USC partners with India conference on soft power

World Travel: Austin Maddox, a journalism fellow of the Center on Public Diplomacy, captures content on her phone for a video CPD plans to release this semester. (Amara Aguilar)

It’s a hot December day in New Delhi, India, and Amara Aguilar is in a room with a travel blogger, a few international ambassadors, various diplomats and a videogame designer, giving a lecture on making GIFs.

Aguilar attended India’s first major conference in December on soft power, the use of cultural and economic influence to appeal to other countries, rather than the use of military power, which invited USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy as a primary academic partner. The two-day conference included panels, workshops and performances and brought together diplomats, scholars and experts from around the world.

Aguilar, an associate professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, kicked off the conference with her workshop: “Soft Power Through Digital Storytelling.” Aguilar, a CPD faculty fellow who conducts digital training for the Center, said her workshop aimed to empower individuals to share their country’s stories through social media.

“It was a really great trip overall,” said Aguilar. “[CPD] is always amazing to work with.”

Participants in Aguilar’s workshop learned to make videos and GIFs that covered a wide range of topics like travel, tourism, literature and art and discussed the best ways to engage audiences visually.

“All of these topics are really important for people to be able to tell their stories, so other people can understand the country and the people of the country,” Aguilar said. “In your pocket you have your mobile device, which is a powerful tool to create really compelling content at little or no cost.”

Aguilar said CPD excels at recognizing the importance of social media and data as tools of public diplomacy, something not everyone has caught onto yet.

Austin Maddox, a CPD student fellow, attended the conference as a video journalist and reported live from USC’s Instagram story. The first-year graduate student in the School of Journalism spent her time at the conference collecting B-roll and interviewing attendees for videos that CPD plans to release later this semester.

Of the people that Maddox interviewed, she said Gopi Kallayil, Google’s chief evangelist of brand marketing, stood out as a favorite. Part of Kallayil’s work aims to combine spirituality and technology through the practice of yoga.                         

“He’s brought yoga to 80 percent of all Google offices,” Maddox said. “I thought he was really cool and insightful … [his work] is something that I, personally, and I know a lot of my friends deal with in our lives; trying to maintain a center while still engaging in technology.”

Jay Wang, the director of CPD, spoke on a panel called “Public Diplomacy, Successes and Challenges in National Building.” Wang spoke about the importance of technology as a tool for public diplomacy, but also some of the challenges.

“We don’t have the playbook as we enter into this new era of how we engage with international publics,” Wang said. “Because the scale of change is so big, it presents a huge challenge for us to have a firm grasp of what’s happening in the technological field, and what are the implications for our practices.”

Wang said one of CPD’s focuses is professional training and education, which Aguilar assists with often. While CPD has traveled to numerous countries, it will be holding its first international training session in Brussels next month, called “Technology, Storytelling & Public Diplomacy.” The workshop will focus on the integration of data and technology as tools of public diplomacy.

Wang said the conference in New Delhi was significant because CPD had yet to travel to India. As a “leading academic center” in the field of public diplomacy, Wang said it was important for CPD to partner with India’s first conference on soft power.

“On campus, many, I don’t think, really know the center exists, but the center’s work in this field is very well recognized in Washington D.C. and increasingly in many other countries,” Wang said.

Maddox said one of her goals for this semester as a student fellow is to engage USC students with CPD’s work.

“[CPD] values the student perspective,” Maddox said. “[Public diplomacy] is something that young people around the world would be interested in. It just needs to be presented in a way that they can understand.”