Zhui: U.S. public diplomacy through Corporate Engagement

imageIn 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.

They did.

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.

Zhui: To Chase and Pursue a Clear Goal in Mind. The subtitled ad is available here. The full video, without subtitles, is available from Nike China here.

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?

4 thoughts on “Zhui: U.S. public diplomacy through Corporate Engagement

  1. Well, Matt, here we go again with the one-term-fits-all-approach to international PR. Is Coca-Cola PD too? Bill Gates fighting malaria? The Southern Baptist Missionary Board programs in West Africa? They all have arguably positive impacts in terms of the U.S. Brand “USA”?

  2. The question is not wether or not what Coca-cola or Nike does is PD, the question is if the US government takes activities like what Matt mentioned into account when measuring the totality of how the US brand is represented to the world….because the Chinese sure think of it that way, even if we do not.To paraphrase a quote from the US Ambassador to South Africa from a luncheon this week, “The US commercial sector needs to go on its own to open up new markets in the developing world independent of the US Government’s involvement” – the gap between the brand of the US as a people and the brand of the US as nation-state grows ever wider – with the entity responsible for the nation-state end of things (the USG) being left behind.

  3. Obviously any serious effort to assess influence must take into account its many forms, including that of the private, non-profit, and religious sectors. The question I (and many others) raise is the value of categorizing all these as “PD.” To be sure, the idea of PD has proven a useful bureaucratic catch-all for information, culture, and education programs at State, which is what its career FSO inventor at Fletcher intended. But to apply the term to encompass all forms of influence dilutes whatever meaning it might ever have had.It ends up taking in all international relations that are not narrowly state-to-state.There’s a curious irony in raising the example of South Africa. In no country is there a greater legacy of USG diplomacy (failure to seriously challenge apartheid) deferring to private sector interests (large-scale US corporate investments), something Africans remember clearly. The corporate US “brand” was well established, the result of decades of going “on its own to open new markets in the developing world,” in this case a white-ruled South Africa, a reality that fed southern African perceptions of our foreign policy that linger today. Africans don’t share the very American trait of ignoring the past.

  4. American Multi-National conduct “DP” on a daily basis if we classify “DP” as promoting American values and interest. Consider the local national (or group) that partner with a US company (like KFC or McDonalds) which employs people and over time leads to the development of a middle class. Not all activities can or should be tied to “publicity” type events which in many cases, reinforce a pre-existing belief or perception of the US. If we were to identify areas of foreign areas of influence that the USG desired a specific effect, we could and should partners with US Multi-Nationals, NGO, PVOs, etc to see what they could do to advance the cause. Not sure if this occurred with Exxon in the Niger delta region as they have been conducting economic development in an effort to stabilize a volatile area that they operate. Understandably, the USG might have to “sweeten” the deal with tax breaks or other compensation type agreements in order to offset cost and business decisions that may not be initially in the corporations interest. Overall, I think that people generally desire a better standard of living which US business has been proving along with the ideals and aspirations associated with traditional American values.

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