Public Diplomacy is not Public Relations

To say that the inauguration of President Barack Obama is an opportunity to change the trajectory of America’s global influence and leadership is an understatement. We are, in fact, at a pivotal course change potentially more impactful than any in our history. While it is widely acknowledged that our future course will be shaped by our new President’s words and his actions, the means to ensure and protect the impact of both remain unclear.

In his inaugural address, the President acknowledged the power of public opinion in the conduct and success of our global affairs as he recalled that the defense against communism relied on more than the hard power of the military. “Power alone,” the President said, “cannot protect us nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” The “sturdy alliances” that created and enhanced our security and prosperity were forged by successes in the struggle for minds and wills against a subversive enemy whose primary weapons were not bullets and bombs but ideas and false promises of the future. The United States responded to this “war of ideology” with what was then simply public affairs. There were the “fast” communications of radio broadcasts and movie and newspaper and magazine distribution and “slow” engagement that included cultural presentations and educational exchanges, all of which supported a smart foreign policy that foreign publics could understand, accept, and support.

But over time, the struggle for minds and wills was discounted and even ignored as we supported anybody who was the enemy of our enemy. There was a shift away from a foreign policy that could stand on its own. Foreign aid became a political weapon not a tool to engage people through capacity building and the development of prosperous societies but supporting governments as the struggle shifted from the people to state-against-state. The view from Washington was that our information activities no longer needed to assist foreign policy by promoting it and protecting it from the misinformation and distortions of our adversaries, but to change the subject or to sugar-coat unpopular activities.

The vainglorious policies of the early Bush Administration reflected the utter failure to understand battleground dominated by our adversaries, primarily but not exclusively Al-Qaeda. Our inability to re-adapt to the struggle for minds and wills left open the field to more adversaries blinded us to the importance of understanding solutions as fundamental as trash collection in counterinsurgency.

The derogative view of public opinion in international politics was reflected in the 2004 presidential election the mere suggestion that public opinion should be considered in the formulation of our foreign policy was decried as surrendering sovereignty. America’s “public diplomacy” was, until at least 2008, focused on changing the subject and hoping people would ignore today and focus on the future, both of which were unsurprising failures.

Today, we have an opportunity to reestablish public diplomacy as the tool of national security it must be. The promised sea-change in our foreign policy and the return of the United States to a position of global leadership will not come from deeds alone. What we say and what we do must be synchronized lest the gap between the two becomes exploited by our increasingly adroit adversaries even if what we do is right.

While our national security is dependent on shared goals and convictions with people around the world, we cannot rely on merely who we are and what we say we stand for. This is more than the intelligent use of power. It is about understanding the world around us. We must exercise on a global scale that fundamental principle of democratic leadership: understanding and marshaling public opinion. It is naïve to think that passive access to information about our actions will be the necessary catalyst for action. Likewise, we cannot rely on hard power to create a peaceful environment. Just as we cannot, nor could we ever, “kill our way to victory,” we cannot talk our way to peace.

Public diplomacy is not about changing public opinion unilaterally, but the proactive engagement of global audiences in support of a foreign policy that will stand alone and influence public opinion positively. Public diplomacy must be redefined not as a tool of simply promoting ideas and values but as a critical element of America’s national security based on the direct and indirect engagement of foreign publics, states, and nonstate actors.

It has been over seven years since Richard Holbrooke asked how “can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society” and yet Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates continues to ask essentially the same question. The shortcoming was, as Holbrooke said later in his 2001 editorial, the “apparent initial failure of our message and the inadequacy of our messengers.” The inadequacy of our messengers remains today as our global outreach remains underfunded, poorly structured and underutilized.

We can and should, as the President extolled in his inauguration speech, “do our business in the light of day.” The United States is uniquely positioned in the global struggle for minds and wills to let our foreign policies stand on their own as they will be, or rather should, just and right.

The President and Secretary of State must reform the State Department to be relevant in today’s global “now media” environment. Even “traditional diplomacy” has a strong public awareness and enlistment component. Working with the rest of Government and Congress to empower and equip its Public Diplomacy bureau, the revamped Global Engagement Bureau must coordinate interagency activities and inform everyone from policymakers in Washington to American media and the public to the people of the village of the President’s father in Kenya to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Bold leadership that understands, and can work with, the interagency and inter-tribal processes is necessary. Just as important is working with Congress for funding and tasking. The State Department must become a hub of innovation that implements, trains, and coordinates with the rest of the government. This path requires revamping the incentive structure, breaking from zero-tolerance of informational errors, introducing the military concept of “commander’s intent,” and educating, empowering, encouraging, and equipping all of the State Department of the “now” and ubiquitous global information environment.

If not State then who? It must be the State Department lest it become irrelevant tomorrow as it nearly is today. I wrote a book chapter in 2007 that opened with the sentence “American public diplomacy wears combat boots.” It was a statement of unfortunate fact. If we are to reverse this and have the State Department lead, a situation that the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and nearly everybody in the military who works in information operations and Psychological Operations wants, then the State Department must not look at public diplomacy as public relations but as a core mission of the Department. 

The power to engage global audiences is a national security imperative and must not be a mere tool of public relations. To ignore the critical components in the global struggle of minds and wills is to put our national security at risk. The “justness of our cause” must be aggressively and proactively positioned with the peoples around the world or we surrender the narrative of our actions and intentions to others.

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12 thoughts on “Public Diplomacy is not Public Relations

  1. Well said! I, for one, am very tired of trying to explain to people that public diplomacy is not PR, but much of the public just doesn’t understand the distinction.

  2. Saw the discussion on the FP blog stemming from Al Kamen’s comment re Judith McHale. Having someone running PD at State who clearly understands the entire span of media ops such as Discovery may be a very big and important plus. Our key advances and successes in the so-called “War of Ideas”–may that phrase soon vanish, Inshallah–have not come from government funded and managed efforts, they’ve come from content produced by the private sector and delivered via connectivity owned and operated via that same private sector. As a boxcar-load of studies have suggested, we must find ways to partner with them more effectively, and perhaps having an Under Sec from that worlod will help.

  3. “If not State then who? It must be State or it will simply become irrelevant tomorrow as it nearly is today.” Really? What has changed? Another Charlotte Beers in the wings as U/S for PD and PA! The definition of insanity is to keep repeating the mistakes of the past without learning anything from them.Then who? The answer to this question is really so obvious…a USIA-like operational agency responsible to the President should be the principal but not the only actor. Public diplomacy is a cross-agency responsibility like it or not–more than 60 agencies, departments and federal entities conduct international educational exchanges and training. Coordination must rest with the ultimate coordinator of the federal government– the Office of the President.

  4. PD is not PR: Er… why not?With due respect to Mitch’s explanation fatigue, can someone point me towards an already existing study of the distinction?
    I’ve read a lot of language purporting to explain the distinction, and all I’ve really discovered (so far) is that PD practitioners don’t seem to understand PR; or are so eager not to be tarred with that brush that they cling to their conceit of distinction regardless of fact – straw men, in particular, abound (please note: PR is not marketing; attempted distinctions based on ‘salesmanship’ I find unconvincing).
    But I confess I see nothing in Matt’s post above – under the familiar ‘PD is not PR’ refrain – that describes anything about PD that doesn’t/wouldn’t fall into the purview of good PR.
    I would suggest the PD failures of the Bush admin are little to do with an administration doing good PR instead of good PD – they simply did a bad job (regardless of whether you call it PD or PR).

  5. A2.0,You raise important and necessary points that I read as agreement with my principle argument above and elsewhere that, simply put, public diplomacy includes public relations but public relations does not include public diplomacy. Public relations is primarily about direct engagement whereas public diplomacy is heavy on developing proxies that may or may not refer to the original principal (the US).
    Public diplomacy relies (or should rely) much more on agentry than public relations. Put in terms of “us versus them”, public diplomacy is also engaged in the “them versus them” debates whereas public relations does not extend that far focusing instead on the principal’s immediate relationships. The networks in PD are thus more extensive, the tools far more broad, and with subject areas that are hard to relate public relations (including building local governance, media, culture of law, economies, etc. + humanitarian aid, health, etc.).
    To your point, I agree wholeheartedly that most commentators who refer to the “Madison Avenue” approach of Hughes and Beers ignore that they didn’t really practice the Madison Avenue approach or smart public relations. It was more akin to poor (maybe blind is a better word) advertising.
    Your thoughts?

  6. Matt,Didn’t want to hijack your blog with a multipage post; I commend, and am grateful for, your ability to infer most of what I was getting at based on the ‘cliff notes’ I offered 🙂
    We agree on much and yes, you certainly have my agreement that the PR/PD Venn diagram is not disjoint. I also happily agree that they’re not synonymous, and to those who write “PD is not PR” with this meaning in mind, I have no argument.
    But some do seem to be arguing that the two are disjoint; linked only through a superficial similarity in the tools employed. So far, at least, I’ve yet to hit a persuasive argument for this thesis, and so I reject it.
    And while I strongly agree with you that PR & PR are related, I (so far) hesitate to agree with your suggested characterization of the nature of that relationship.
    What is public relations? Do we have a problem with “Engagement with publics to support organizational objectives” as a working definition?
    If not, then to offer you a few of your own words, Matt, PD is “the direct or indirect engagement of foreign publics to support national security objectives”.
    I hope it’s clear that I’m aiming to be illustrative rather than pedantic when I point out that the definition of PD is therefore a clear subset of the definition of PR. (Would it be less connotatively loaded to phrase that as a clear specialization of the definition of PR?)
    A little less abstractly, for instance, I note you emphasize that a peculiar characteristic of PD is the proxy. But actually I’d suggest that’s only true on a quantitative basis, not a qualitative one.
    Agentry and proxy development are absolutely within the realm of PR. To consider just a couple of (infamous) examples:

    • The various astroturf NGO’s that sprouted in Washington a few years ago to discredit or downplay climate change. A brief dip into the funding and staffing of these organizations and it rapidly became clear that they were merely agents for ‘carbon emitting corporates’. Not only did these NGO’s not refer to their original principals, they often did everything they could to actively obscure them. These were PR constructs, pure and simple.
    • As a more humorous exemplar: The Institute for Tobacco Studies from the movie Thank you for Smoking (yes, a fictitious example to be sure, but satirically fictitious, not fantastically).
    • Is it too much of a troll to make reference to a certain assemblage of swift boat veterans?

    Quite simply, it’s ‘PR of absolute last resort’ (or absolutely no budget) to have direct agents of companies arguing with a town hall full of soccer moms; you always, always develop a proxy instead. Indeed, if we were of a cynical frame of mind, corporate support for specific politicians or political parties could be construed as nothing more than PR proxy development.
    The distinction of subject area strikes me as valid, but with respect, logically trivial. If I am a linguist of German, Finnish and Swedish languages, and I meet someone who studies the languages of Asia, I don’t suggest they’re not a linguist on the grounds that the subject is completely different. To be sure, it’s absolutely true that pretty much the only similarity between Finnish and Taiwanese is that they’re noises made by humans; but that difference doesn’t distinguish a discipline.
    Moreover, many of the subject areas you mention are in fact a core part various PR strategies. e.g.

    • Health: Pharma companies donate free drugs to developing countries, indeed often in conjunction with govt/PD. They do this both for the PR payoff ‘back home’, but also for the PR payoff in the recipient country e.g. a government more willing to enforce pharma IP, and outlaw generics.
    • Humanitarian aid: Ironically, PR driven corporates are often ‘purer’ in this than PD/govt models. The act of giving (and then talking about it, of course) is itself the PR payoff; they don’t need to link the aid to any behavior or attribute shift with the recipient,
    • Building local governance: I have specific experience in engaging with this driven by PR – the payoff was twofold:
      1. the support itself went down well in the local populace
      2. stronger local government helped mitigate an unfavorable central government policy position


    Again, very happy to concede that such examples are comparatively rare in PR; but I guess my point is that this doesn’t spring from distinction in discipline, but rather from the usual needs of typical clients.
    Hence my suggestion (not unique, of course) that PD sits comfortably as a specialization of PR.
    (Apologies for incoherence; written in haste)

  7. A2.0,Good examples. You forced me to reconsider the relationship to public relations and recall that public diplomacy and public relations are brothers of the same father (or fathers). They are not, as we’d both agree, not identical brothers. However, using your examples, public diplomacy remains the more expansive “brother.”
    The rarity of your latter examples go toward my point that PD>PR. But they need to be taken farther. PD may involve negotiating with a population at a distance. This is not meant geographically, although physical distance is likely, but in terms of networks. Imagine a network where the central node is The Company (any company, not a company with a Farm). How many nodes away would The Company’s PR try to reach? Two degree? Seven? All stop, let’s get back to that.
    According to Wikipedia (thanks for pushing me to look at the definition btw), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) claimed: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” Public relations is, according to a parent common to both PD and PR, Edward Louis Bernays, defined “as a management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization… followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.” Another definition, apparently modern definition says “Public Relations is a set of management, supervisory, and technical functions that foster an organization’s ability to strategically listen to, appreciate, and respond to those persons whose mutually beneficial relationships with the organization are necessary if it is to achieve its missions and values.”
    Back to my question. It seems from the above definitions (also note your admission above regarding the example about building self-governance) that engaging through several layers of proxies for indirect payoff is beyond PR.
    It may be worthwhile to point out that my definition of public diplomacy is broader than most. I see empowering locals to defend against “others” (the “other” can be our adversaries or it can be local crime, local terrorist, or poverty, disease, and deprivation, etc) as ultimately part of public diplomacy because it ultimately builds up a bulwark against our enemies and benefits America directly (reduced security threat, potential ally) and indirectly (examplar for others, pushes to reduce security threats around them). To me, PD would and should reach far away in the network to address distant nodes because a shock anywhere may have severe reprucussions in the middle (because we’re always at the center you know).
    Thus PD>PR.

  8. Matt,Touché sir, well argued. I especially thought the nodal distinction was nice: Highly illustrative, very productive.
    So, how many nodes away would a company’s PR attempt to reach? Actually I would answer that a company’s PR would attempt to traverse as lengthy an Eurlerian amble as is deemed effective in accomplishing it’s goal(s). But the distinction I feel you’re making(?), and that I’m entirely ready to agree with, is that those goals are almost always defined by the L(1) nodes, those immediately adjacent to the “The Company” or – pulling back from linga mathematica for a moment – an organization’s direct public(s).
    A sophisticated PR campaign may well span 2, 7, or 27 vertices; but generally speaking only if a determination is made that doing so is a ‘cost effective’ way to reach the L(1) set.
    i.e. Corporate PR has no problem with sending out far ripples, but perhaps only for the purpose of generating rebounds and loopbacks (or in the case of more longitudinally aware corporates, to lay the groundwork for future ‘rebounds’, or to indirectly engage with nodes which may be directly adjacent at some future point).
    Thus arises, if I understand you correctly, your assertion that that engaging through several layers of proxies for indirect payoff is beyond PR.
    Again, while I agree with most of that statement, I hesitate to agree with all of it. Specifically, while I readily concede that engaging through several layers of proxies for indirect payoff is seldom required of corporate PR, I’m not convinced “beyond” is entirely accurate.
    But conceding “beyond” in the above formulation for the sake of discussion, Corporate PR is again only one particular specialization within PR entire.
    Posit our definitionally referenced organization as not “The (Farmless) Company”, but perhaps rather as “The NGO”.
    The goals of NGO’s are often, as you suggest is the case with PD, far more diffuse across the network. An NGO, when deploying its PR messaging, does not define it’s goals by (direct) relationships established or managed; but, familiarly, in ‘hearts, minds, and wills’ won.
    e.g. When WWF puts out “climate change is bad”, all they really care about is that Kevin Bacon buys a Prius. If he does, then WWF PR chalks up a win, regardless of whether there is ever any direct relationship between WWF and Kevin Bacon; regardless of whether Kevin Bacon ever realizes it was WWF PR that (through whatever proxies) influenced his purchasing decision; even regardless of whether any of the proxies go Prius shopping.
    I’d suggest that either we have to assert that what WWF is doing there is not PR (an assertion I know we’d find little support for within the PR discipline); or we have to recognize that PR is more than capable of, and for the appropriate client is indeed tasked directly with, “engaging through several layers of proxies for indirect payoff”; or with “reaching far away in the network to address distant nodes”.
    So where I still find myself is that I can easily think of ‘stuff’ within PR that’s outside the bounds of PD (even if only the trivial “PR can be done for/by/on behalf of non-state actors”); but I still don’t see anything in PD that lies beyond the pale of PR (atypical within the realm of most practice of PR, sure – but that’s not the same thing).
    Thus PR>PD 🙂
    Btw: To add to the collection, I also find merit in the definition of PR from IPRA / The World Assembly of PR Associations:
    Public relations practice is the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling the organization’s leadership, and implementing planned programmes of action which will serve both the organization’s and the public interest.
    The mercenary in me balks a little at the ultimate inclusion of the public interest – I suspect the PR industry is deploying a touch of PR on its own behalf there – but some nonetheless useful language, I think.
    (It’s way too a.m. for this much thinking; time to go squeeze a coffee-fruit)

  9. A2.0,I will respond in greater detail later, but right now let me ask if public relations is concerned about creating the capacity of the far-flung to deny an adversarial message or product? This is not the same as accepting or buying your product or message. This is enabling or empowering through direct or (and more likely) indirect means to reject an adverse course of action or message (this could be labeled as inoculation against an adversary’s ideas).
    While this would seem to fit within the definition of the PR from IPRA you cite above, I doubt that in practice a public relations executive would recommend this course of action that has an indistinct or immeasurable payoff along an indeterminate time horizon, regardless of public interest. If this is not a practice of PR is a really a component of PR?

  10. Matt,I would suggest the answer to your (first) question is absolutely yes; though again we may best find illustration with NGO examples, rather than corporate ones, for it to be clear.
    To continue to pick on WWF and climate change; a consideration and goal of their PR is absolutely the empowerment of remote/indirect publics to reject the counter proposition(s) that either climate change is fake; or, if not fake, unimportant; or, if important, inevitable and beyond the scope of humanity’s influence.
    They not only want to promote the purchase of Prius’; they want to inoculate against the purchase of SUV’s.

  11. A2.0,Your reliance on outliers to prove your point indicates your argument is based on what public relations could definitionally be and not what it is. Your examples of NGO, WWF in particular, is less about developing relations but negotiations with publics. These are the activities of non-state actors that seek broadly influence the human terrain, or in other words, influence the minds of people to affect their will to act in a certain way that may be only indirect beneficial to the principal. This is not public relations. The exceptions do not make the rule in this case.
    Simply put, Public Diplomacy relies more on proxies, their arguments and their activities than public relations. Cultural and Educational Exchange programs foster experiences and create knowledge for some payoff down the road that a Public Relations person would be hard pressed to justify for both the “indirectness” and unknown ROI. International Broadcasting, notably the “heyday” of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, emphasized access to news to empower and educate because that influence local actions against our adversary, which was more important than moving the needle far into our court. That was intended and beneficial, yes, but rejecting the Communists was the primary goal.
    Public Diplomacy is, at its essence and at its roots, about empowering “them” to reject adversarial ideas and practices. This was lost in the bipolar politics of the 1970’s through 1990’s but it was the fundamental reason behind the programs institutionalized by the Smith-Mundt Act, the European Recovery Plan, much of the activities of the USIA under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, etc.

  12. Matt,I confess I’m a little surprised by the most recent turn in the conversation. When I suggested above that “…either we have to assert that what WWF is doing there is not PR…“; I skipped rapidly past that thought because I hadn’t actually expected anyone/you to make that assertion.
    Let me simply respond that in point of fact I have not relied on outliers – atypical on a trivial headcount basis, perhaps, but not outliers – in attempting to offer hypothetical illustrations.
    The WWF and climate change example; far from being an outlier, is merely an extraordinarily ordinary instantiation of issues management on behalf of an NGO (PRSA def: Systemic identification and action regarding public policy matters of concern to an organization); a practice which lies well within the heartland of normal public relations, and the sort of thing PR firms do all the time (admittedly often on a pro bono basis). Or if I may more explicitly contradict your suggestion, this absolutely is public relations (though of course I allow, as I would with PD, that it’s a specialization within PR).
    You mention that it’s less about developing relations but Matt, please don’t be misled by a simple reading of the term “Public Relations”; as I thought we’d covered in our quick survey of definitions; you don’t need to stray into outlier territory to see that PR does not always involve direct relationship building between ‘public’ and initiating organization; or even necessarily relationship building per se at all.
    On the other hand, …Public Diplomacy relies more on proxies… seems to be surviving nicely as a point of distinction, at least as long as we underline “more” [Also as per Darren]. I’d suggest that we do need that emphasis, though, for it to hold true.
    As a side note, but since you bring it up, I’d suggest there is of course a very familiar PR analogue to exchange programs: Internships (or the somewhat more grown up ‘fellowship’).
    To be sure, internships are partly HR driven – a recruitment tool. But they’re also a PR tool:

    1. You identify the best and brightest, those likely to become future leaders;
    2. you invite them ‘in’;
    3. you treat them well, introduce them to your organization’s culture, support them as they make friends and build relationships inside the organization;
    4. then you send them ‘back’;
    5. later you might recruit them, ‘immigrating’ them onto the payroll;
    6. or they may go on to success and leadership in other companies, in government, in academia, whatever.

    Does anybody (perhaps with ECA experience) want to suggest whether any of that sounds familiar?
    But to return to the central question: Your lattermost thought, that PD is predominantly framed in the negative – inoculating against; supporting the rejection of; etc – would also seem a robust point of distinction. PR will will go positive or negative as required, and I wouldn’t contest the suggestion that, unlike PD, neither is necessarily predominant in PR.
    But if that’s all we’ve got: PD relies more on proxies and is more often framed in the negative; then we’re absolutely still stuck with PD ⊂ PR.
    (Perhaps surprisingly so, because while that’s been my null hypothesis for purpose of inquiry, it’s not my ‘gut’ feel.)

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