From left: Broadcast Engineers Ron Depas and Frank Maketa monitor feeds from the Broadcast Division’s studio master control room during the recording of an event during the secretary’s virtual trip to Africa, April 2021. Photo courtesy of GPA Video
By Loren Hurst and Jason Katz
Video production, whether broadcast TV, live virtual programming, or narrative-based storytelling, is a fundamental tool in accomplishing the Department of State’s public affairs and public diplomacy mission. In the Bureau of Global Public Affairs (GPA), the Office of Video is at the forefront of this important effort.
For every team member, each and every day, the goal is to utilize deep technical knowledge, specialized tools, skill, and creativity in accomplishing GPA’s core mission of communicating U.S. foreign policy priorities and the importance of diplomacy to American audiences, as well as engaging foreign publics to enhance their understanding of and support for the values and policies of the United States.
One member of that talented team is Sam Wharton, a video producer and a self-described “diplobrat,” who was born in Bolivia where his father was posted as a public diplomacy officer. Following tours in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Guatemala with his family, Wharton landed in Washington for high school.
“Working with GPA allows me to indulge my passions on a wide range of important topics,” he said. “But it always comes back to storytelling for me. That has always been a focus of mine, whether it was art or theater or video production.”
Wharton joined GPA’s video office in late 2019 and now regularly travels with the secretary of state, capturing content during official travel that helps shape the communication narratives around the trip and the relevant policy goals.
“I really believe in this notion that diplomacy done well is a great service to the American people,” said Wharton. “But it also serves the populations we work with overseas. To me, those things work together. A great story empowers people, wherever they are, and that makes us all better for it.”
The Video Office was established during the merger of the Bureaus of International Information Programs and Public Affairs in 2019. It brought together two long standing video groups and created a single office focused on delivering strategic and contemporary video products and services to Department-wide public affairs and public diplomacy needs. The office houses two divisions. The Broadcast Division focuses on the capture and transmission of live events for broadcast TV and web platforms, including familiar products like the daily press briefing, secretarial speeches, TV press engagements, and major public facing events. The Production Division, on the other hand, primarily works through GPA’s strategic campaigns to create and publish tailored digital video content designed to inform public audiences about U.S. foreign policy and the values that underpin American society.
Also housed within the office is GPA’s Live Virtual Programs team, which provides another example of the increasing importance of digital diplomacy formats. GPA’s live virtual programs give domestic and foreign audiences the opportunity to pose questions directly to U.S. government officials and American thought leaders. During the pandemic, this team has roughly doubled its number of programs.
“We got really busy, really fast,” recalled Jon Nestor, one of the team’s technical directors. “This team didn’t miss a beat. I think that’s a real testament to the expertise in this office and the dedication to producing top-notch programming.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is a regular guest in the team’s studio, conducting town hall events addressing issues such as diversity and inclusion, and interacting directly with American diplomats worldwide.
Another well known service that was made possible by the GPA merger is the small team of videographers who travel with the secretary to cover his official events and behind-the-scenes interactions while on the road. Trip videos enable the Department’s flagship social media accounts, media hubs, and posts to extend the reach of their engagement after a secretarial visit.
“In this way, GPA diversifies material that presents the secretary and other senior officials in an accessible format while helping shape the narrative around the trip and the relevant policy goals,” said Office Director Jason Katz.
While the Production Division primarily facilitates end user interaction, the Broadcast Division focuses on formal press events involving Department leadership. The team is a key link between Department leadership and the press, and by extension the global public. It too has seen a doubling in activity since the COVID-19 pandemic, which grounded many in-person engagements for senior Department principles.
“When CNN or Politico wants to do an interview, we facilitate that,” says Dean Kimmel, an audiovisual production specialist. “It’s very satisfying for me to work with live television and that we’re putting out things that are having a large-scale impact.”
For all Office of Video team members, the past two years dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has required a complicated dance between new remote working postures and meeting the pandemic-driven demand for in-person production services.
“This is digital diplomacy in action,” says Division Chief Kate Leland. “Of course, nobody anticipated the impacts of the pandemic. When in-person activities are shut down, these teams play a major role in continuing the Department’s public affairs and public diplomacy mission.”
Looking ahead, the Office of Video expects to continue playing a vital role engaging global audiences on critical foreign policy issues using cutting edge technology and boundless creativity.
Jason Katz is the office director and Loren Hurst is a live virtual programs producer in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs’ Office of Video.