As any protocol officer who plans and orchestrates ceremonies, gift exchanges, presentations, international visits and special events knows, the most important thing to remember is to make a guest feel welcome. But what happens when something goes slightly off track? As the winner of our “Protocol Memories of a Lifetime” photo contest, Andrew Loeb Shoenig—associate director for the Congressional Studies Group—relays what happened after experiencing a gift exchange mistake with a foreign dignitary and how effective protocol practices helped save the day.
Andrew, tell us about your background and how you became involved in international protocol?
I have a dual background in event and program logistics management coupled with cross-cultural communication. Throughout university, I worked at a summer camp and conference center managing aspects of the physical site and our rental business. Then following graduation, I lived in Austria for two years as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant, having studied German since childhood. I moved to Washington, DC to take an internship at the organization where I currently work – an organization that rather well marries these two pieces of my background. I’m told many protocol professionals sort of back into the field, and I think my path was similar. The business of doing business – connecting people – especially in an international context had always interested me and been a part of my work. I’ve also always had a latent interest in protocol. But it was only after a conversation with David Nelson – and a related PDI-POA workshop on Capitol Hill – that I realized that these things were one and the same.
Your current role in protocol is very fascinating, as it relates to creating dialogue and relations between the US and one of its most important allies, Germany. Can you explain how the Congressional Study Groups work and how you became involved?
The Congressional Study Groups provide forums for international dialogue and dialogue on international issues. At their core, The Congressional Study Groups are legislative exchanges, connecting Members of the US Congress with their foreign counterparts to supplement the ties between executive branches of national governments. We work towards this goal through roundtables on Capitol Hill and at the homes of foreign ambassadors in DC, study tours abroad for Members of Congress and their senior staff, and organizing programming for incoming foreign delegations across the United States. Our conversations include a broad swath of representatives from the academic community, private sectors, government administrations, the media, and civil society. We aim for real dialogue, avoiding formal speeches or presentations that get in the way of developing meaningful, lasting relationships. Because people-to-people relationships at all levels are what give life to and sustain our country’s global partnership through easy times and hard ones.
You mentioned in one of your blog postings these sort of international delegations make all participants feel recognized and respected. How does successful protocol help enable these types of interactions?
The Study Group model places emphasis on dialogue and relationship building. It’s difficult to achieve either if guests or hosts feel compelled to give formal remarks, or worse, subject each other to death by PowerPoint. If each side feels recognized, feels respected – put crassly once as “Do you know who I think I am?” – you can dispense quickly with many formalities. Too often, protocol is dismissed as a nuisance, but this is the wonderful paradox of protocol: if you get the formalities right, there won’t be as many formalities.
Diplomacy and multicultural respect seem to be more important than ever in terms of international relations. How can being a protocol officer—and protocol in general—help both the private sector and government operate more efficiently with our international colleagues?
Every professional should have a base level of protocol training. As I understand protocol with my limited experience thus far, the mindset is more important than having memorized a slew of titles or seating arrangements. We should all be asking ourselves regularly – have I done what I can to make someone feel comfortable? You want your counterpart or the principals to be thinking about the matter at hand during the conversation, and that’s hard for them to do if they feel slighted. In the worst of circumstances, the conversation may never have the chance to happen in the first place.
You mentioned how seemingly minor acts of protocol, like having a guest’s national flag fly in front of a host country’s meeting locale, helps set the stage for a successful and respectful event. Can you explain why this type of protocol preparation helps make a successful meeting?
It’s nice to know you are expected. Anything that communicates that message goes a long way to make a guest feel like you aren’t just one entry on a daily agenda. The meeting then starts from a different place. Instead of the guests feeling as if they need to explain who they are and the basic reason why they are there, they can begin the conversation confident that these matters – the boilerplate questions – are already taken care of.
In helping stage international meetings, what are some other “little things” that leave a big impression?
Recognizing someone from a photo or from a CV found in advance is a nice touch, or remembering a detail from a previous conversation if you’ve met before. Or having special reserved seating – even if it’s not really that special. Using the right courtesy titles on printed material, especially with guests from countries where extensive strings of courtesy titles is not uncommon (“Prof. Dr. h.c. Dr. h.c.” is one I just saw, and wrote, this week) is crucial.
In entering the PSOW’s Protocol Memories of a Lifetime contest, you captured a minor protocol breach that you were involved in on film. Can you explain what happened and how you and your protocol colleagues from Germany remedied the situation?
As the delegation consisted of congressional staff, I asked three of them to order US flags to be flown over the US Capitol Building as gifts for three different meeting partners. I tried to pair the staffer whom I asked to order the flag thoughtfully with the recipient. The flags were all the same, but the accompanying certificate, signed personally by the respective staffers Members of Congress, were different. Getting back to the hotel room late the night before the incident, I dutifully prepped my bag for the next day, including all of the gifts. The time came to pass the gift to the designated delegate who would present it. I stepped back to grab a photo (action shots are nice – anything to break up the usual string of photos of people standing in a line facing the camera) and caught sight of the label on the envelope. I’d grabbed the wrong one. I’m told Americans tend to open gifts when they are presented with them, whereas Germans do not. How fortunate for me! I slipped away to speak with the principal’s protocol officer, and with a whispered apology explained the situation. Unphased, she discretely offered to her principal to take the gift off his hands. I secreted the certificate into my bag and arranged to have the correct one sent later that day. No one was the wiser. Until I wrote the blog, I suppose.
As the winning entry in the Picture Perfect Protocol contest, you will attend a scheduled Protocol Officer Training course. Which session have you selected and what do you hope from attending the course?
I’m signed up for the May course, so it’s coming up quickly. PSOW will be my first intensive training opportunity outside the workshops organized by PDI-POA. I’m looking forward to learning from experts with their decades of experience in protocol positions. Books prescribing rules in the sterile environment of paper is one thing, applying them in practice is quite another.