophisticated, democratic societies. The country spends millions on Washington lobbyists, and yet it still violates just about every communications rule in the book.

1. Don’t Make Friends In The Morning You Need That Afternoon

In other words, effective communications is a long term effort. Responding only at times of crisis is ineffective if no ground work has been laid. Audiences grow tired very quickly of strident sales pitches. Where is the on-going information program and dialogue when there is no particular issue on the table?

2. Get Out In Front

Don’t wait until you get repeatedly slapped in the face before responding. You know what the issues are. Start making your case now. Make your opponents respond; put them on the defensive for once. Don’t let others constantly set the agenda.

3. Leave The Rhetoric Home

Self-righteous rhetoric may play well at party rallies, but it does nothing to convince an educated, sceptical audience. Artful give-and-take plays much, much better.

4. Get Out of Washington

The United States is a big country, and most people have never seen any Turks, let alone an official one. Take your message to the smaller cities and towns. Most schools are cutting programs because of budget problems. Help them out with apolitical information about Turkey and the Near East. Congressmen usually vote the way they think people back home want them to vote. Good relations at the local level could pay off in crucial votes in Washington.

5. Appreciate the Complexity

Successive Turkish governments have failed to appreciate the complexity of setting foreign policy in open democracies. I remember being approached by a Turkish cabinet official asking me if I knew someone in the White House who might help Turkey. He scuttled away when I said I had no contacts at all. He, like so many in the Middle East, still believes that the head of any one country can set any policy he sees fit. They simply do not understand that in mature democracies there are multiple influences on foreign policy: the Administration, Congress, the military, NGOs, think tanks, media, business, and, unfortunately, Diaspora politics of every ethnic group in the country. Each of these groups has to be approached.

6. Use Your Friends

There are many people throughout Europe and the United States that actually like Turkey and would like to help it deliver a coherent, intelligent message. Yet, time and again, these groups are completely ignored. They fall victim to the internal games of senior officials reluctant to use any outside source they do not directly control. The major criterion for accepting any form of help seems to be “Onlar bizden mi?” Are they with us? There is paranoia about using anyone not from the inner circles. Thus, valuable help is turned away, and the amateurs at home continue to determine communications policy.

7. Lighten Up

In an age where international consensus and cooperation is slowly gaining strength the message from Turkey always seems to rely on the same outmoded, defensive, chip-on-the-shoulder virulent nationalism. “We’re Turks. We are always right. Everyone else is wrong and/or anti-Turkish.” I once sat through a diatribe delivered by the Prime Minister to foreign businessmen telling them to convince their governments to support Turkey. The message was simple. “Turkey is correct. Any criticism is unfair or prejudiced.” The reality of the particular issue was less simple, but the Prime Minister did not want to hear any questions or dialogue. He treated the whole evening like a party rally in some small town in the middle of Anatolia. Needless to say the message did not go down well, and there was much laughter later at the bar.

8. Be Credible

Like every country on the earth Turkey has unpleasant issues it must deal with: human rights, the Kurdish policy, the 1915 Armenian deportations, continued aggression against minorities. Most people appreciate that these are complex, fractious issues not given to simple solutions. Simple denial or accusations that all these claims are part of an anti-Turkish are not credible. It is much more credible to admit what can be admitted and move on. Turkey will never get beyond these issues if it continues to cover its ears and pretend none of them happened. Turkey has much to be proud of, and it is a shame to see the government allow these positive developments become overshadowed by issues that it refuses to discuss in a credible fashion.

9. Take Communication Seriously

Don’t put inexperienced party faithful with a marginal grasp of any foreign language on the job. International communications is far more complex than it was 50 years ago. Use talented, experienced people who know how to work the system if you expect decent results.

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