The Social Secretaries…..

The Social Secretaries…..

Photo credit: Stephen Bobb

“If you’re wondering why I’m going to be seated, I have a new fashion accessory on my foot.  I was racing up and down my stairs a couple days ago and I lost the battle with the stairs and the boxes, so here I am. I know it’s embarrassing, but now you know the reason,” said Ann Stock, former Social Secretary to the White House during the Clinton Administration and currently on the Board of Trustees of Meridian House. “This evening we celebrate the Embassy’s Social Secretaries and the Cultural Advocates. Thank you for the important work that you do to build relationships between our customs and culture.  As a former White House Social Secretary, I know the challenges that each of you face and the incredible devotion it takes to get your job done.”

T. H. Ann Stock

After introducing special guests, – White House Social Secretary Rickie Niceta and Acting Chief of Protocol Mary-Kate Fisher – Stock explained the role of a Social Secretary.

“We’re here today to honor the work that you do every single day. You are how Washington and the rest of America gets to know your country, your culture, your national character and your people. You’re very important in making that chain. Because of your efforts, your Ambassadors, Diplomats and Dignitaries are able to be more effective as it comes to your countries interests. Culture is a language we all understand. It’s a means of communication that connects us beyond region, creed and political belief. We also know that culture and  hospitality are the very backbone of the practice of diplomacy. That’s why we’re here today; to share experiences on how we can best use these tools so we build relationships beyond our countries borders.”

David Adler

“We have a distinctive panel here today – individuals from the private sector, the diplomatic community and the performing arts. Moderating this session is my good friend David Adler, CEO and founder of BizBash, the largest business to business media company in the event’s industry,” continued Stock. “He’s a veteran in marketing and media entrepreneur and genius, and expert in creating innovative events. He had one yesterday with 10 different panels at the Reagan Building. He’s on the phone and planning all the time. I think a little known fact that some of you may know, David was first known in Washington as the co-founder with his mother Sonia Adler – right out of college at 21 years old – of  Washington Dossier, the society magazine for the nation’s capital and it went for 12 years. Believe me, every one wanted to be in Dossier magazine, wanted their picture in Washington Dossier, chased him all over town to make sure that they got in.”  We were here then and can vouch for that.  Not too long ago, David put together a site where you can stroll through history. “I was recently at my parents apartment in New York and started thumbing through the leather-bound books of past issues,” he said of the digital resurgence.  “It was so fascinating to watch my life pass in front of me. I also realized that I was looking at the history of social Washington during the Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush 1 years.  When I did Dossier, people thought I was a maitre d’ because every night it was black tie in those days. It was pretty crazy, and you could even tell the caterer by the hors d’oeuvres. I remember the Rick Wells chicken salad with a tomato.”

David Adler and Johnathan Steffert

Adler introduced the panel: Alicia Adams, Vice President of International Programming at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Francesca Craig, the Director of Special Events at the Motion Picture Association and the former Social Secretary with the Embassy of France; Diane Flamini, Social Secretary for the Embassy of Spain and Johnathan Steffert, Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Officer at the Embassy of New Zealand.

Being the only male on the panel, Steffert got the first crack at explaining how he operates in his position.

Q: “How do you make a big splash in Washington today?”

A: “I really feel like the success that I’ve enjoyed in my role has always been based on my instincts and operating authentically. We genuinely connect with people, we genuinely listen to people and we understand their backgrounds. Partnerships are my main trapping, so before I do anything around my own budget I will always look to see who else is around, who can I partner with to tell the story that I want to tell?” He went on to explain how strategic partnerships enhance the outcome of his projects.

Q: “But how did you get those partnerships? How do you navigate this crazy place?”

A: “Google is my best friend. If I’m ever looking to connect with an organization, I will look at their leadership team, and think, ‘Great, these people are fantastic but who’s really in charge here?’  So I develop authentic relationships with those people, actually doing less talking and more listening and understanding what their point of view is and looking always [to be sure] that we speak the same language.”

Diane Flamini, Francesca Craig, Alicia Adams, David Adler

Q: “So what advice do you give to countries and other organizations here to make a splash here in town? What is your strategy that you would advise someone?”  This question was posed to Alicia Adams.

A: “The Kennedy Center is an institution. People know it as the living memorial for the late president Kennedy or as the national center for the performing arts, so there are several ways which people engage with the center. In terms of Embassies, we work with them all the time for the International Festivals, for opera galas, for the NSO, for just about everything we do we work to engage Embassies.”

Q: “So do you want people to call you and offer their advice to you on a regular basis?”

A: “I know a lot of people, so they call, I call, depending on what I’m working on at The Kennedy Center. We’re getting ready to open the new venues at The Kennedy Center, so we’ve been talking to lots of Embassies and I happen to be curating the Indigenous Day which happens on September the tenth, which is why I’ve been talking to Johnathan about bringing some Indigenous artists from New Zealand. It’s a two week long series of programs that will happen in what is called the REACH, which is the name of the new venues at The Kennedy Center.  And everyone can get involved in some way. It’s one way to use hospitality.”

Jonathan Steffert, Diane Flamini, Francesca Craig, Alicia Adams

Q: “I want to go to Francesca in terms of what’s the first call when you get a new ambassador coming to town? What is that secret advice that you give to the people that are doing the job that they’re asking you about? How does the new Ambassador come to town to make a splash? How do you break through?”

A: “My last Ambassador was a Twitter fiend,” responded Craig (French Ambassador Gerard Araud). He had a huge following, but it’s dinner parties. A lot of very important things get done over dinner parties. Receptions, a large one where they get a taste of each other, and then afterwards you do a dinner or a lunch or you know, a one on one, just introducing the new Ambassador around.”

Q: “People always ask me what events they should show up at. What are the important events?”

A: “Gridiron.”  Gridiron, of course, is the annual dinner put on by the Gridiron Club and is the oldest and one of the most prestigious journalistic organizations in Washington, DC  Its 65 active members represent major newspapers, news services, news magazines and broadcast networks. “The event calls for good-natured roasting through songs, skits and speeches as a break from the daily battles between journalists and government officials,” according to The Washington Times.

David Adler, Johnathan Steffert, Diane Flamini, Francesca Craig, Alicia Adams

Q: “What is the characteristic of a perfect Ambassador for Washington today Diane?”

A: “Nice and also charming both in and out of the office.”

Q: “Talk about the cultural aspects of entertaining: art, food, wines.”

A: “At the embassy, all the food, all the menus, the wine all have to be portraying Spain’s particular qualities from the North and the South. They have a special department created in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Global Spain and has a top official specifically to promote Commerce and to improve not only diversity, education, it’s historical beginning, but also to let people know that Spain actually was here in 1865 in NM establishing schools. Their first settlement was in 1513 in St. Augustine, Fl. where Ponce De Leon discovered the Fountain of Youth – which I am still looking for. And education, Mexico had the first missionaries putting up educational schools there in the 16th century. Spain participated also in the American Revolution which not that many people will come to terms with. But we did, and it’s everything that has to do with putting out Spain as a country that is very definitely participating globally in everything. And digital diplomacy as well.”

The Social Secretaries and Cultural Advocates

Ah, digital diplomacy: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Linkedin, Pinterest – they all do it, but selectively.

Questions from the guests followed. Before we leave this party though, let’s wind this up with a sense of humor that came from veteran scribe Roland Flamini, husband of Diane; so it was directed to her, hopefully not putting her on the spot.

“I find all this extremely interesting and if I were a social secretary I’m sure I would be taking notes. But we do have two very experienced social secretaries here so I really wanted to bring this thing down more or less to a more solid level and ask them the key question that I think occurs to them periodically which is, what do you with difficult guests?  A guest arrives at the dinner table, hypothetically of course, and is already halfway soused and gets further drunk at the dinner table, falls off the chair, and as he falls off the chair, pulls the tablecloth which of course inundates half the guests with whatever was on the menu to say nothing of what he does to the embassy’s property. Now, there’s actually several questions to this: A. Does he ever or she ever get invited back to the embassy? B. How fast does this information travel on the underground telegraph among your colleagues?”

In true Social Secretary form, they left the answers up to the guests: Mum’s the word.

Rickie Niceta, Mónica Gross, Social Secretary at the Embassy of Ecuador; Ann Stock, Ambassador Stuart Holliday, President and CEO of Meridian International Center, and Diane Flamini

We asked Natalie Jones, the center’s Senior Vice President for external affairs and the former Deputy Chief of Protocol at the State Department – a role which serves as the link between the White House and foreign Ambassadors and visiting dignitaries – to give us a wrap on the activities and interaction of Meridian House with other important entities.  Here is what she told Hollywood on the Potomac.

Q: “Explain the difference in how Meridian operates citing both differences and similarities between the State Department and how they also collaborate together.”

A: “Meridian believes America is stronger at home when globally engaged. For nearly 60 years, we have partnered with the State Department to strengthen engagement between the US and the world by designing programs that develop the next generation of global leaders, connect people through culture and promote partnerships between the diplomatic community, business and government. One example of a program we are partnering with the State Department on is Next Level, a hip hop residency for American artists to travel to countries around the world and use music and dance to connect with people in local communities. We just completed a multi-week initiative in Jordan and are heading to Russian and Mongolia next. While much of the State Department’s work is abroad, Meridian also works in the United States to facilitate through partnerships with embassies. Meridian is currently partnering with the UAE Embassy on a series of artist exchanges and cultural programs to foster bilateral relationships in the United States.”

Q: “Explain forming partnerships.”

A: “We have found a strong desire for increased understanding and collaboration among the diplomatic community, the US government and business when it comes to tackling big economic and national security issues. Meridian helps close the gaps– and in turn catalyze partnerships – by promoting greater connectivity among these segmented communities and providing a 360-degree perspectives of an issue. Because we are non-partisan and neutral, leaders know that Meridian is a safe place where they can share their views and have transparent conversations on the most contentious global issues of our time. We recently hosted a program for businesses and diplomats to learn more about the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (WGDP) “all-of-government” initiative, and encourage them to develop more partnerships that will advance women’s economic empowerment worldwide.”

Q: “What is the most valuable asset of Meridian activities?”

A: “The global network of leaders we have cultivated through our programs that are leading change here at home in the US and in countries around the world. Among our alumni include 170 former Heads of State, 4 Nobel Prize winner and countless other international government and business leaders. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the historic Meridian House. We are fortunate to have such an elegant and stately headquarters – a place where global leaders gather, future leaders are found and international collaboration thrives.”

That’s a wrap!