Public Diplomacy- a reality or myth?

As a final year Diplomacy and IR student I have been exposed to how public diplomacy is conducted from the confinements of a nation state territory through visits to various Embassies and use of other mediums such as social media, newspapers, television and radio. The question that sprung to my mind was, what exactly is public diplomacy? How does it work? What is the purpose of public diplomacy? Does it have an impact in how the targeted public thinks or acts? Is there any difference between this form of activity and that one, churned out by governments or organisations’ information departments and termed by others as propaganda?

It appears there is not an agreeable definition of what public diplomacy actually is among academics of repute, with many agreeing more on how it is conducted and to an extent its objectives than the definition of what it actually is. The Centre on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California defines public diplomacy as, ” the public, interactive dimension of diplomacy which is not only global in nature, but also involves a multitude of actors and networks. It is a key mechanism through which nations foster mutual trust and productive relationships and has become crucial to building a secure global environment”, ( What it means is that they are many activities that a done on a daily basis such as eating which can be an act of public diplomacy depending on the context. Thus we end up with terms such as culinary or gastro-diplomacy.Image result for images of culinary diplomacy

However some academics such as Berridge (2015:198) takes the view that public diplomacy is a form of propaganda, aimed at manipulating public attitudes through the use of all forms of media, with more recently social media, for political ends. He argues that the target maybe foreign or domestic public, and for benefits which maybe long or short term, but crucially, the information churned out maybe honest in some instances but could also be governments or organisations presenting information which may be contrary to the truth to give a certain perception.

The idea of public diplomacy being propaganda is supported by Pigman (2010:122-123) who cites Jacques Ellul who has defined propaganda as, ‘ a communication practised by an organised group with the intention of triggering an active or passive participation of masses of people, who get psyched up through psychological manipulation and are incorporated into the organisation’s beliefs. The matter of ‘target’ informs how Rana (2011:77-79) provides his definition of public diplomacy as a measure of activities taken by various non state actors as well as governments to reach out to members of the public on a variety of issues, with the reverse also being true. The reverse being when the public get galvanised to raise discontent against governments or multinational companies. This is usually true when powerful nations such as western countries seek to influence a change of government or democratisation of a sovereign state. They may influence or ‘speak’ to the other nation’s citizens through films, university scholarships, schools exchange programmes and development aid programmes run by their countries such as USAID. These are subtle and less contentious ways of seeking to influence public perceptions of other states’ citizen without full diplomatic or political confrontation, which Joseph Nye describes as ‘soft power’. Jan Melissen concurs with Nye, arguing that public diplomacy is beyond manipulation of foreign publics, rather he says it in increasingly becoming a standard but key component of diplomatic practice and more than a form of diplomatic propaganda, Melissen (2005:11). With this thinking of his, it is unsurprising that he is in unison with Paul Sharp and Hans Tuch’s definitions of public diplomacy who both put advancement of values, ideas, ideals and interests as well as national goals and policies at the centre of governments’ involvement or engagement in public diplomacy activities, 2005:11-12.

Is public diplomacy always a success? The blunt answer is, No! Rana (2011:84) cites the United States’ failure with its public diplomacy post September 11, 2011, when it failed to change the hearts and minds of targeted Arab and Islamic states, though it invested heavily in TV and Radio programs aimed to win over audiences to the US viewpoint. The failure was attributed to the US attitude of wanting to be heard but not willing to listen as well as change its policies on certain matters. Thus Cowan and Arsenault, 2008 argue that public diplomacy is only effective when conducted in a collaborative way  than in a monologue or even dialogue manner. As Cowan and Arsenault (2008:10) have observed, politicians and public figures often fail to gauge and misunderstand the mood of a diversified international audience,presenting potential hazards to relationships. As an example, during the height of the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006, an Italian Cabinet Minister made a public diplomacy faux pas by appearing on television wearing a T’shirt printed with cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Whilst he may have intended to show solidarity with Denmark and project the freedom of expression view of the western world, his public diplomacy act was received differently in the Islamic world, with the Italian embassy being burnt in Libya. It means great care like in traditional diplomatic endeavours has to be taken when conducting public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy, although on its own is rarely decisive as in the ‘Stop the War Coalition’ campaigns, with little influence on states foreign policy, has however become an accessory device whose value has skyrocketed due to the digitalisation of diplomacy. Thus public diplomacy ceases to be a myth but a reality and as Leguey-Feilleux (2009:154) explains, it has become an extension of diplomatic service as governments expects diplomats to make use of social media to access the public, courting opinions.


Berridge. G. R (2015) Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 5th edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cowan, G and Arsenault, A. (2008), Theorising Public Diplomacy; Public Diplomacy in a Changing World; The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications

Leguey-Feilleux. J. (2009) The Dynamics of Diplomacy, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers

Melissen, J. (2005) The New Public Diplomacy; Soft Power in International Relations, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Pigman. G. A. (2010) Contemporary Diplomacy, Cambridge: Polity Press

Rana. K. S. (2011) 21st Century Diplomacy: A Practitioner’s Guide, London: The Continuum International Publishing Group.



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