U.S. ambassadors court the world in campaign-style video introductions

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

Greetings! I’m the newly confirmed American ambassador to your country. I’m close to Barack Obama (maybe I'm a Democratic campaign donor, though I won't mention that). This is my family. Everyone is smiling! Here is my creditable attempt to speak your language, or maybe just some subtitles. My connection to your country may be just a long-ago visit as a tourist, or it could be lifelong ties, or maybe I knew someone from there once. But I love its history, culture and people. Did you know that our countries have a “relationship”? They do. And I’m going to make it better. But I’m not going to shy away from our disputes. I promise that I won’t be all work and no play — here are some tourist sites I’ll visit while partaking of the local food and drink.

That’s the rough script for the State Department’s YouTube video series introducing America’s ambassadors to their home countries.

The spots look a lot like campaign videos — it’s easy to imagine a presidential candidate participating in something like this about Iowa, introducing the spouse and kids and eating a corn dog while talking about the importance of ethanol and telling a story about lessons learned working on a farm one summer.

A presidential candidate might not be particularly happy about the relatively puny online audience the videos attract. Former Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, now ambassador to China and its roughly 1.36 billion people, had drawn just 276 “views” to his English-only video and 343 to the one with Mandarin subtitles as of this writing. (It's not his fault, really: China blocks YouTube.)

But the videos aren't meant for online consumption, a senior State Department official explained to Yahoo News.

"They're built for broadcast TV," said the official, who requested anonymity to describe the program's internal workings. A State Department team, headed by a career diplomat, films and delivers them to the relevant country's TV networks. "They've been one of our most successful engagement tools. ... We've found they run on one, if not most, of the broadcast networks in-country."

So Baucus' introduction ended up on "several broadcast as well as satellite channels in China."

There's no formal script. "We try to balance it between policy and personal," the official said. So while some of the messages emerge from the State Department officials responsible for a country or a region, the ambassadors put their own stamp on the video. "Ultimately, it's their video, and they have the last say."

There was "absolutely not" any effort to model them on campaign ads, and any similarities are "completely unintentional," the official said. Well, maybe not completely: Like campaign ads, they target people, not politicians or diplomats. "We're reaching the average, ordinary person" and pushing diplomatic engagement beyond a country's foreign ministry, the official added. "We really wanted to put our ambassadors in front of the public."

The most successful of the genre thus far? It’s really a matter of personal taste.

Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy hits all of her marks and actually has a long relationship with her host country (and photos to prove it). Also, it’s hard to beat being able to invoke both President Barack Obama and JFK. Of note: the sly reference to past trade disputes in which Japan has restricted or banned sales of U.S. beef (at the 0:40 mark).

Ambassador to Chile Mike Hammer, a highly regarded career diplomat, Latin America expert and adviser to three presidents, does his video entirely in fluent Spanish. He has extensive experience in Latin America and a genuine personal fondness for soccer. He also drops in a reference to enjoying the local food “accompanied, of course, by a bit of Chilean wine.”

Caroline Kennedy isn't the only one with a honeymoon connection to her host country. Dwight Bush's message to the people of Morocco features photos from his own postwedding voyage.

Given the crisis in Ukraine that's since erupted, it's a little weird to watch the upbeat, optimistic introduction video featuring former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who proclaims his youthful belief in "the simple idea that more direct communciation with the Soviets could defuse tensions and make us, and the world, more secure."

The hardest one to watch is probably the three-minute video starring Chris Stevens, the ambassador to Libya who was killed, along with three other Americans, in attacks on American facilities in Benghazi, Libya. It's been retitled "Remembering Ambassador Chris Stevens" and captioned with a note from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It’s also the most watched online, with nearly 114,000 views.