Author, Richard WERLY , Associate Fellow of the DiploFoundation (Geneva)

Context and Objectives

A good public diplomacy campaign cannot be implemented without proper professional instruments and qualified dissemination agents and operators. These agents need the ability to spread your message, and, at a certain stage, to get access to key decision-makers for your administration’s envoy or officials. Here it may be useful to point out the close interaction between public diplomacy and lobbying. These activities usually work hand in hand, although they are distinct. Public diplomacy aims to shape/reshape the image of your country or organization and to promote your essential values, norms and standards. Lobbying consists of employing adequate resources to open doors and gain access to decision-makers.  

You might also use well connected nationals of your country or members of your diaspora to get access to local politicians or decision-makers.

A good and effective public diplomacy mix usually brings together different sets of talents: advertising, public relations, branding and lobbying are among the most obvious ones. Public diplomacy objectives also force operators to deal with a mixed set of tools to show the best of your country or institution: economic relations, trade, tourism, heritage preservation and cultural activities, among others. Ministries of foreign affairs or international trade rarely have staff members with strong experience or skills in all of these different areas. Sadly, as they are considered to have limited importance, these dimensions are often handled by junior diplomats or even temporary employees and consultants. The tendency is to outsource public diplomacy to part-time professionals with relevant credentials.

1: Choosing the right internal cast

Public diplomacy brings together diplomats, civil servants and international relations experts in order to deal with a completely new set of tools and targets. The expected outputs of a public policy campaign are difficult to put in figures and very often depend on external circumstances: image, appreciation, recognition and broad acceptance by the targeted public or audience. Public diplomacy is, in essence, a fluid discipline. It requires practitioners, above all, to adapt their role, mission and techniques to the needs of the time. The choice of external partners, from advertising agencies to branding agencies and public relations consultants, should also be viewed in this context. For these reasons, public diplomacy requires a different set of talents and expertise than traditional diplomacy. Talented diplomats and foremost experts in fields like international relations or international law may not have an aptitude for public diplomacy. Traditional foreign ministry hierarchies and typical performance evaluation may not apply well in this field. Public diplomacy is an horizontal, cross-cutting discipline that is trying to find its footing in ministries or administrations that are accustomed to vertical structures. A certain degree of autonomy is essential in a public diplomacy campaign, which implies interacting with external, non-diplomatic actors: media, NGOs, business circles and others. Along with the obvious actors, it may be important at the start of a campaign to bring in additional expertise from anthropologists, sociologists or other academics who may have a deeper knowledge of the audience and the subjects you intend to touch on. You may think of a public diplomacy campaign as a ‘crossing lines experience’ that often has a cultural dimension attached to it. Never underestimate feelings, cross-cultural clichés, historical roots or cultural antagonisms. In public diplomacy, success comes with mutual understanding.  Therefore, the first criterion when forming a public diplomacy task force is mind-set adequacy. By and large, officials in charge of public diplomacy should be proactive (skilled in anticipation), reactive (skilled at proposing arguments and solutions when a crisis erupts), interactive (at ease in dealing with the public), and friendly to academia and civil society. A good cast is a solid basis for a successful campaign. You may bring in outsiders from other fields to help promote a public diplomacy campaign. For example, some countries retain a kind of reserve diplomatic service, with professionals serving as ‘diplomats at large’ when requested by their foreign ministries. Plugging into that pool of experts may prove useful. You might even suggest the creation of such a pool to your own diplomatic corps. Your country’s diaspora has the potential to be a powerful means of delivering messages, and accessing and influencing local media. The diaspora can also serve as a benchmark to test your ideas and see whether they fit into the host country culture. It can be useful to convene, at an early stage, meetings with relevant members of the diaspora to test their willingness to cooperate and get their first reactions to your proposals

2. Setting the right goals

Public diplomacy is about trust. When dealing with external actors, diplomats should never forget this key word. The aim of a successful public diplomacy campaign is to persuade your target public to trust your ideas, platform or arguments. However, public diplomacy in itself is not a short cut to trust. The creation of trust ultimately depends on the arguments, campaign and initiatives that are employed to create an environment where the public, governments and business leaders will trust that you are a reliable partner.

Establishing goals that inspire trust is a key element in a public diplomacy campaign, and this must be done before hiring any external advisers. Trust is created through:

  • Clear goals and arguments: there can be no trust without understanding.
  • The capacity of your government/country to fulfil your objectives: there can be no trust without a certain degree of strength and respect.
  • The legitimacy of your arguments/position: we trust those whose positions make sense.
  • The broader acceptance of your objectives: trust is easier if you feel the other government defends a goal that matters to your life or country, too. Therefore, after having chosen the right cast, setting the right goal becomes the second step. It is not only about asking the basic question: What do we want to achieve? It may also be about choosing between two or three diplomatic priorities: Am I going to go global with my fight against global warming? Or am I going to put resources towards the court case pending at the International Court of Justice? Very few countries have the luxury of entertaining permanent, global, horizontal public diplomacy efforts. Very often, constraints in budgets, human resources and available expertise lead countries to choose one or two crucial issues on which they hope to make a difference. At this stage, you may engage public diplomacy experts to contribute to the discussion. Can this objective be ‘sold’ to worldwide public opinion or the media? What will be needed to achieve these goals, especially if a timetable is attached (e.g. a pending court case)? The success of a public diplomacy campaign very much depends on its design prior to its effective launch. Keep in mind the need to simultaneously get access to stakeholders and decision-makers. Building a strong network of connections, through various lobbying efforts, is one of the keys of a successful public diplomacy campaign.

3. Decoding the language of the agencies

The decision to outsource a public diplomacy campaign should be based on a clear scoreboard:  Don’t hire an international agency or a foreign-based consultant to tell you what to do, hire them to tell you how to do it. Individual consultants with a deep knowledge of your country, especially if they have a long personal history in the country and speak the language, are the ones to consult at the first stage of the campaign. They will help you set the tone, draft the arguments, put the campaign on track. Afterwards, you will only need the locomotive to pull the train. Don’t believe those who pretend to have all the required expertise. The ‘all in one’ campaign is often a trap. Agencies are like people: they can’t be good at everything. Look at their track record: are they good with media, public outreach, branding, market studies, polling? Request one of the senior partners as account director, rather than a junior manager.

4: Pay the agencies well, but don’t be fooled

Budgeting and financial evaluations will very soon become essential if you decide to outsource a public diplomacy campaign or event. Public diplomacy brings in experts whose services are difficult to quantify, and it depends strongly on your ability to get access to stakeholders. Do a crosscheck anytime you have doubts about the expertise of your interlocutor. There is a price tag attached to everything. These agencies pay their experts, staff and consultants very high fees. Keep the following recommendations in mind:

  • Small budgets cannot produce large results if they are used poorly. Outsourcing public diplomacy campaigns to leading agencies is a rather expensive decision. Well-connected consultants do not come cheap and this is understandable. But do not forget that you can do many things in-house if you identify competent people in your administration and team them up with local or international consultants. A media trip can be arranged by your local embassy with the help of a media/public relations expert as coordinator. A good book on a specific topic can be produced at affordable costs by correspondents with in-depth knowledge of your country. Small budgets can produce results if they are properly allocated.
  • Large budgets, nevertheless, have more chance of bringing massive results. Moreover, there are times when bargaining over the budget might become a disadvantage, especially in crisis situations. Do not bargain in crucial times! Spend big when the challenge or objective is worth it. When a diplomatic battle erupts, the winning party is often the one that managed to impose its arguments quickly and make its positions visible and recognisable. Financial risks can pay off in public diplomacy, too. A good way to balance a budget and to obtain the best results is to draft a public diplomacy mapping. This, of course, can be costly too, as it means inviting journalists and other experts and interacting with them. Such a mapping should be done both at home and abroad with the help of your diplomatic missions. It should go along the following lines:
  1. Identify ‘friends’ in media circles: veteran correspondents, journalists who speak your language and are familiar with the issues, etc.
  2. Identify ‘enemies’ or critics: those who deal with your opponents, those who relay their views, etc.
  3. Identify the fields in which your country has an established credibility. This is called the ‘assets list’. Which strings can you pull?
  4.  Identify the regional forums or symposia taking place either in your country or nearby. Spot the subjects to which you may add value.
  5. Identify key officials, either in international organisations or national governments, who can pass on your messages and be your country’s advocates. If you work with an agency, this should be the first checklist you ask them to produce, and it can be completed in a matter of three months.

5: Think different!

The essence of public diplomacy is persuasion, and preconditions for persuasion are communication and understanding. Trust comes as a result, when your partners and interlocutors are convinced you are defending their interests as well as yours, and when they feel that what you say also makes sense for them and their audience. In short, convergence of views is the best recipe for trust. That is why selecting the right partners and advisers is so important. Thinking different, or thinking ‘out of the box’ is critical. Public diplomacy is fluid and, if a crisis erupts, is prone to turbulence. The possibility of facing a crisis of confidence should never be underestimated. Go against the official line: the best public diplomacy argument may not be the one framed by your headquarters or your minister. Try to come up with an alternate set of arguments and help your team consider the pros and cons of any approach. Public diplomacy is about trust, but also about doubts. Express your doubts when you start to elaborate the campaign objectives. Make journalists an asset rather than a target: journalists often know a subject as well as those who brief them. Adopt an inclusive policy with clear guidelines. If you bring in journalists and academics at an early stage in your campaign, they can help you make a difference. Do not underestimate the role of print media in shaping ideas: a sound public diplomacy campaign is not just a matter of image building. It should be backed by academic studies, surveys and other materials that can only be properly disseminated by print media, news websites or blogs. Public exposure needs to be backed up by facts and solid arguments, so it lasts.

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