With all the talk of how public diplomacy has been transformed in the Twitter age, world leaders still rely to a remarkable extent on the good old-fashioned newspaper op-ed. Today, it’s Iran’s newly-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, who took to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to urge his fellow leaders ahead of next week’s U.N. General Assembly to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue. Last week, of course, it was Vladimir Putin, attacking U.S. policy on Syria and questioning the concept of American exceptionalism in the New York Times, prompting several rebuttal editorials by U.S. politicians in Russian newspapers.
Using a newspaper op-ed to “speak directly to the American people,” seems like a bit of an odd choice, given that the American people by and large don’t read newspaper op-eds.
“We know from the research that most readers in the United States do not read op-eds,” Guy Golan, who studies public diplomacy at the University of Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, told me today. They’re typically read by about 5 percent of readers. But it’s typically read by politicians, journalists, issue advocates, and academics. The journalists then pick it up and it becomes salient in media where the readers become aware of it.”
Golan, who has studied the role of op-ed diplomacy during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, says leaders like op-eds because they carry authority conveyed by a trusted news source while giving the speaker more editorial control than they would have talking to a print or television reported.
“The op-ed allows foreign leaders to communicate directly with the American people without any interference from the news organization,” he says. “The op-ed allows authors control within an uncontrolled media environment. It’s almost like placing an advertisement. Nobody touches your content, yet it has all the legitimacy of an editorial piece.”
Putin has been particularly prolific. His first Times op-ed appeared while he was still prime minister in 1999 and his writing and since appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy.
Op-eds can be a useful way to communicate directly with interested parties and policymakers—if not the general public–in other countries, but there are also some pitfalls involved. For one thing, it’s important to choose your venue wisely.
John McCain may have been under the impression that Pravda.ru enjoys equivalent influence in Russia to the New York Times and is the modern successor to the Soviet-era Pravda newspaper. Not exactly.
There are also ways that publications can alter the perception of an op-ed, even without touching the copy. As Mitt Romney learned the hard way, a memorable headline can have an impact.
For now, the op-ed may still be the preferred method for world leaders looking to stake out a public position, but Iran has actually been at the forefront of exploring some of the newer alternatives.
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