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Is “Public Diplomacy” really Diplomacy or a Form of Marketing to an International Audience?

by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.

Public Diplomacy Defined 

Public diplomacy is not  a form of marketing for an international audience. The generally accepted definition of diplomacy is the conduct of relations of sovereign states through agents and the use of tactful communication, international negotiations among states, and as an instrument of foreign policy.   As an aspect of diplomacy, public diplomacy is generally concerned with the influence of public opinion on the formulation and implementation of foreign policy.

The objective of influencing public opinion has long been one of the aims of foreign policy even before the introduction of the term “public diplomacy”. Public diplomacy, which was coined in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, dean of the Fletcher School of  Law and Diplomacy in Boston, gained wide usage by the United States during the Cold War era.

Public diplomacy was employed as a strategic tool to influence nations to support the  anti-communist cause of the U.S. versus USSR.  The weapon of the U.S. is its liberal democratic values, love of freedom, and free market ideas.   As an instrument of statecraft, public diplomacy complemented U.S. military campaign through communication and persuasion. For instance, the US government disseminated information through state-run or supported media establishments such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War. The United States Information Agency (USIA), before it merged with the State Department in 1999, also played a key role by disseminating information on U.S. values and lifestyles through motion pictures, cultural exchanges, and publications. The aim of USIA was to promote national interest and security through “understanding, informing, and influencing” foreign publics and establish linkages with non-state actors.  In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, public diplomacy regained its popularity through the campaign to win  “hearts and minds”  of the international public, particularly in the Middle East through civil-military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Public diplomacy is not a sales pitch aimed at a profit. To be effective, PD must be engaged in a dialogue with the foreign publics. It is not a one way or top down communication activity but a two-way communication which gives importance to listening as much as in conveying its message and influencing public opinion.  Cultural understanding is key to communication because information is filtered through the cultural senses of the listener. PD is also not propaganda which has a negative connotation of being manipulative, deceitful and uses elements of coercion by more powerful states.  Rather using “hard power” its approach is what Joseph Nye’s calls “soft power”.

The method of modern public diplomacy is rather different from marketing.  Nicolas Cull of the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy divides public diplomacy methods into “listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy and international broadcasting”.  Whereas in the past, communication was one-way and non-interactive, current practice uses various forms of media and new technologies in conveying messages and receiving feedbacks from the audience.  Listening has become an essential feature of public diplomacy.

On-line social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have added a new dimension to public diplomacy the same way it did a decade ago when the so-called “CNN Effect” made an impact on public diplomacy delivery by emphasising immediate response to crisis situations and sound bites. An important contribution of the internet is the localization or domestication of international affairs.  Social networks have played a role in rallying young people to fight against tyranny which had a domino-effect from Tehran, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. From being an obscure domestic issue, people power in Tunisia was seen on You Tube and incited replication from other countries in the Middle East.

In terms of advocacy, public diplomacy promotes its national culture and ideas. Thus, cultural exchanges, scholarship grants and exchanges are included in the basket of goods aimed at influencing public opinion or to gain the support of foreign audience.

Let me add that public diplomacy can have various applications. For some countries, the distinction of PD and public affairs is blurred.  For instance, for the Philippines and India, which have large diaspora communities overseas, its public diplomacy effort is not only aimed to influence  foreign audiences but also to influence the public opinion of its citizens overseas. In the age of information technology, a state’s public diplomacy initiative is easily accessible to a wider foreign audience as well as to the domestic audience and foreign citizens abroad.

Thus, diplomats are required to be ever responsive to the needs of its citizens overseas because not doing so would put the government and the diplomats in a bad light.

In conclusion, public diplomacy, as an aspect of diplomacy,   is not a form of international marketing. Public diplomacy is not a sales pitch and it is not concerned with selling a product for profit.   Its aim is to pursue national interest by informing and influencing public attitudes to support its political and strategic intentions.

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