Public Diplomacy in the Context of Traditional Diplomacy


Michael McClellan

Counselor for Public Diplomacy
US Embassy, Dublin

Presented 14 October 2004
Vienna Diplomatic Academy

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  • Comments from readers (Added 27 March 2005)


Public Diplomacy is a term that has only recently come into use, primarily in this century. With the merger of the United States Information Agency into the Department of State, public diplomacy came to define a new focus of traditional diplomacy and it has since been adopted by other foreign ministries and the public relations industry in general.

However, this term, though widely used and discussed, has not been adequately defined in the context of traditional diplomacy. One must understand that it is neither propaganda nor public relations, but a unique form of diplomacy that is only now coming into vogue. For this reason, a new definition should be adopted which puts the work of public diplomacy into the context of traditional diplomacy and relates it to the larger mission of foreign policy making and execution.

Toward a New Definition of Public Diplomacy

In order to see and understand the evolution of this concept, a review of the definitions of propaganda and public relations is in order. "Propaganda", by conventional definition, "is the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause."[1] On the other hand, "Public Relations is the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution."[2]

Both these terms relate to the concept of public diplomacy, but neither one alone adequately defines it. This article thus proposes a new definition of public diplomacy, one that takes into account the needs of the foreign policy making apparatus in the "advocate country" (i.e. the government engaging in a public diplomacy campaign) with respect to the "target country" (i.e. the foreign environment wherein the public diplomacy campaign is taking place) while acknowledging the contributions of propaganda studies and public relations to the discipline:

Public Diplomacy: the strategic planning and execution of informational, cultural and educational programming by an advocate country to create a public opinion environment in a target country or countries that will enable target country political leaders to make decisions that are supportive of advocate country's foreign policy objectives.

As this definition clearly shows, public diplomacy involves the active, planned use of cultural, educational and informational programming to effect a desired result that is directly related to a government's foreign policy objectives. It thus goes well beyond the usual concepts of propaganda, in which a particular message is "injected" into the target country over and over, or public relations, in which branding, image, and advertising are the key concepts.

In both cases, the desire is to create a positive image of the advocate country within the target country. In the case of negative propaganda, the goal is to create a negative image of the target country and government within that country or among other audiences; public diplomacy will sometimes assume this objective as, for example, in exposing human rights abuses, dictatorial practices, political and religious repression, etc.

Public Diplomacy Supports Foreign Policy Objectives

Public diplomacy, however, is closely tied to foreign policy objectives. Public diplomacy strategies and campaigns are carefully and deliberately developed with the objective of achieving a particular policy objective. These strategies are thus goal-oriented and policy-focused, but with both long-term and short-term timeframes. Let's look at how public diplomacy works in practice.

The practitioner of public diplomacy is normally the press and/or cultural attaché in a diplomatic mission. Henceforward, we will refer to that person as a "public diplomat." She must draw on limited human and financial resources to fulfill the public diplomacy objectives of that diplomatic mission.

The public diplomat then must consider the foreign policy objectives of the country she represents in the target country where she is assigned, evaluate the human, technical, and financial resources available to her, and then develop a public diplomacy strategy that will best create the public opinion environment in the target country that will allow that country's leaders to make the decisions desired by her own government. This is a very tall order, but one that is quite achievable if a comprehensive strategy is developed that entails both long-term and short-term objectives.


The Communications Pyramid of Public Diplomacy

Figure 1 provides a paradigm for considering public diplomacy in the context of its earlier definition. The apex of the pyramid is the critical point: it is here that target country political, social, and economic leaders take concrete actions that will support the foreign policy objectives of the advocate country. In order for these leaders to take action, however, they will generally need to have a certain amount of political support in the larger society (this is true even in a dictatorship in which the dictator may require the support of a key tribe, national institution, political party, or other social or political grouping from which political power derives). This is the public opinion environment that is the real target of all public diplomacy campaigns. How that environment is influenced, and to what ends, is the strategic mission of the public diplomat.

Figure 1. Communications Pyramid of Public Diplomacy
PD paradigm

NOTE: The audience is progressively larger toward the base of the pyramid. The "cost" of communicating with these audience members is progressively more expensive per member the higher on the pyramid the member is. Lowest cost per member is at the base, highest at the apex. In general, each layer builds on the one below it, and each layer supports the one above it; e.g. one must first be aware in order to develop interest in order to seek knowledge in order to become an advocate in order to take action.

ACTION -- Votes by recipient country in international organizations, signing of trade agreements and treaties, passage of laws, engaging in military alliances, etc. that support advocate country's position. Traditional government-to-government diplomacy at this stage.

ADVOCACY -- Positions supporting advocating country's positions by editors, opinion writers, political leaders, think tank analysts, etc., based on conclusions that such advocacy is in target country's self-interest ("Two Step Flow"). Audience members may have participated in academic and professional exchange programs, studied in advocate country, speak the language of advocate country, etc.

KNOWLEDGE -- Target country audience actively seeks increased knowledge of the advocate country, its culture, history, economy, policies, etc., through speakers, lectures, op-eds, interviews, libraries, lectures and seminars, academic programs (e.g. "American Studies" in universities, university partnerships, and visiting lecturers), cultural events, etc. Audience members are, e.g. students, professors, intellectuals, journalists, etc.

INTEREST -- Audience in target country begins to follow more actively news and information about advocate country. Cultural events (e.g. concerts and exhibits), language study, libraries and cultural centers, and other information-based programs attract those audience members with interest in advocate country, enabling them to move to higher "knowledge" stage. Wide availability of information in target country's language(s).

AWARENESS -- Masses become aware of advocate country's existence and activity in target country through news stories, foreign aid projects, military actions, public events, radio and television broadcasts, etc. Traditional media relations support this.


Creating Awareness Among the Largest Possible Audience

The public diplomacy "tools" most often used in the awareness stage are radio broadcasting, media relations, mass cultural events (e.g. TV broadcasts of concerts sponsored by the advocate country or media coverage of other cultural events such as an art exhibition), news reports (e.g. on assistance projects that affect villagers or other fellow countrymen), etc.

Public diplomacy tools used in this stage of the communications process will normally be in the target country's language and may often use target country personnel rather than advocate country personnel. The goal is to reach the largest possible audience by whatever means, especially by informing local audiences of any activity in which the advocate country is engaged that demonstrates interest in and concern for the target country.

In these cases, the public diplomat is making a concerted effort to raise awareness of the advocate country in the target country's audience, but doing so in a manner that will raise "positive awareness" and not negative awareness as may be the case with media reports of wars, disasters, scandals, or other events beyond the control of the diplomatic mission. The public diplomat must deal with any image his country has in the target country, whether it is positive or negative, and should seek to shape message content and information campaigns accordingly.

Interest Develops Out of Awareness

Out of awareness, many (but certainly not all) audience members will develop interest in the advocate country. For example, a general awareness of "German quality" or "American power" (however negative such an awareness may be) or "Italian style" can motivate a person to want to learn more about the country, the people, or the culture behind that particular quality.

At this stage, the target country audience member will have become aware of the advocate country's existence, culture, programs, or other activities. This awareness will hopefully be positive, but it may be negative as well. The capable public diplomat can work with negative awareness (e.g. "know your enemy") as well as positive awareness, but the messages she generates in her public diplomacy campaign will perforce be different.

How then does one channel awareness into interest? This is the key challenge for the public diplomat, for all higher stages in the communications pyramid will mainly grow out of this stage and it is only when the target country audience member has reached this stage that he or she will begin to engage the public diplomacy process actively and cease to be a passive participant in the process.

The key factor in this channeling process is for the target audience member to realize there are benefits to be gained from knowing more about the advocate country or to recognize that there are shared values on which a positive relationship can be developed. For most people, benefits and self-interest will be the motivating factor, so the public diplomat should manage the message to produce that effect.

Once interest has been aroused, the target audience member becomes an active participant in the process and the public diplomat has mainly to make information available for the audience's use and consumption. There are several tools available for this purpose. Traditionally, governments used cultural centers, free "give-away" materials (e.g. brochures, booklets, magazines, translated and original books, etc.), film and video programs, and speakers to provide information to interested audiences. In more recent years, these tools have expanded to include websites and e-mail mailing lists, but the information is essentially the same, only the communication tools have changed.

Language study, in particular, can be a vital factor at this stage. If the advocate country's national language is a "world language" (e.g. English, German, French, Spanish, or Russian) or a language that offers advantages in trade and commerce (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Arabic) then language classes will be a highly desirable offering for the target country population. This issue of language, in fact, is one of the most difficult to address from a public diplomacy perspective.

For a person to reach the "knowledge" stage and beyond, the advocate country must ensure one or both of two things: 1) a wide range of information is available about the advocate country in the target country's language or a world language that is widely accessible in the target country; and/or 2) the advocate country's language is widely known in the target country or language study is easily available. For smaller language groups, this will normally mean using a relevant world language in communicating with the target country and providing materials in accessible languages, including the local language, if possible.

Because of this language issue, mass media are effective tools to use to reach target audience members in both the awareness and interest stages. Op-eds, in particular, written by Embassy personnel in the target country, as well as interviews and Embassy-organized media visits to foreign assistance projects, can be especially well-targeted for the local audience and will reach the largest number of people on a regular basis. Unfortunately, embassies often neglect this tool, preferring instead to issue routine press releases (if even that), or granting an occasional interview when requested rather than taking the initiative to offer interviews on a regular basis to local and regional media.


Out of Interest Develops Knowledge

Once in the "interest" stage, the target country audience member will begin actively to seek out knowledge of the advocate country to varying degrees. Typically, the interested seeker will want to learn about the advocate country's culture, history, economy, politics, institutions, etc.

The public diplomacy tools available for this stage will be intensely information-oriented: libraries, lectures and seminars, academic programs (e.g. American Studies at a local university), and exchange programs, including all on-line options for all of these. Those who are already interested and are seeking knowledge will be most likely to enroll in language courses, opportunities to study in the advocate country, attend trade fairs and cultural events sponsored by the advocate country, and tune in regularly to radio broadcasts produced abroad.

This group, in fact, deserves the most attention from the public diplomat. If this group is ultimately large enough and active enough in the target country, the advocate country can expect to enjoy generally good relations with that target country, its target audience will be much more receptive to its message, and the ground will be prepared for a favorable public opinion environment.

Public diplomacy programs at this level will tend to be somewhat costly (relative to programs working at the lower levels) and long term, but their importance cannot be over-estimated. In fact, their importance is more commonly under-estimated by advocate country governments because of the expense involved in maintaining them and their lack of "immediate, measurable results." It is these programs that require the most commitment to public diplomacy by advocate country governments: support for "country study" programs in target country universities, cultural centers and libraries, university partnerships, graduate fellowships and undergraduate scholarships to study abroad, funded professorships in target countries, book translation programs, research grants, language study, etc.

Because such programs do not typically show any immediate, measurable "results" (i.e. changed opinions in leaders, changes in target country policy), these are the easiest to cut when budgets are tight, but they take a longer time to bear fruit and show results in a changed public opinion environment. For the most part, these programs are also targeted at the next generation of social and political leaders, not the current generation. The audience at this level will be composed mainly of students, professors, intellectuals, and journalists.

How then to reach the current generation of social and political leaders? Short-term exchange programs are a good approach, although their cost per participant is quite high. The payoff can be strong, however, if the participants are carefully selected and their programs are designed to achieve four primary purposes:

  • To build contacts between the advocate and target countries on a people-to-people basis (assuming there are no language issues);
  • To allow the participant to get a firsthand look at something she clearly does not understand or about which she has insufficient knowledge (e.g., environmental practices in the advocate country, minority education opportunities, or treatment of religious minorities);
  • To build a general impression of the advocate country in a participant who has no firsthand experience of the advocate country's people and society;
  • And to strengthen contact between the participant and the Embassy over the longer term. Exchange programs will also be very useful in the next step of the communications pyramid -- Advocacy.

From Knowledge Grows Advocacy

The vast majority of "advocates" from the target country will grow out of that audience found in the knowledge stage. A person who has developed a certain amount of knowledge about a particular issue will advocate the position of the advocate country if and only if he comes to understand that this position is in his own personal interest or is somehow in the interest of his own country. Those who become advocates may do so out of fear of military action, through bribes or other inducements, but such persuasive methods are outside the purview of public diplomacy.

For the public diplomat, persuasion at this level will be effected through op-eds and media interviews, in which advocate country positions are carefully explained and put into the context of the target country's needs and issues, short-term exchange programs (as described above), and visiting experts and officials who can address key opinion-makers individually and in small, target meetings to interact in depth on the issue at hand.

The audience at this level will be editors, journalists, think tank analysts, particular legislators on responsible committees, community leaders, decision-makers in ministries and other organizations, and key religious and political leaders. This is the classic "two step flow" theory of communications in which opinion makers influence a number of smaller audiences to build a larger public opinion, and it is central to the public diplomacy persuasive process. If the public opinion environment is shaped correctly, target country political leaders will be ready to take action in accordance with the advocate country's foreign policy objectives.


Advocacy Sets the Stage for Action

If advocacy of a position is sufficiently widespread among opinion makers, public opinion in the target country will develop the "critical mass" that is necessary to allow the country's political leadership to take positions, make decisions, and institute actions that are desired by the advocate country. This public opinion environment can take several forms.

  1. First, the overall image of the advocate country may be sufficiently positive in the target country that it is easy for political leaders to take actions that support the advocate country's objectives with little or no controversy around particular issues. Votes in international organizations that do not impact negatively on the target country are a good example of such actions. Likewise, actions that represent "payback" to the advocate country for significant past actions in support of the target country can overcome many objections in the body politic. In both these cases, the long-term effects of public diplomacy will bear the most fruit in creating the positive environment that can pay off over time.
  2. Second, the public diplomacy campaign and opinion makers may have found enough common ground on an issue that the target country's decision-makers become convinced that it is in their own interests to take a particular action without reference to the advocate country. Signing international treaties, entering into commercial agreements, tariff policies, peace-keeping missions, etc. might fall into this category. The role of public diplomacy is vital in this process, although it may be done more quietly and less visibly than would be the case in the previous example. However, if the advocate country has a negative image in the target country, the public diplomat may have to work aggressively to convince opinion makers that the desired action is in their interest, in spite of the fact that the advocate country supports it.
  3. Third, decision-makers may take a decision that is of little or no cost to the target country as a means of building political capital with the advocate country. Such decisions may not require any support from public opinion, as they are simply irrelevant to the larger population and do not impact directly on daily life issues or significant interest groups. Public diplomacy may thus have little or no role to play in bringing such actions to fruition.
  4. Finally, the target country may make decisions that are clearly reciprocal for comparable actions by the advocate country. The general public need only be convinced that it is a fair deal for their country in order to support such decisions. In this case, there is little or no role for public diplomacy as it is really up to the target country's political leaders to explain their actions adequately to their constituents.

Desired Action is the Result of Effective Public Diplomacy

Traditional diplomacy - that is "government-to-government diplomacy" - is focused mainly on efforts by officials of one country to persuade officials of another country to take particular actions. Public diplomacy, on the other hand, aims to shape the public opinion environment in a target country so that officials in that country can take actions the advocate country wants that will be accepted by the general public. This is particularly important in democracies and open societies, as well as in emerging democracies that are just beginning to taste freedom.

As this paper has shown, public diplomacy is neither propaganda nor public relations; but rather a particular strategy of communications that is goal-oriented, focused on results both short-term and long-term, and aimed at building a positive image of a country that will resonate in foreign public opinion. Most importantly, though, public diplomacy must support the objectives of traditional diplomacy or it will not survive as a profession.

At the same time, however, traditional diplomacy must recognize that public diplomacy has long-term as well as short-term objectives. Traditional diplomacy sometimes focuses too much on the short-term objectives, as these are the bread and butter of government-to-government relations. However, most of the programmatic content of public diplomacy concentrates on long-term objectives and the value of these efforts is sometimes lost in the crush of short-term requirements.

The wise diplomatic strategy, though, will have an active public diplomacy component in planning to meet its short-term objectives, but at the same time maintain a long-term strategy that will better prepare the ground for the next generation of diplomats working in that public opinion environment.



1. Bartleby.Com/American Heritage Dictionary
2. Merriam-Webster OnLine

Comments from readers

Those of us who were practitioners in the field can attest to the absolute correctness of McClellan's views, sometimes subtle and long term, sometimes striking, as when all the heads of states and other policy-makers had been Fulbrighters here. (I should say prime ministers rather than heads of state, since Juan Carlos in Spain was technical head of state when, for example, Pep Gonsalez was actual head of state, as far as we know.

The key ingredient is that a policy maker have a comfortable and extensive knowledge of American society, and that means extensive interaction with Americans.

How and why key people don't understand the importance of this phenomenon is a puzzle. Rummy for example, had great praise for USIA in an interview with Chris Matthews, but did not take it to the next logical step of again having a USIA.

I think that a key factor, though unspoken, is that some key people in the administration don't understand that partisan political differences cease at water's edge. Overseas, we are all promoters of the country plan, whether the president is Nixon or Carter. Here we focus on the political and values issues, but over there, we close ranks.

- Joel Rochow

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Posted: 27 March 2005.
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