By Jacqueline Mourot
“The work of being a Public Affairs Officer [PAO] was not going to wait for me to translate training into real tactics in the field as a first time PAO in a busy section,” said Jacqueline Mourot, recalling her first Bureau of African Affairs (AF) assignment to Gaborone, Botswana, in 2016. Mourot’s experience was not an isolated one. Half of the public diplomacy (PD) Foreign Service officers currently at AF posts are serving in their roles for the first time, and 21 of the 50 public affairs sections are staffed by only one Foreign Service officer. To help new PD officers, AF’s Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (PDPA) started a mentoring program. The program bridges the gap between tradecraft training and practice in the field and helps to strengthen the skills of the seasoned officer. The office reviews mentor/mentee requests, paying close attention to matching personalities, professional development goals, interests and expertise. AF/PDPA also supports and funds mentoring visits that enable mentors and mentees to travel to each other’s posts to enhance their training opportunities.
“The main focus of the mentorship program is to create a sense of community among PD practitioners in Africa who work in very challenging environments,” said Hilary Renner,
AF/PDPA deputy director. “We created the mentoring program to assist with the transfer of information and collaboration between posts to decrease the sense of professional isolation.”
Ambassador to the Republic of Congo Todd Haskell, who was AF/PDPA director when the program was created, said the bureau recognized the need to better equip officers who were taking on challenging PD assignments for the first time.” We were sending officers out with little field PD experience to run entire sections, many times as the sole officer in that section,” said Haskell. “At most posts, officers were reporting to non-PD coned front offices and therefore had little on-the-ground support in the way of managing a PD section and programs. The mentorship program was developed to support and ensure their success.”
Program outcomes are overwhelmingly positive, resulting in more confident and knowledgeable PD officers who gain a greater depth of experience and overall better performance and management of PD sections—a benefit not only to post but also to AF and the Department as a whole. Officers who have participated in the program agree that the program has met and surpassed its goals. Rob Quiroz, the PAO in Accra, Ghana, believes the program has been fruitful for both mentors and mentees.
“I’ve been fortunate to count on the mentorship and guidance of senior leaders to offer me encouragement and a greater understanding of our institution and prepare me to lead and serve others better,” said Quiroz. “I find the program to be invaluable by ensuring officers have a special mentorship relationship with a senior PD officer to strengthen their skills.”
The PAO in Lesotho, Melissa Schumi-Jones, has served as a mentor and mentee in the AF/PDPA mentoring program and notes that it has been tremendously beneficial, helping her to become a better PAO and manager as she supports her mentee’s professional journey and learns from her mentor’s program and planning experience. In Luanda, Angola, PAO Deneyse Kirkpatrick agrees. “Knowing there is someone who can relate to or has overcome a similar situation has given me key insight on how to best navigate sometimes difficult scenarios,” said Kirkpatrick.
According to Mourot, now the PAO in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, one truly remarkable aspect of the mentorship program is that it is not just talk, but action backed by resources.
“I am grateful that the AF bureau paid for me to travel to Nairobi to shadow my mentor, Information Officer Fiona Evans, for three days. That experience proved to me that the bureau genuinely believes mentorship is important to professional development and strong performance in the field,” said Mourot.
The multiplier effect is one of the program’s greatest strengths and a common component of many officer experiences. One mentor, Abuja PAO Aruna Amirthanayagam, recalls how, as a result of Addis Ababa Information Officer Nick Barnett’s mentoring visit in 2017, he and Barnett developed a project proposal for an exchange between Nigerian and Ethiopian journalists. They received funding from AF to implement their program, which resulted in a concrete plan for direct, ongoing cooperation between Ethiopian and Nigerian media.
The PAO in Windhoek, Namibia, Eric Atkins, and his mentor, Rob Quiroz, have a similar story. Atkins was unable to take advantage of a mentoring visit to Accra; however, when he needed coverage during an absence from post, Quiroz sent Accra’s cultural affairs officer (CAO) to help during his absence. “The CAO’s visit was a huge help for my team,” said Atkins. “She brought in a fresh perspective that resulted in new ideas, constructive critiques and a timely burst of energy that facilitated the screening of hundreds of Young African Leaders Initiative Mandela Washington Fellowship applications.”
“AF/PDPA’s mentoring program is designed to bolster professional development and build confidence,” said AF Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy Elizabeth Fitzsimmons. “We know that through the sharing of experiences ‘outside the chain-of-command’ we help AF PAOs develop strategic insights and hone technical and tactical skills needed to meet the demands of managing PD resources and programs that support Department and Mission goals. The mentorship program is just one of the ways that we achieve a core mission of AF/PDPA: to support our PD officers, locally employed staff and programs in the field so they are able to advance American interests and strategic objectives in Africa.”
Jacqueline Mourot is a public affairs officer in Embassy Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.