Karen's Rules on Diplomacy: Talk to the Media -- if You Dare

State Department Undersecretary Karen Hughes has issued
State Department Undersecretary Karen Hughes has issued "Karen's Rules" on media relations. "We need people out there giving our side of the story," she writes -- and not leaving "the field to our critics and detractors." (By Candace Barbot -- Miami Herald)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Karen Hughes, the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, sent a long memo to chief diplomats, top deputies and public affairs officers worldwide Friday, spelling out "Karen's Rules" for working with the media.

The rules offer a window into how State's chief communicator communicates with her minions across the world. Hint: The memo was given to The Washington Post by a recipient who points out that if all were well, nobody would have leaked it.

In her previous role as a Bush adviser, Hughes was known for keeping ironclad control over message, whether on the campaign trail or in the White House. Does this simply reflect disciplined political strategy, or is there something psychological in play?

In this newest memo, which appears below, Hughes encourages diplomats to engage with the media, but it is apparent that the message enforcer does not share control easily. As a service to public diplomacy (partly, anyway), we consulted with a couple of organizational psychologists about what Karen's Rules suggest about Hughes.

Tulsa-based psychologist Robert Hogan offered several observations, including:

"I think it is smart for her to give folks permission in advance to make a mistake, to take some risks in order to be proactive. I wonder if anyone will believe it. . . .

"It is a good example of micromanagement, although done in a pretty nice way. Good leadership involves recruiting talented people and letting them do their job. Here she tries to provide rules for every imaginable case. She presents a thicket of rules, and if all the guidelines are followed, a person won't be able to say much of anything.

"It is also a mixed message: Go out there and communicate freely and vigorously, but be very careful what you say.

"The combination of micromanagement and mixed message will lead to learned helplessness on the part of the recipient. They will feel obliged to do something but unable to decide what. . . .

"The only thing a recipient can do is spout the preexisting words of senior officials. There is no possibility to exercise initiative -- which is another way of saying this is an exercise in micromanagement."

Marlin S. Potash, a New York-based psychologist who specializes in organizational behavior, focused on "a tone that came across as somewhat condescending or first-grade-teacher-like." She added, "I think it's meant to communicate that this is a terribly important thing that's meant to be attended to, but the impression the recipient gets is 'You question my dedication, my experience and my ability to handle this situation.' "

And now the memo:

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