In the debate over what is and is not public diplomacy, here’s another example to throw into the mix. In 2009, the ad agency for Nike China won an award for its series on Liu Xiang, a Chinese phenom in the hurdles. Liu carried the inspirations of China into the Beijing Olympic games in 2008. In the qualifying heat for the 110-meter hurdles, however, he suffered a severe and debilitating injury. He left the stadium and comments like ““This is such a disgrace for China” followed him. The Chinese government had invested heavily in Liu as a star for China: he was the first Chinese (or Asian) to win gold in the hurdles, with a world record in the 110 at Athens. But now, Liu was done.
Nike, Liu’s sponsor, had also invested heavily in him. Liu’s image was all over China. He was “China’s answer to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, combined.” Nike didn’t drop him. In fact, they brought him to the United States to rehabilitate him.
The result is a great story captured in ads that played in China. Where is the public diplomacy in this? Where the government could do nothing but express disappointment, the West resurrected hope and dream. Liu may wear “CHINA” on his jersey, but he also wears the Swoosh and in the end any fame and glory he brings to the Chinese Government is because of an American company. Many Chinese know this, especially after watching the “Chase” ad.
This engagement reflects on the American people, our spirit and determination, and creates a connection through a common, non-verbal language. It fits perfectly within the public diplomacy purpose, methods and goals, except it was conducted by a commercial organization. Call it public relations, or corporate social responsibility, or call it public diplomacy (but not “corporate diplomacy” any other “niche” nonsense that may sound good but ultimately confuses and dilutes the discussion), such activities should be encouraged and supported.
For convenience, I’m happy to call it “public diplomacy” because of its impact, not its speaker. What do you think?