Here to help us: breaking down the role of Aussie government officials– A Q&A with LA Consul General Karen Lanyon

Karen Lanyon is the Australian Consul-General in Los Angeles. Appointed in July 2012, Lanyon’s distinguished 20-year career as an Australian government representative has spanned across Africa, Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore. In her current California post she looks after seven U.S. states, including Alaska, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Billabout founder Pete Maiden sat down with Lanyon at the 31st in Century City to discuss her career in promoting Australia to the rest of the world, new selling points and egalitarian spirit.

[images? Perhaps mention view of Pacific in photo caption]


Pete: How did you end up in LA?

After returning from Indonesia 2008 where I did a lot of heavy-duty policy focused and counter-terrorism work, I was based in Canberra looking after our African embassies. Then they sent me to Sydney to head up our foreign affairs and trade office in NSW and I’m sitting at the desk and got a call saying would I like to go to LA. You don’t say no to those calls. Sometimes you apply; sometimes you get a phone call. I’m a lawyer by trade. I went to ANU and did international law and international politics because I wanted to become a diplomat. DFAT put me through legal workshop after graduating.

Pete: What does your day-to-day role entail?

Karen: In some ways, you don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next, particularly with consular cases because you can’t control whether someone is going to need our help after an accident or arrest. You’ve also got clients coming in for passports. But I say to Consulate staff that if we sit here in this office all day every day, we’re not doing our job, so you’ve got to be out there building networks, talking to people. You’ve got to build strategic partnerships.

Pete: Embassies don’t always seem very approachable.

Karen: I’ve seen a report by the Lowy Institute in recent years on the way we do business. It says DFAT doesn’t really explain itself to the Australian population very well. They know they ring us when they get into trouble, but the rest of it’s a bit of a mystery. That shouldn’t be the case, we’re here for the Australian people, we’re public servants and we need to make people understand what we do and why we’re paid to do what we do.

Pete: What are some of the new selling points for Australia today?

Karen: A lot of what was projected in the past was sort of clichéd images of beaches and throw another shrimp on the Barbie. Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin did a very good marketing job in the 1980s and 1990s because we were unknown, but that is not what Australia is today. Australia is an enormously multicultural population; immigration is what made us great and continues to do so. It’s enormously diverse, with an economy that’s being growing for the last 22 years, not many countries can say that. We’re hugely innovative. When I say in LA, ‘You know Australia invented Wi-Fi, the cochlear implant?’ people say, ‘Really?’ It’s a great place to invest as well; it’s the gateway to Asia. It’s an easy place to do business and to invest. It’s a young country too and one where anything is possible. Every Australian in an embassy or consulate overseas should be living and breathing public diplomacy—we should all be thinking about how we sell Australia and make people understand what Australia is today


Pete: What do you think about the Australian ex-pat network supporting each other abroad?

Karen: Australia has always been seen as an honest broker internationally. We are, from a population standpoint, a small country, and [the U.S.] is an enormous market. You have to pull together to do that Team Australia thing because otherwise you sink without trace. I think people have realized that, and it’s good to be supportive. That’s why we run G’DAY USA, so everyone can get together in one platform. We’ve got the corporate sector on board from News Corp to floor Australian Consulate office

Mambo. All the Aussies I’ve met here, they all go back home at some stage and they all have plans to go home permanently at some stage. Even the very successful ones, they all say they want to give back. There are very few Aussies I’ve met that have completely cut their ties.

Pete: Tell us about the growth of the G’DAY USA.

Karen: G’DAY was started by government but is now 60 percent corporate funded because business can get something out of it, it’s a very valuable and recognised brand. I’d like to see it grow bigger and better. The LA Gala is perhaps the most high profile event that gets a lot of media because of the celebrities. We thought, ‘Should we be doing this that way?’ but if celebrity is what gives us the cut through in the crowded U.S. market, then why not use that to get some more serious attention for other messages – economic or policy messages. It’s a very glam night. That’s what I’ve found working in public diplomacy, you can’t do one size fits all.

Pete: How can people find out more about what’s going on at the embassy?

Karen: The consulate has a website and posts upcoming events. We’re also investing in social media for G’DAY USA. We had a band competition for Australia Rocks the Pier in August and just putting that on social media sparked conversations about Australian music. If you’re having conversations about Australian music or art or politics, people are then learning about Australia. It always starts off with ex-pats, because they’re going to be attracted, but then you draw in Americans.


Pete: So should Australian ex-pats living here see themselves as spreading the message of Australia?

Karen: Americans are our third largest tourism market after China and the UK. Come here on your own terms but explain what Australia’s about. You are all ambassadors.Americans all know about Uluru and the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, but there are so many places they don’t know about that we have to tell them about.


Pete: How is Australia’s relationship with America?

Karen: Ambassador Kim Beazley always underlines how important this relationship is. It’s easy to take this relationship [with the U.S] for granted because it has been around for so long. We’ve been in every major conflict with the U.S. since WWII. We’re their strongest alliance. That’s a very special relationship that will continue to grow. It’s also a $1 trillion dollars a year investment relationship between Australia and America and the fact there are 40,000 Australians in LA alone is enormous. It’s just lovely being in a place where you open your mouth and Americans say, “We love you.” It’s a very welcoming place. People love Australians because we have a go.


Pete: How would you describe the Aussie spirit?

Karen: Community. People call it mateship, but community. We’re very egalitarian. I talk constantly to Americans about our universal health care, gun control and wonderful education and the support networks we’re brought up with; people in Australia think about the good of the community and not the individual. That’s intrinsically Australian.

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