Public diplomacy: the power of persuasion

Public diplomacy has under-gone a transformation, with social media and individual citizens all playing increasingly important roles in the business of global influence

With the advent of globalisation and the internet, public diplomacy – the art of influencing public attitudes overseas – has undergone a major overhaul. This year, the first-ever annual review of global public diplomacy trends shows that the changes may be even more radical than first thought.

When it released its picks for the 10 most significant public diplomacy stories of 2013, the US-based USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD), was taken aback by its own results.

“We were a bit surprised that the Pope story got the most votes, but it is a global message and a very basic one: development gaps, inequality, poverty – global challenges that have not been dealt with very well by other global platforms,” says Jay Wang, the Director of the CPD.

Indeed the papal diplomacy story led CPD’s top 10 list, with Pope Francis’s engagement with publics around the world generating enormous interest, by acknowledging local equality, economic and development issues amid a bid to change perception of the Catholic Church.

However, other stories in the list proved just as surprising. “There are more conventional public diplomacy activities, governments actively outreaching to the foreign public, on the global stage, but we have also seen newer developments, for instance, the story about Russia’s soft-power efforts. However, we are also seeing non-conventional stories such as the one about Facebook recognising Kosovo as an independent country. This tells us how important the social media companies are in terms of their international outreach,” notes Jay Wang.

International panel members

In order to compile the report, the story entries were sourced from PD News, CPD’s daily aggregation of English-language stories with some public diplomacy implications or impact from around the world, and then presented to a global panel of experts, he explains. “Over the year, we gather about 1,500 stories. We then narrow them down to about 50. Then we put together a panel of experts and ask them to help us choose the best, the top 10 most noticed public diplomacy stories of the past year. The panel members come from all over the world: for example Japan, the Netherlands, China, Chile, Mexico, in addition to the US.”

Wang says engaging global publics is now essential to a nation’s international relations, and that this year’s leading stories, which represent a wide spectrum of public diplomacy practices – from policy communication and national projection to cultural diplomacy and global advocacy – also demonstrate that public diplomacy is not only global in nature, but involves a multitude of actors and networks. While governments are still critical players in international relations and transactions, many more other players are now involved.

“Even as individuals, we might be able to have some influence and impact in international relations – that’s the dynamic and the nature of communication in a global system,” says Wang. And this is the very reason behind the creation of the report: it shows public diplomacy in a much broader view, compared to just government-to-government, diplomat-to-diplomat communication activities.

Some public diplomacy stories may not have captivated the public as much as Nelson Mandela’s death and the ensuing tributes pouring in from all over the world, or Dennis Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” in Pyongyang, North Korea, nevertheless, they were so meaningful in the way they foresee new trends that they had to be included in the list. An example is Angola, which won the top prize, the Golden Lion Award, at the 55th Venice Biennale for best national participation, in the first year of its involvement.

Angola was one of 88 countries in the running and its triumph emphasises the strength of its cultural diplomacy and the rise of a truly global culture of art, the CPD says.

Expo impact

Wang, who recently published a book on the Shanghai Expo 2010 (Shaping China’s Global Imagination: Branding Nations at the World Expo), says Dubai’s winning bid to host the 2020 World Expo, which was included in this year’s top 10 list, will have a far-reaching impact for the emirate and the Gulf region in the sphere of public diplomacy.

“World Expos are the single largest promotional event of a nation outside their own borders. That’s a major platform for countries to reach out to the foreign public. For Dubai, winning the bid is very significant. It will be the first time that the Expo will be held in the Middle East, and it is expected to be the world’s most global Expo in terms of the participant countries and also in terms of visitors,” says Wang.

The Dubai Expo bid win was assisted by a social media campaign, which generated over half a million Facebook Likes and over 50,000 Twitter followers.Wang says, “[The Dubai Expo win] is an example of public diplomacy starting at home, especially for mega events. Without domestic public support, it is impossible for a nation to articulate and build its international profile with authenticity and efficacy.”

The Dubai Expo win is important at different levels, Wang explains: at the level of the city, the country and also the world, because these events provide a platform for global engagement.

“Dubai is already one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and I think that the Expo will help to further strengthen that, especially with the visitors. When countries do well in engaging their visitors, they can develop a strong impression on them that lasts for years to come. It’s a very significant venue to showcase culture and to raise this awareness that this is a global society. To me, it’s very important for countries to try to do this well and do some thinking into how this whole event can engage visitors.”