In the last year, Tara D. Sonenshine, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, has traveled around the world to places ranging from Pakistan to China. Sonenshine, however, was not traveling for leisure purposes.
During her time abroad, the biggest challenge Sonenshine faced with her job was defining it, she said Tuesday during a Center for Public Diplomacy event at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“My challenge has been to explain what public diplomacy is to three different groups,” Sonenshine said.
She said the three groups are her colleagues, her fellow Americans and those overseas.
“Finally, I’m in an audience where people understand my title,” she said.
The room was full of people — sitting on the ground, squashed together on benches and crowded in the back.
Aleksandra Ristovic, a graduate student studying public diplomacy, credited the high-turnout to the fact that Sonenshine is “sort of our [public diplomacy] goddess.”
“She could have chosen any school to do this in,” Ristovic said.
After applauding the USC crowd for knowing what her job title meant, Sonenshine went on to discuss how she explains public diplomacy to those who did not know.
“When we speak to one another, engage to one another, etc., we’re engaging in public diplomacy,” she said.
Sonenshine said that the term applies to everything, ranging from a Russian athlete talking to a U.S. physical education expert to countering violent extremism.
She also emphasized the importance of each individual in the field.
“If you don’t take people into account when making policy, then you’re flying alone,” Sonenshine said.
After her discussion, Sonenshine opened the event to questions from the audience that ranged from the effect of social media to nuclear power in Iran.
In response to one question, Sonenshine said contradictions between freedom of expression and religion will always exist.
“I have accepted the puzzle pieces don’t always fit together,” Sonenshine said.
On one of her trips, Sonenshine said she visited an all-girls school in Afghanistan. When taking questions from the students, Sonenshine described the USC students as “tame” in comparison.
When asked about scientific diplomacy, she told a story about how when she was in China she was discussing breast cancer. Through diplomacy, according to Sonenshine, countries communicate scientific knowledge to help one another.
“Breast cancer doesn’t care what religion you are or about your ideas,” she said. “It invades your brain.”
Near the end of the talk, a member of the audience asked Sonenshine how she would define success.
“You will not see it immediately, you might not see it in a week, and you might not see it in a year,” Sonenshine said. “It’s in [the] long-term where you’ll see it.”
Sonenshine wasn’t always involved in public diplomacy. In fact, she has experience in a wide variety of careers. She won 10 Emmy Awards for broadcast journalism and is the former vice president of the United States Institute of Peace.
Annenberg Dean Ernest James Wilson III described Sonenshine as an example of excellence across a variety of roles.
“Her 10 Emmys underscore her ability to move into different careers,” Wilson said. “She is an example about flexibility you can have in your own life.”
Ultimately, Sonenshine advised students to follow their passion.
“Communication is a tapestry that has lots of threads,” Sonenshine said. “Some threads come from working in Washington. Some threads come from traveling abroad and working in the field. Some come from the commercial world and some come from your own life experience.”
Jennifer Green, a graduate student studying public diplomacy, said she met Sonenshine in Washington, D.C. as part of a delegation of students and was really excited to have the opportunity to see the under secretary speak at USC.
“She came at a really fascinating time in light of the video that recently came up from the middle east,” Green said.
The video, Innocence of Muslims, is an American-made anti-Islam film that incited violence in Libya, Egypt and Pakistan, among other countries, last month.
To demonstrate the impact of social media, Sonenshine shared powerful statistics with the audience.
“Every second, one hour of video is uploaded to YouTube. Every two hours the total becomes nine months of video,” Sonenshine said. “Every 10 days an entire century is uploaded.”