As a field of study in international relations, public diplomacy came to prominence in 1965 with the founding of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. One of the Centre's earlier brochures noted that public diplomacy: with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; communication between those whose job is communication, as between diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the processes of inter-cultural communications.

All diplomacy is an exercise in persuasion and influence. Public diplomacy differs only in its methodology and in terms of whom it sets out to influence and persuade. Traditional diplomacy seeks to influence the influential. Public diplomacy too reaches out to the decision makers and opinion formers, but it also casts its net much wider, beyond the influential few to the 'uninvolved' many. Public diplomacy differs from the traditional diplomacy in that public diplomacy deals not only with governments but primarily with non-governmental individuals and organizations. Furthermore, public diplomacy activities often present many differing views as represented by private individuals and organizations in addition to official Government views.

The conduct of public diplomacy is therefore broader in scope and less regulated by the laws and protocols that govern relationships between elites in traditional diplomacy. The overriding concern of a country's public diplomacy is to influence in a positive way the public or elite opinion of another country in order to promote its own interests.

The definitions adopted by the United States of America (US), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada and Australia are based on this unifying notion that public diplomacy is about 'getting other people on your side—about influencing other people's opinion and attitudes'. They acknowledge that to persuade the leaders of other nations and their parliaments to support policies, the citizens of that country must be persuaded.

Public Diplomacy in the US

In 2003, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), explained that the State Department's public diplomacy goal was: inform, engage, and influence global audiences. This goal is aimed at reaching out beyond foreign governments to promote better appreciation of the United States abroad, greater receptivity to U.S. policies among foreign publics, and sustained access and influence in important sectors of foreign societies.  In November 2005, a report by the United States Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy defined the objectives of public diplomacy in similar terms. It noted that although public diplomacy has many facets, it was critical to understand that its core goal is 'to advance policies'. The committee added that 'Public diplomacy entails informing, engaging and influencing foreign publics so that they may, in turn, encourage their governments to support key U.S. policies'. In 2006, the GAO introduced 'understanding' as a key element of public diplomacy. It noted that the overall goal of US public diplomacy efforts was: understand, inform, engage and influence the attitudes and behaviour of global audiences in ways that support the United States' strategic interests.

Public Diplomacy in the UK

In March 2002, the British Wilton Review defined public diplomacy as 'that work which aims at influencing in a positive way the perceptions of individuals and organisations overseas about the UK and their engagement with the UK'. The review team emphasised that the definition must seek to define the impact of this work on the target audience.  In December 2005, the Lord Carter Review argued that the Wilton Review's definition was inadequate because it did 'not explain what public diplomacy seeks to achieve, or why'. It defined public diplomacy as—'work aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas, in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals'. This definition now guides the work of the established UK Public Diplomacy Board.

Public Diplomacy in Canada

In 2005, Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC) produced Canada's International Policy Statement which recognised the growing importance of public diplomacy: Public diplomacy is about projecting a coherent and influential voice to all those who have influence within a society—not just within its government. Canada’s credibility and influence abroad will be built not only by Government action but by Canadians themselves—artists, teachers, students, travellers, researchers, experts and young people—interacting with people abroad. Public diplomacy includes cultural events, conferences, trade shows, youth travel, foreign students in Canada, Canadian studies abroad and visits of opinion leaders. All this cultivates long-term relationships, dialogue and understanding abroad, underpins our advocacy and increases our influence. Public diplomacy is also crucial to achieving our foreign policy goals. By persuading others as to the value of our proposals and strategies, or by engaging in cross-cultural dialogue, we can take important steps in furthering shared objectives of importance to Canadians.

Although different in their wording, the three definitions of public diplomacy have a common understanding that the main objective of public diplomacy is to influence the perceptions, opinions and attitudes of people in other countries in a way that will serve the home country's foreign policy interests. They all acknowledge that public diplomacy is not directed at influencing elites alone: that it works outside the boundaries of traditional diplomacy.

Public Diplomacy in Australia

Australia's use of the term 'public diplomacy' is consistent with the general notion of influencing other countries in order to protect and promote national interests. The Australian Foreign Affairs Affairs and Trade regards public diplomacy primarily 'as a means for communicating with populations of other countries, influencing opinion overseas' and projecting Australia's national image abroad. Public diplomacy is about reaching out to the populations and decision-makers of other countries and shaping their opinions and shaping their image of us.

Although different in their wording, the four definitions of public diplomacy have a common understanding that the main objective of public diplomacy is to influence the perceptions, opinions and attitudes of people in other countries in a way that will serve the home country's foreign policy interests. They all acknowledge that public diplomacy is not directed at influencing elites alone: that it works outside the boundaries of traditional diplomacy.

The Scope of Public Diplomacy

The definitions used by the US, UK, Canadian and Australian governments or their officials are instructive. They are based on the core concept that public diplomacy is directed at influencing in a positive way the attitudes of individuals and organisations in order to build support from foreign countries for the nation's objectives. In this way, good public diplomacy complements conventional diplomacy—it is 'done before it is needed not afterwards',  public diplomacy paves the way for traditional diplomacy: it lays the groundwork.

Although public diplomacy is clearly tied to the notion of shaping public perceptions, its application to the day-to-day activities of government agencies creates difficulties in determining whether an activity or program should be specifically designated as public diplomacy. In many cases, the primary purpose of an activity may not be public diplomacy even though it contributes significantly to public diplomacy. For example, agencies that are concerned with attracting visitors or students to their country are charged with presenting their country in the best light for these select groups. In doing so, they effectively project an attractive image of their country that contributes to public diplomacy. Similarly, cultural institutions that showcase their unique artistic achievements overseas are effectively engaging in public diplomacy. Developmental or humanitarian aid programs can also contribute to a country's public diplomacy. Even though they are primarily intended to assist countries in need and not to enhance one's influence abroad—an improved reputation is often a by-product of delivering such aid.

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