After a Short Delay.

Oh yeah, and the food is unreal.

Before I left, I assumed that the transitional challenges would arise from the obvious cultural and societal differences between America and an Arab country, but I find myself more thrown off by the experience of living and learning downtown in a large city. Whether it’s the dirty bathrooms or an inability to go anywhere without hailing a cab or bus, the obstacles are the same ones I would face in a city like San Francisco or New York. And for every one discrepancy between our cultures, there are always two or three similarities. Although the gym I joined near the university campus is all-male and closes each Friday for the Muslim holy day, the televisions inside broadcast the electric sex of MTV’s “Nothing But Hits” all afternoon. All I can hope is that this representation of American culture is not the only one pervading Arab homes. I suppose this is why students like me are here, but it’s tough to compete with the appeal of this particular narrative. In a culture where most women cover all but their face and hands out of modesty and respect, the borderline pornography of MTV is…shocking, to say the least.

I’m nearly three weeks in now, and things are cruising along nicely. In the process of adjusting to this new pace, I’ve learned one very important thing: Feeling confused, embarrassed and unprepared is the norm – not the exception. Most of the time, it doesn’t hurt to confess that I simply do not know. Taxi drivers and local employees all assume that we’re tourists anyway – so I probably just don’t know any better. But any time I manage to surprise them with a bit of Arabic or acquired grasp of a local custom, it’s an impressionable moment. Although it’s a frustrating process at times, it’s important to enjoy the small victories and displays of competence – however insignificant in the long run. After feeling discouraged at one point this week, all it took was a decent exchange with my taxi driver and a conversation with my host mother and her sister over dinner to lift my spirits and reaffirm my commitment to the program.

Not sure if I was allowed to sit here.

Last week, we took a day trip to one of the prime tourist destinations in Jordan – Madaba. Known as “the city of mosaics,” it has an impressive collection of ancient Byzantine and Umayyad churches and mosques. In St. George’s Basilica, I found myself surrounded by dozens of ancient paintings and a mosaic map of the holy land on the floor – “humbled” was the word I jotted down in my travel journal. The pictures really don’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. The view from Mt. Nebo – where Moses first looked out over the “promised land” – was a bit anticlimactic, since Jerusalem and the Dead Sea were shrouded by a haze of dust that had settled over Palestine. But standing in the birthplace of the three great Abrahimic faiths, I came a bit closer to understanding its ability to arouse such passion and resilience among its peoples.

Now that classes are in full swing and the daily homework load has begun to accumulate, I’ve found that it’s impossible to maintain the same routine as I had at college in Oregon. Usually, I’m at the university for the entire day, filling the time between classes with studying or a brief gym session.  Once I get home at night, it’s just dinner and homework. No internet access at the house means it’s tough to distract myself from the work at hand, and I find myself exhausted and ready for bed much earlier than back home. Several students have a curfew of 11 p.m., which means that even our weekend ventures don’t extend too late into the night. There are sporadic happy hours around town – even a $2 tequila night – but you really can’t beat the authenticity of the downtown souqs or a small café for the night.

I’ve been trying to wrap up this post for a week or so….and I I’ve still managed to leave things out. But we leave for Petra(!) tomorrow morning, so I’ll just plan to include those notes in the updates next week when I return. I was able to Skype earlier this week with the family – it was great to see everyone! The only one missing was Garrett, who’s already up at Oregon having a blast. I miss you all back home, so feel free to get in touch if you get a chance. As it turns out, the internet is quicker than I’d expected, so email and Facebook are best. And best of luck to any friends getting ready to start up their final year of college this week!

St. George's Basilica

Map of the Holy LandSt. George's Basilica

..Certified by the Pope

The "Promised Land"

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#3 Ramdhaa’ St.

It’s hard to believe that I was sitting home in Rocklin just a week ago. The transition has been stressful and exhausting – I still feel like I’m catching up on sleep – but I have every reason to believe that this experience will prove to be the most rewarding period of my life.  Our language commitment went into effect Thursday, so it’s all Arabic from this point forward. I’ve quickly realized that understanding anything spoken by local Jordanians is nearly impossible, as the local “ameea” dialect is entirely different from the classical “fusha” Arabic taught in class. I’ve had many conversations descend into a chaotic display of frantic arm gestures and dramatic facial expressions. Until this point, there was always the comfort of other American students around to speak English and help translate, but our mutual commitment means that we’ve abandoned that safety net has well.

Fortunately, I have an incredibly gracious host family that has offered to support and assist me for the semester.  Several delicious meals and a comfortable bed would have sufficed, but my host mother goes above and beyond in her display of patience with my broken Arabic. I come home every day to find a full meal prepared and waiting in the microwave for me, and she is always willing to sit with me and endure the conversation. I have two brothers as well – Ziad has a strong understanding of English, so it’s nice to share a room with someone close to my age who can help teach me the local slang.  I’m about a 5-10 minute taxi ride from the university as well, which only costs the equivalent of $1.50 each way. Other than the lack of internet at the house, I really have no complaints!

For any of you worried about my safety over here, we’ve received every assurance that Jordan is a “fundamentally safe and stable country.” My favorite quote from the day was from our resident director when discussing the potential threat of demonstrations in Amman: “What the people have been asking for is qualitatively different from the other countries in the region…95 percent of the population support the king and believe that the Hashemites have done an exceptional job in sheltering Jordan from the turmoil of the last century.” My host mom reiterated this point, throwing up her hands in frustration over the limited, yet persistent marches in downtown Amman.

Naturally, there is always one caveat:

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Settling In

Well, this is the view from my first hotel in Amman so far. A flight delay from Heathrow to Amman and some general confusion conspired to throw off my arrival plans last night. Luckily, I met some students from the other CIEE study abroad program and managed to get settled into a room at the Bellevue in downtown Amman. It wasn’t until this morning that could get in touch with the program director and meet up with the correct group to begin our orientation itinerary. Needless to say, no amount of preparation can really prepare you for studying abroad – the last 24 hours have been a prime example. By the time lunch rolled around*, we had already visited the Roman ruins atop the citadel, the ancient amphitheater below and walked through shop after shop in the downtown area of Jordan’s capital. Unfortunately, I didn’t know our itinerary when we left so I have no pictures of any of it. Don’t worry though, they’re all mainstream tourist destinations – Google images can easily provide you with a few points of reference. I already feel more confident in my ability to hail a cab, order food, exchange money…The most important skill to acquire immediately, though, is to respect the maniacal driving habits of local Jordanians. I spent a solid twenty minutes this morning just watching the controlled chaos of dawr al-thanee (Circle two) in front of our hotel.

Ana asif (sorry) for the lack of images so far, hopefully I will be more proactive now  and snap some more low-quality iPhone pictures in the coming days. Still, I’ve probably slept a grand total of ten hours since leaving Rocklin, so please don’t expect too much. I’m looking forward to the next week – campus tours, class placements,  host family introductions and more luggage shuffling still await!

*Lunch today was absolutely unreal. We were already full from pita and myriad dishes of hummus, olives, dip, and cucumber/tomato salad, when we realized that the main dish and desert were still to come! Against all odds, we managed to consume a delicious plate of steak, chicken, onions and peppers, savoring the pure excess of Jordanian cuisine. I guess you could say it helped to settle us all in.

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Back to Basics

It’s been nearly 6 months since my last post. How’s that for consistency?

Now, to be fair, I did spend the summer working at Two Rivers Soccer Camp without any reliable source of internet. Once again, I had an exceptionally rewarding experience and enjoyed the break from Facebook, email and the 24-hour news cycle.* Still, I failed to contribute a single post to my own blog for the entire spring term as well. I could make excuses, but instead I’ll utilize the advice Colbert received earlier this week from Frank Luntz, who said that one of the most effective things a politician can do is to apologize three times. So, per Luntz’s advice:

“I apologize. I made a mistake. Please forgive me.”

That felt good. Apparently, the slate has now been wiped clean and we can move forward together without any lingering resentment. Until, of course, I find myself again without reliable Wi-Fi in a few weeks. Which brings us to….

Amman, Jordan. On September 3, I’ll be joining fifteen other American students to begin an intensive Arabic language program with CIEE at the University of Jordan. It will be a foreign experience in nearly every sense of the word and I’m nervous to begin the journey. Nevertheless, it is impossible to describe the excitement and anticipation I feel as I prepare to live and study in such an amazing environment. I’ve been working towards this goal since I began taking Arabic as a freshman and am anxious to see the investment of time and money finally pay off.** While I am abroad, I intend to use this blog as a tool to provide updates and write occasional pieces about how my studies relate to current events in the Levant and beyond.

Until that time, I am home studying and reviewing in preparation for my arrival and the language commitment we each make as program participants. Since I will be writing from a more advantageous geographic location in a few weeks, it seems appropriate and  relevant to narrow the focus of the blog – at least for the time being. So as I continue to catch up on the summer news cycle, I hope to focus my posts on topics related to the so-called “Arab Spring” to embrace this unique opportunity. Just keep in mind that we still function within the greater sphere of public relations here and I intend to connect the dots whenever possible.

Enjoy. Comment. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

*Notice how I wrote “email” earlier, instead of “e-mail?” That’s new from the AP Stylebook this year. Love it. 

**A special thank-you to any relatives who have contributed your own form of investment to my endeavors this fall –  it means the world to me and I intend to do everything in my power to justify your amazing gestures of faith and trust.  

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Jay Carney and the Modern Press Secretary

With Robert Gibbs leaving to focus on the 2012 re-election campaign and Obama looking to restructure his cabinet accordingly, Jay Carney has been given the opportunity to fill the void as the new White House press secretary. Considering the crucial position of the press secretary in maintaining a positive relationship between the president and the media, his appointment has been met with several notable articles  evaluating his ability to address emerging media trends.

As noted in a recent New York Times article, Gibbs was an important part of Obama’s dominant coalition – the small group of key decision-makers in an organization. In contrast, Carney spent the last two years as VP Joe Biden’s chief spokesman, largely removed from direct communication with the president. This change is reflective of the White House’s attempt to distance itself from media criticism as exceedingly insular and tactical.

However, the modern press secretary has come to embody the role of policymaker and press secretary. To gain the trust of the media, this individual must be perceived as having a strong and trusting relationship with the president. Carney’s exclusion from the dominant coalition will hurt his credibility, particularly in his first few months.

In “Communication Advice from Press Secretaries: President’s Trusted Mouthpiece,” Priya Ramesh outlines four qualities necessary for the modern press secretary:

  • Communicate clearly and effectively. It is necessary to act as a conduit of information between the president and the media. The secretary cannot merely broadcast messages to the press corps without forming a mutual relationship of trust and transparency. Similarly, the individual must effectively represent the media’s interests to the president as well.
  • Learn how to collaborate. The job demands a collaborative style “within and with the media” in order to be considered as a credible source of information.
  • Stay ahead of the 24/7 news cycle. With online journalism and social media spreading news at a faster pace than ever before, the secretary must be aware of anything and everything that could be relevant to a press conference. The worst possible scenario would be to find yourself surprised by a question at the podium.
  • Walk the line between lying and withholding information. With regard to the White House, it’s inevitable that moments will arise that require the press secretary to withhold information from the media or general public. These arise from security needs or privacy concerns and are an accepted part of public affairs. Yet, as Clinton’s former press secretary Michael McCurry put it, it was acceptable at times to “tell the truth slowly.” The need to maintain credibility and protect national interest is a fragile balance that must be managed carefully.

In Carney’s first press conference, he was asked if his first priority was to “promote the interest of the president or provide us with unvarnished information.” In his response, he emphasized his inclusive and accessible role to help both the president and the press. By focusing on his past relationships with members of the press corps and stressing transparency, he can compensate for his perceived lack of credibility among Obama’s dominant coalition.

His summary embodied the role of the modern press secretary ideally:

“The office the press secretary has is symbolically located halfway between the briefing room and the Oval Office. I think that really says something about what the nature of the job is.”

After the jump, another West Wing clip with a great example of handling tough questions in the briefing room. Yes, I understand it’s a TV show. No, I don’t care – it’s entirely relevant and you will learn something from watching it.

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How to Offend Your Consumer Base…and Get Away With It

I know how I’m supposed to react. I really do. Manipulating human suffering and environmental devastation for your own ends is wrong. Thankfully, I had all the moral crusaders from Twitter, WordPress and the classroom reinforcing the immorality of it all week long. You know, just in case I didn’t understand.

So, what’s the point of writing a blog post about it? After all, you know that it was wrong, don’t you? DON’T YOU?

What all these individuals failed to explain in quantifiable terms was how Groupon’s “gaffe” would have a negative impact on the company.* They managed to upset a fair number of people, but the initial backlash will certainly be overshadowed by the positive impact these commercials will have in the long run. Only one week later, we’ve become a little more skeptical of whether or not these public relations “disasters” were disasters at all. Could it be that a company would still air such an insensitive advertisement and be content with the consequences of their decision?

My answer is a resounding yes. Let’s think about this logically, which is what I’m assuming Groupon did when they made the decision to use fake PSAs as a segue into promotions for local American businesses. First and foremost, these advertisements are going to get a lot of attention. In fact, the Groupon ad is the only one that I’m still hearing about a week later. Beyond that basic prediction though, I’m going to assume their expectations went like this:

People will laugh at the ad. This is what I did when I first saw it.

Oh that’s right, I’m a public relations major. Now I feel guilty for laughing.

People will be angry. How do I show that I’m angry? To the Internet!

So this site says that the company donates money to these causes. Oh.

People will talk about how angry they are at work and school on Monday. This was one of the first topics discussed during my class on Tuesday morning.

If the teacher says it was a bad idea, it must be true!

People will wonder what in the world a Groupon is. Neither of my roommates knew what it was, so I took the liberty of filling them in.

One week later and we’re still talking about it. These people are a little more clever than I first thought.

So maybe it was immoral to use these causes as a marketing ploy, but think about what consumers have discovered in the week since the commercial aired: Groupon is a company that offers subscribers huge discounts to local businesses. Groupon also offers an opportunity for subscribers to donate to the causes mentioned in each commercial. For every $15 donation, Groupon matches it – up to $100,000 for each cause.

Most importantly for the company itself, all of this has only increased their brand recognition among potential subscribers. Google Trends shows this massive spike in online activity for the term “Groupon” following Super Bowl Sunday:

The typical PR dilemma: What is the point of mentioning coverage if it doesn’t carry any of our key messages? Because in this case, all of the coverage – negative or positive – referenced both Groupon’s mission and it’s commitment to donating to the causes it “manipulated” in the commercials. The controversy became the story, and that story required that bloggers and journalists mention both Groupon’s business model and the activist role it plays to help these causes.

This was a prime opportunity for American consumers to condemn the inhumanity of another insensitive corporation. But take a moment to shift your perspective: As a Tibetan, would the “immorality” of this ad change your perception of a company that is facilitating a way to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to your people? I don’t have a definite answer for that, but I would imagine that the ability to see concrete examples of humanitarian aid has a stronger impact on the average Tibetan than the content of a Super Bowl commercial airing halfway around the world.

Besides, how much have you donated to the people in Tibet?

Exactly.**

*In the public relations industry, one of our biggest challenges is to provide quantitative evidence – usually ROI – to support our efforts. Remember, correlation doesn’t always imply causation.
**Don’t worry, I haven’t either. But I’m also not joining the Groupon witch hunt.

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European Parliament Digital Trends Survey

Along with Edelman recently publishing its annual Trust Barometer, Fleishman Hillard recently produced their own insightful report, the European Parliament Digital Trends Survey. Out here on the West Coast, we may not be awfully concerned about how politicians from Lithuania or Finland use social media to reach out to their constituents. So let’s remind ourselves that these new tools – while not possessing magical powers – provide a massive opportunity for any government to communicate with previously invisible or overlooked publics.

For years, we have bemoaned the power of the media to tell us what news to pay attention to and how we should feel about it. Alas, the time has come to shift that power back to the people. Finally, the common folk have an opportunity to be heard by their leaders. They can talk to us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and personal blogs. In return, we can comment back and have a meaningful discussion with our leaders and fellow Web 2.0 users. The possibilities are endless!

Which is exactly why a whole 14.9 percent of members of the European Union (MEPs) believe that “engaging people through  dialogue” is the greatest benefit of personal blogs!

Wait, what?

Isn’t that the entire point of social media? Apparently not, according to those EU members who were surveyed here. Instead, 73.1 percent of them concluded that the greatest benefit was “expressing my views directly to constituents.” Let’s go ahead and examine the key words here:

The greatest benefit of this social media tool is to express my views directly to constituents.

Something is terribly wrong here. J.E. Grunig reached the conclusion years ago that the most effective way to build a healthy relationship is through two-way symmetrical communication. Social media tools embody this idea and seek to expand upon it by allowing conversations between previously disconnected individuals and organizations.

It’s outstanding to see the comparison between 2009 and 2010, in which use of social media networks among MEPs increased from 33 percent to 69 percent. Considering the fact that nearly half of the respondents surveyed were between ages 46 and 65, this increase is even more impressive. Yet as future politicians and policymakers seek to delve into the social media realm, they must embrace its power as a  facilitator of dialogue rather than as a broadcast medium. I suppose that will be the job of those 18- to 30-year-olds who only make up 24 percent of the current survey demographic.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. After all, we’re only kids. What do we know?

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