America’s chief of diplomatic protocol greets foreign dignitaries when they step off the plane and travels the globe with the president on trips abroad. The protocol chief oversees the details of visits from monarchs, prime ministers and presidents to be sure no one is inadvertently offended. Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall is in studio to talk about protocol and the role it plays in international diplomacy.


  • Capricia Penavic Marshall Chief of Protocol of the United States

Photos: Chief Of Protocol Capricia Marshall


  • 12:06:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the intelligence that thwarts attacks on U.S. properties. But first, she travels with President Obama on all his overseas trips and greets foreign leaders who visit the United States, from ruling monarchs to prime ministers to presidents.

  • 12:07:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs the nation's chief of protocol, her job is to be sure every detail of an official visit goes smoothly, whether at home or abroad. That means knowing whether to shake hands or merely nod the head, how to address each leader and how to host an informal meeting or a diplomatic summit without inadvertently insulting anyone. After four years on the job, Capricia Penavic Marshall has overseen thousands of details, from what kinds of flowers might offend a visitor to which car goes first in a motorcade.

  • 12:07:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the job is about far more than routine, politeness and cultural awareness. She says when visiting dignitaries feel welcomed and respected, it paves the way for productive visits and stronger diplomatic ties. Joining me to talk about her role as the United States chief of protocol is Capricia Penavic Marshall, U.S. chief of protocol. Ambassador Marshall, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:09

    AMB. CAPRICIA PENAVIC MARSHALLWell, thank you for having me. I'm very honored to be here.

  • 12:08:12

    NNAMDIThe honor is all mine. If you're interested in joining this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What questions do you have about the protocol for a presidential trip abroad? What would you like to know about planning for a visit from a head of state? 800-433-8850. Let's start with your ceremonial duties. When a visiting head of state touches down at Andrews Air Force Base, yours is the first hand extended in greeting. What goes into preparing for that moment, and what happens next?

  • 12:08:45

    MARSHALLWell, quite a bit of planning goes into that moment. I have a -- work with a wonderful team of people in the Office of Protocol at the State Department who are very dedicated government servants. And the moment that we receive the word from the White House that the president has extended an invitation for a visit, our team goes into full force.

  • 12:09:08

    MARSHALLWe begin researching everything there is to know about the culture of that leader, the country, the likes, the dislikes, the preferences, what might show a certain nod of respect towards that leader or the country. And so we put all of our tools at work immediately before I actually extend my hand.

  • 12:09:31

    NNAMDISounds like us preparing for your visit here.

  • 12:09:36

    MARSHALLI should say so.

  • 12:09:37

    NNAMDIHow do you figure out the customs of each visiting dignitary and his or her personal preferences or dietary restrictions? Are there any traditions you found particularly intriguing or difficult to prepare for?

  • 12:09:51

    MARSHALLWell, I work very closely with my counterparts, the chiefs of protocol around the world. I have wonderful friends now in each and every country that I depend upon. Prior to a visit, I will email them, call them, ask their offices to assist us with any information that we need to know. As well, we depend upon the embassies, the foreign ambassadors who are here that I've grown to respect and absolutely adore. I work for them round the clock in this position, but they're very helpful in providing any and all information to make sure that this visit goes off without a hitch.

  • 12:10:25

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Capricia Penavic Marshall. She is U.S. chief of protocol. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850 if you have any questions or comments about the protocol for a presidential trip abroad, 800-433-8850. You can send email to You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website,, and join the conversation there. Talk about one potential protocol pitfall: the exchange of business cards. In some countries, it's an important ritual. What's the proper way to handle them?

  • 12:11:03

    MARSHALLWell, I created, when I took on this position, a briefing for the delegations, for our delegation when they travel abroad. And within there, I'll give them certain finer points, and usually one of those points I will highlight and underline. And in the instance when we went to Korea, I bolded how we would convey our business card to make sure that our team understood that you treat it with respect.

  • 12:11:26

    MARSHALLYou hand it with -- you hand it to your delegation, the visiting delegation, with two hands and out in front of you, the card facing them, and then you receive it in the same manner. And most importantly, do not put it in your back pocket.

  • 12:11:42

    NNAMDIThat's the part I like the best.

  • 12:11:43

    MARSHALLDo not put it in your back pocket. There was a person in our delegation who I could see his hand ever so slightly going behind his back, and I almost did one of those, no, across the room and glided next to him and said, we're going to put that in our front pocket.

  • 12:11:58

    NNAMDIIs that because, in certain cultures, the presentation of the business card is much more formal that we consider it here?

  • 12:12:05

    MARSHALLWell, I think that if -- someone's giving you a piece of their identity, and so you just want to treat that with a certain amount of respect, whether it is here in the United States and/or abroad, I think. You just should not sit on it. Front pocket is best.

  • 12:12:19

    NNAMDIPresident Obama has hosted six summits on American soil and a number of official and state visits. What are some of the different categories of visits and the protocol associated with them?

  • 12:12:29

    MARSHALLWell, there are a variety of different visits, but all treated with the same amount of attention to detail from our team and from the White House. We -- usually, there are working visits. The president will extend to a visiting chief of state or head of government a working visit whereby they will come in and they will have a bilateral discussion and then depart.

  • 12:12:53

    MARSHALLThere are also official working visits. Associated with that might be a meal at the Blair House. And then there are official and state visits. An official visit is by a head of government. And as you had noted, there -- they receive a 19-gun salute as opposed to a 21-gun salute.

  • 12:13:15

    NNAMDISo there's a distinction between when the queen of England visits and the prime minister visits. What's that distinction?

  • 12:13:22

    MARSHALLAbsolutely. Oh, absolutely. The distinction is in that, the way in which they're received both at Andrews Air Force Base with the cannons, and then on the south grounds of the White House. There is a 19-gun salute versus a 21-gun salute.

  • 12:13:38

    NNAMDIThe queen gets the 21-gun salute.

  • 12:13:40

    MARSHALLThe queen gets the 21.

  • 12:13:41

    NNAMDIThe prime minister, he just gets 19.

  • 12:13:44

    MARSHALLA wonderful 19.

  • 12:13:45

    NNAMDITalk about things like the G-20 summit in Philadelphia -- in Pittsburgh.

  • 12:13:49

    MARSHALLOh. Oh, we -- I have been so privileged to work on six variety of summits during my time as chief of protocol, and the G-20 in Pittsburgh was the first. It was quite complicated. You have to coordinate and relate with 20 different delegations, making sure that each leader is treated in the same fashion, but understanding that there are certainly going to be differences. And we will have a chief -- a protocol officer who is assigned to every delegation and making sure that their movements are handled by the second.

  • 12:14:25

    NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please, because the first question...

  • 12:14:27


  • 12:14:28

    NNAMDI...we're going to take is a question that I was absolutely sure that somebody would want to ask. Here is Patrick in Stafford, Va. Patrick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:37

    PATRICKHi. Thanks, Kojo. I'd like to ask the ambassador if she could describe briefly the biggest diplomatic faux pas that she was able to avoid at the last minute, so to speak.

  • 12:14:46

    NNAMDII knew this was...

  • 12:14:50

    PATRICKAnd I'll take my response off the air. Thank you.

  • 12:14:51

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Patrick.

  • 12:14:54

    MARSHALLOh, well.

  • 12:14:55

    NNAMDIYou don't have to name names, necessarily.

  • 12:14:59

    MARSHALLWell, nothing immediately comes to mind, but there was a very famous trip that I made down the North Portico stairs. If you Google Capricia Marshall fall, you can see a fun remix on that where I'm about to greet President Calderon of Mexico. I am Mexican-American, and so my entire family from Cleveland, Ohio, was watching this very special visit whereby...

  • 12:15:22

    NNAMDIThat'll do it.

  • 12:15:22

    MARSHALL...I went down, yes.

  • 12:15:24

    NNAMDIWhile your whole family was watching, you tripped?

  • 12:15:27

    MARSHALLYes. There was a huge (unintelligible) Cleveland.

  • 12:15:31

    NNAMDITomorrow afternoon, the prime minister of Greece is meeting at the White House with President Obama. What elements of protocol should we watch for in that visit?

  • 12:15:39

    MARSHALLWell, I had the privilege of actually greeting the prime minister Tuesday morning at 12:30 out at Andrews Air Force Base, and he's already had a very, very packed schedule. He will be meeting with the president on Thursday, and I will have the honor of greeting him at the west basement door and guiding him through his visit. This is a working visit, and so he will have a bilateral discussion with the prime minister in the Oval Office. He also will be hosted by Secretary Kerry at a luncheon at the State Department.

  • 12:16:13

    NNAMDIOn to Vida (sp?) in Chevy Chase, Md. Vida, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:18

    VIDAThank you. Thanks for taking my call. When President Obama first went to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of his presidency, a great deal of -- there's a great deal of consternation, I think, over the fact that he bowed from the waist to the king of Saudi Arabia. And I was wondering what the protocol should be, and, you know, I was under the impression that Americans bow to no one. So I'd appreciate your answer on that one. I'll take it off the air.

  • 12:16:48

    NNAMDIYour turn.

  • 12:16:49

    MARSHALLWell, the president is very respectful of other cultures. He has been very attentive to all of the information that we convey to him, and he does show a lot of respect when traveling abroad, and particularly when there are leaders who have been serving for quite some time. And so he has shown that respect in different ways.

  • 12:17:15

    NNAMDIAnd for a president who has lived in another culture, who has lived in Indonesia, I guess that makes him particularly sensitive to other cultures.

  • 12:17:22


  • 12:17:23

    NNAMDIHere now is Kath (sp?) in Glenn Dale, Md. Kath, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:28

    KATHHi. I've had the privilege of being a volunteer at the White House for a number of events, and my favorite, as you've talked about, is the state arrival ceremony. And with our country being relatively young compared to many of those around the world, I think it would be interesting for the audience to hear about how the state arrival ceremony came about and what is the general gist of what it entails.

  • 12:17:52

    MARSHALLOh. Well, it is one of my -- a state visit is one of my favorite events to assist in putting together. We are, in the Office of Protocol, a bridge between the United States government and the foreign delegation, and so we assist them through each and every step of their visit.

  • 12:18:08

    MARSHALLAnd as you can expect that when there is a state visit, there's a bit of nervousness associated with that, making sure that they take the right number of steps, where do they stand, how do they move, where do the delegations go, are the flags in the proper place, are there interpreters, do the interpreters know exactly what they're doing, all of those pieces. And so I -- my job is really to guide them through every step of that visit.

  • 12:18:30

    MARSHALLAnd from the moment that leader exits the limousine on the south grounds and shakes the president's hand to when they take the podium and make their first address to their nation and to ours, to that iconic image of the White House behind them, that's very, very important because they know that's going to be not only in The Washington Post the next day, but is going to be all around the world and in their country. So these are very significant visits and mean a lot to both the United States and to the visiting dignitary.

  • 12:18:58

    NNAMDIKath, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us. Our guest is Capricia Penavic Marshall, U.S. chief of protocol. What American sites and cities do you think foreign embassy personnel should see to really understand the United States? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send email to Talk a little bit about last year's NATO summit in Chicago. What were the unique challenges of hosting 65 international leaders?

  • 12:19:26

    MARSHALLWell, the unique challenge was that we were also hosting a G-8 summit in -- at Camp David, and so we had to split our team. And we are a talented team, but a small team. So we had a certain number of folks that were at Camp David and managing the G-8 summit, at the same time coordinating all of the moves for the NATO summit in Chicago. We were very lucky to have a very helpful mayor, Mayor Emanuel in Chicago, who assisted us with the various delegation movements and particularly motorcades.

  • 12:19:58

    MARSHALLMotorcade movements can be the most difficult. But you want those arrivals and the motorcades to -- movements to handle -- to be handled very, very smoothly because that's like the first moment. Those are the first moments in which we can showcase to our visiting dignitaries our respect, our welcoming to them, and that could help make sure that the rest of the visit goes off extremely well.

  • 12:20:19

    NNAMDIYou have traveled around the world with President Obama and with Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. What are the primary protocol considerations when you're the guest? And which trip was the most challenging? You might want to talk about the president's recent trip to Africa.

  • 12:20:34

    MARSHALLOh, this trip, Mr. Nnamdi, was amazing. It really was. I felt the significance of the trip the moment that we stepped off the plane in Senegal and we were greeted on the red carpet. You can tell by the delegation -- the way the delegation was greeting us, and every movement thereafter of the visit that this was going to be a moment in history for them. And so for me, it is making sure that our delegation, our president knows everything that there is to know about the various meetings, the protocol, the dinners.

  • 12:21:13

    MARSHALLThere were spectacular dinners that were hosted in each country from Senegal to South Africa to Tanzania. And so much attention was placed in every single one of these meetings and dinners that you want -- I wanted to make sure that it went off very, very smoothly for them. And so assisting our delegation, our president was one of my major concerns.

  • 12:21:35

    NNAMDIYou, coming from a multicultural background, causes me to think of how about names? How important is it for both American officials and guest to be able to get names properly, especially names with which we are unfamiliar?

  • 12:21:50

    MARSHALLWell, you and I can both understand...

  • 12:21:52

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 12:21:52

    MARSHALL...this, Kojo and Capricia, that we have very interesting names. But it is important and making sure that phonetics are outlined for our delegation, for our president. And I will repeat it several times to make sure that people feel very comfortable with that and as well making sure that our visitors have the right pronunciation of our president's name and people within our delegation.

  • 12:22:17

    NNAMDIYour office is also in charge of credentialing the diplomats and embassy staffs for more than 180 countries who serve their governments here in Washington. Do you get to know them personally?

  • 12:22:29

    MARSHALLI do. It is the greatest privilege of this position. I get to work with the best of the best that are sent to our country because we are a top hosting for a diplomat. And these are the most extraordinary individuals who come from a variety of different backgrounds. And I have engaged with them in a variety of ways, one way in which, in particular, within our office, we've developed a program called Experience America. And we take them around our great country and showcase the greatness of our nation to them.

  • 12:22:56

    MARSHALLWe don't want them stuck within the Washington Beltway and really only experiencing Washington, D.C., although our capital is great. Alaska is amazing and Austin, Texas, is fantastic, Little Rock, Ark., Atlanta, Chicago. We have taken them to all sorts of parts of the United States, and they've created relationships from those various trips: business relationships, cross-cultural relationships. They proved to be extremely valuable.

  • 12:23:25

    NNAMDIOn to the phones again. Here is David in Alexandria, Va. David, your turn.

  • 12:23:31

    DAVIDThank you for having me on, Kojo. Ambassador, I would like to know what it takes to prepare to do your job, career-wise. And what would be a next step for you after having done something as exciting as this?

  • 12:23:47

    MARSHALLWell, preparation -- I have served in government. Previously, I was honored to serve for President Clinton in the Clinton administration for eight years and worked very closely again for Mrs. Clinton when she was first lady, and, of course, then became Secretary Clinton. And so having that type of experience was invaluable.

  • 12:24:08

    MARSHALLI had worked very closely with my friends in the Office of Protocol at that time, so truly knew how the office operated and particularly the overseas trips, how those functioned. And how this will be used in my future? Well, I'm planning on spending a lot of attention on a certain 13-year-old young man.

  • 12:24:27

    NNAMDIA 13-year-old son, yes.

  • 12:24:29

    MARSHALLBut I do plan to do some speaking and writing about my various adventures and memories. So I hope that people will gain a little bit from that.

  • 12:24:36

    NNAMDIAnd just between you and me, David, she'll probably be studying a lot more Chinese than she knew in the past because her 13-year-old son is apparently studying Chinese, correct?

  • 12:24:44

    MARSHALLHe is. He is fascinated by the Chinese culture and language.

  • 12:24:49

    NNAMDIThe ambassador was special assistant to Hillary Clinton when she was first lady and then served as White House social secretary for President Clinton. But your own background, in a way, may have helped you prepare for this position. You're a first-generation American. Tell us about that background.

  • 12:25:03

    MARSHALLAbsolutely, and thank you for reminding me of that. I am -- I'm a first-generation Mexican-American -- Mexican-American and Croatian-American. I -- my parents created a household of wonderful cultures from both of our backgrounds, but also our neighborhood was of -- our neighbors were extraordinary.

  • 12:25:23

    MARSHALLWe had a Lebanese-American family across the street. We had our Russian neighbors who would come over and literally in my grandmother's home. It was like a mini U.N. for the holiday. So it was -- it's always been a part of who I am in understanding the cultures of others and experiencing those. And I feel very comfortable when I am in that type of environment.

  • 12:25:47

    NNAMDIHer grandmother's home was virtually U.N. on some special occasions. David, thank you for your call. Here is Marilla (sp?) in Alexandria, Va. Marilla, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:25:58

    MARILLAHi. Good morning. I just thought I'd tell you a little anecdote. I was Foreign Service spouse living in Lisbon when President Reagan visited. And we were very close friends, my husband and I, with the chief of staff of the foreign minister. And so the advance team came and marked the spot where the president and the first lady and so on were going to stand at a given moment.

  • 12:26:27

    MARILLAAnd after the visit was through, our friend told us that what amazed the Portuguese was that the spot where the president was to stand simply said president and not Your Excellency, the president of the United States because for them, it was just impossible to imagine to just put down president without Your Excellency, at the very least. So I thought you might get kick out of that.

  • 12:26:55

    NNAMDIDo you have any similar experiences with where the spot on which the president stands and how it's marked?

  • 12:27:01

    MARSHALLWell, yes. I will guide him. First, we will walk through exactly what the president will be doing with a visiting dignitary before they actually do it, and then I will guide him to where he is going to be standing with the various officials. But, you know, usually, our president has become accustomed to a red piece of tape as opposed to even Mr. President or Your Excellency.

  • 12:27:28

    NNAMDIMark the spot. You know exactly where the spot is. My understanding that you're stepping down as protocol chief pretty soon to spend time with your family. When is that going to take place?

  • 12:27:39

    MARSHALLWell, actually, my official duties will end on Friday. That's -- that is the...

  • 12:27:45

    NNAMDIThe last day that you'll be there.

  • 12:27:46

    MARSHALLYes. And...

  • 12:27:47

    NNAMDIOh, well, congratulations. Good luck to you. But I can't let you go without asking as a long-time Hillary Clinton loyalist, is she going to run for president?

  • 12:27:56

    MARSHALLWell, let me end with this that it has been the greatest honor to serve in this position, and I'm so pleased that President Obama, I mean, I'm ever so grateful that he gave me this opportunity. And Secretary Clinton has been a mentor of mine for years and years and years. I think she's just phenomenal. And I certainly hope that she makes the best choice for herself.

  • 12:28:19

    NNAMDIIn other words, she's a diplomat. She's not telling. She is the U.S. chief of protocol, Capricia Penavic Marshall. Thank you very much for joining us and good luck to you.

  • 12:28:28

    MARSHALLThank you ever so much.

  • 12:28:29

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, how the U.S. discovers terrorist threats abroad and what is done to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and U.S. citizens living in those countries. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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