In a time of pandemic, protest and a presidency that thrives on unpredictably, protocol may seem like a thing of the past.
But Capricia Penavic Marshall, who served as protocol chief for President Barack Obama and social secretary for President Bill Clinton, says the age-old art of protocol is just as relevant as ever — helping people present their “best self” — and she offers vivid examples of its importance in her new book, “Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You.”
In the book, Marshall describes protocol as “a set of guidelines for social behavior, a framework for how to interact and communicate.”
During a phone interview with The Diplomat, she described it in more relatable terms, saying that protocol not only applies to presidents, but also to people in all kinds of everyday situations.
“It’s not really just for preparation for G7 or nuclear summits. It’s really for anyone who wants to project a more professional and polished appearance. Like I said — their best self,” she told us. “Why wouldn’t you want to embrace those tools and utilize them to your personal benefit?”
Marshall said she wrote the book because she wanted to share the tools that she’s learned over the decades that could be “very helpful to those who are interested in moving the needle on their business negotiation or upping their personal interaction — whether it is helping your child in an interview for college or it’s negotiating your contract with your roofer.”
“What comes to mind sometimes to me is the phrasing that my son uses: You’re a more woke person. You’re just aware and it’s really important today to have that self-awareness and an awareness of others … by knowing more about their background, their traditions, their likes, their dislikes,” she said.
In that sense, Marshall says protocol comes down to respect and relationships.
“Does it really make that big a difference if you serve food prohibited by a guest’s culture or bungle a toast with a German or Japanese client?” she writes. “I can’t reiterate enough that it does. And not simply because you’ve ‘breached protocol’ or ‘broken a rule.’ You have created a slight instead of conferring respect. You have put up an obstacle to connecting of moving swiftly along the intended path.”
For example, mangling a title or ignoring hierarchy by addressing a middle manager before the CEO “sends the message that you did not care to learn about their cultural norms and that you have a disregard for their professional identities,” she writes. “Even when your goal is mostly to persuade — as it often is in diplomacy or business — getting that edge begins with forging or enhancing a relationship.”
And forging that relationship requires homework — “preparation is king,” Marshall writes — and empathy, which she says both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had in abundance.
Marshall told us that both the Obamas and Clintons “have been successful due to their curiosity, to their capacity to listen, due to their outreach and surrounding themselves with experienced advisors and then following the advice that they are given. And … their empathetic natures, their humility … led to great collaboration.”
Marshall’s effusive praise of her previous bosses begs the question of what she thinks about the current occupant of the White House, who seems to relish breaking the rules every chance he gets.
When asked about President Trump’s unorthodox approach to protocol and etiquette, Marshall gave us a wry laugh but, true to her diplomatic instincts, would not comment on his leadership style.
“I can’t speak to what is the operating mode within the current White House,” she told us, “but I
just know from my own personal experience, having worked for President Clinton and for President Obama, that in the end they adhered to protocol because they truly found it a powerful tool to use, both in their foreign policy operations but also their domestic operations.”
While most people would reasonably assume that hard power matters more than table settings, Marshall argues that tiny details like room size and décor still play an important role, even in the most serious negotiations.
She writes about a meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in 2012 at a time of growing tensions over Syria, North Korea and Iran.
“Of all the leaders that President Obama met, President Putin was the only one who saw negotiations as a zero-sum game,” she writes, noting that the arrangements she prepared were about “rebalancing the power dynamic.”
To that end, she focused on the physical dynamics of the room where the meeting would take place. Marshall was happy to see low ceilings because she believes lower ceilings help people “think more concretely,” whereas high ceilings “prime people to think more abstractly.”
She set up a table large enough to accommodate 12 delegates but small enough to create closeness — “all the better for looking each other straight in the eyes,” she writes.
Marshall also ensured that the flowers had lots green (which she says has a calming effect), were unscented (allergies) and clipped so as not to block anyone’s view.
She writes that the meeting went well — in stark contrast to a subsequent meeting a year later that took place in a bleak setting with stark lighting, an awkward seating configuration and no food or water.
“That second meeting, which could have capitalized on the prior year’s momentum and moved the relationship forward still, had stalled. Protocol, along with a promising result, had disappeared,” she writes.
Of course, it’s highly debatable whether the placement of chairs had any bearing on the widening policy gulf between the two leaders by that point.
But Marshall offers another example in her book that directly illustrates how a breach in protocol can have serious political consequences.
She called it one of her “most cringe-worthy stories” that “will live with me for a very, very long time.”
The mishap took place in 2010 at a U.S.-ASEAN summit in New York City. All of the flags of the Southeast Asian member states were lined up behind the table where the heads of state, including Obama, would be seated. Except the Philippine flag was upside down — a snafu that the Philippine press and social media quickly picked up on.
Of course, hanging a flag upside down is in and of itself insulting. But in the Philippines, an inverted flag signifies that a nation is at war.
Marshall knew something was wrong when a team of officials from the National Security Council and State Department came barreling toward her.
She immediately owned up to the mistake and apologized to the Philippine ambassador, who accepted the apology “very quickly and with great kindness and consideration,” she said.
“What I did not know was that in addition, my president was planning on having a meeting with the president of the Philippines to discuss an urgent policy issue.”
So Marshall headed to the private alcove her team had set up for Obama to relay the bad news.
“I went through what had happened, explained the follow-up, made my deepest, deepest apologies to him — thinking all along this is certainly a fire-able offense,” she recalled.
But the president — whom she refers to in her book as “no-drama Obama” — simply said: “Capricia, I understand completely. Thank you for everything you’ve done. And we’re just going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Right?”
Her response: “Absolutely sir, it will never happen again.”
“And it never did. There were always six to eight eyes on flags. We all did flag training. We really amped up our game to make sure that we never faltered,” she told us.
“But this is an example of how important protocol is. Those details that go into place that oftentimes people don’t know [are happening] … it can be those simple, simple gestures that make such an incredible difference.”Marshall’s observation about protocol echoes a common refrain heard in the intelligence community: People only hear about the failures, not the successes.
But there was one success that did make headlines — because it was the opposite of the headlines Obama got several years prior.
That was in 2009 when the president and first lady met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Exchanging gifts among heads of state always carries weight, but, as Marshall explained, it takes on added significance for the Brits and their beloved monarchy.
So Obama didn’t exactly get high marks from the British press when he gave the queen … an iPod. Granted, the iPod reportedly had videos and photos from her 2007 trip to the U.S., and she also received a rare songbook, but the exchange was reminiscent of an earlier dud when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave Obama a pen holder carved from the timber of an anti-slave ship while the president gave him … a box of DVDs.
So Marshall said her team “went into overdrive” the moment the 2009 visit was announced. She applied her mantra of “first and foremost, plan, plan, plan plan. I always say: ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail.’
“We understood that there was a little bit of a question as to what the Americans would bring for her majesty this time,” she said with a touch of mirth, referring to the infamous iPod.
So her team researched what types of gifts the queen had received over the years, particularly from the U.S.
Marshall told us that the point of a gift exchange and other protocol customs is that they should never divert attention away from the actual policies and purpose of a visit.
“And the visits between the United States and the U.K. have an extra added importance because of the emphasis upon the special relationship,” she said. “We really wanted this one to be poignant and talk about that special relationship.”
From the list of options that the protocol team had presented to Obama, he chose a leather-bound portfolio containing memorabilia from the last visit that the queen’s father, King George VI, made to the U.S.
“What we knew was that she cherished her father and … she loves collecting things. And so when her majesty opened up the book, I want to say that I saw just the faintest cheer in her eyes when she looked up at the president and thanked him ever so much for the gift,” Marshall recalled.
The first lady also gave the queen a broach from Tiffany’s. “And she has worn the broach I think as a signal, or maybe as a symbol, on a few special occasions recently during the current administration that really brings a smile to my face,” Marshall noted.
In the meantime, Prince Philip — an avid rider — received bit shanks for his carriage ponies and Prince Charles — an environmentalist — received saplings from Mount Vernon, Monticello and the White House.
Marshall touched base with her protocol team and got the update she was hoping to hear: “Yes, yes, they are saying on the television that the Americans got it right!” she remembers, laughing. “We were just so, so thrilled.”
Of course, not every assignment involves royalty. Much of Marshall’s work involved liaising with the foreign diplomats posted to Washington, D.C. That included the Protocol Office’s signature “Experience America” program, which has taken groups of ambassadors to places as diverse as Alaska, Wyoming, Texas, New Orleans, Seattle and Little Rock, Arkansas (also see “Arkansas Odyssey: Ambassadors Experience the Natural State” in the February 2013 issue of The Diplomat).
The purpose is not only to forge business ties but also give diplomats a chance to experience American life outside the Beltway bubble.
Marshall continually stresses the importance of what she calls “cultural IQ” — an appreciation and knowledge of other cultures — something she developed as the first-generation immigrant daughter of a mother from Mexico and a father from Croatia.
She writes that assimilating to American life was challenging for her parents, but one way Marshall was able to stay connected to her heritage was through the Mexican dishes that her mother often cooked.
Marshall carried over this appreciation of food as a cultural bridge to the State Department, where she created an initiative for diplomats to share their nations’ culinary traditions.
Marshall also promoted fashion as a soft power tool, organizing events that showcased the fashion styles of countries ranging from Kosovo to Nigeria.
Those events also subtly showcased the influence of women diplomats in what is still a largely male-dominated field.
On that note, Marshall devotes an entire chapter in her book to “negotiating while female.” She writes that while women have made great strides, “in many cultures, women are still required to look and behave differently in business situations.”
One trick she uses is wearing “four-inch platform heels (with gel inserts for comfort)” to give her a boost of confidence, which came in handy when she welcomed Putin to the White House.
“In my pumps I was nearly eye to eye with him, something I was suddenly very conscious of (he reportedly requested that women visiting the Kremlin avoid wearing heels),” she writes.
Marshall also gives advice specifically to young people in professional settings. She writes that while corporate culture has become increasingly casual, people should still be mindful of using slang and acronyms to avoid misunderstandings. And no ghosting! In fact, she says young texters underestimate the enduring power of a handwritten note or even the long-lost art of — gasp! — a phone call.
While parts of Marshall’s book contain basic do’s and don’ts that many people are aware of (firm handshakes, no swearing, etc.), some recommendations may come as a surprise.
For example, she advises against telling people to sit wherever they’d like. “When given a choice, I’ve noticed that there’s always that moment where people freeze, not knowing where to sit.”
Also, eat all the food a host serves you, no matter what it is. (For Hillary Clinton, that meant downing mare’s milk from a nomad family in Mongolia.)
As for refills? Accept the first offer and refuse the rest.
What about politely extricating yourself from a conversation at a cocktail party? “Introduce two people and let them talk before moving on.”
Some of Marshall’s tips are also infused with cheeky humor.
She reminds readers that “a hungry diplomat is not a happy diplomat” and tells women not to overthink gestures like men holding doors open for them. “It’s a door, not a marriage proposal.”
But perhaps the most helpful part of the book is in the back, which has an appendix of protocol definitions and tips — a cheat sheet of sorts — including an entire section on the nuances of greeting people with kisses. (In Albania, for example, it’s two kisses, right to left; hugs are OK, too, and are coupled with a cheek placed on the forehead.)
Some of those customs, however, have been rendered moot by the coronavirus pandemic, which has ushered in a contactless world where kissing and even handshakes may become obsolete.
Marshall told us that she’s spent a lot of time thinking about what post-pandemic interactions might look like.
One possibility, for instance, is adopting the Namaste bow as a greeting.
She said the key to navigating this new world will be setting clear expectations for your home and business.
“Will you require people to wear masks in your home or will you not? And if someone does come to your home wearing a mask, will you offer them the courtesy of wearing one as well?” she said. “Set the expectations and then everyone will act accordingly.”
Marshall said that’s where protocol plays a critical role, because it helps people “find the comfort in the rules and the expectations so that they know how to interact, whether it is in government, business or their social interaction. And things have changed considerably since the virus. We still want to have our our human contact. It’s important for us to get together, but how do we do that safely?
“And so I’ve really thought this through and my main mantra has always been that whatever you do, you are executing it with kindness, that you practice stability and that you’re patient, because we are all in this together.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.