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From leading to influencing: The Case for Innovative Public Diplomacy

Hiba Darwish Director – Government & Public Sector Consulting, PwC Middle East 13 March, 2018

If you were asked to identify a global super power in the international arena today, what would your answer be?

While this may be surprising, I contend that today’s true super power is not one government or another, but rather public opinion.

The fact that we live in a digital age needs no argument. It is necessary, however, to reckon with the reality that the digital life of any government’s citizens does not stop short of politics. Also true is that citizens of a given nation communicate online not only with each other, but can and do talk and exchange information with others throughout the world.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” has written that “in the information age, success depends not just on whose army wins but also on whose story wins.” 1 What are the implications, then, for a government, when its public branding tells one story (e.g., it is great to live here or operate a business here) but its citizens tell another (e.g., there is a poor quality of life or few economic incentives) to the world via social media and other forums? It is not hard to imagine how this could erode both the trust of the nation’s own citizens and also that of other nations.

Nations and governments can no longer take for granted that they are the only actors in the sphere of international public diplomacy. The role of public diplomacy itself has forcibly changed, and it is now time for governments to be innovative in response to these changes. In an increasingly globalized world, different forms of diplomacy play an increasingly important role in shaping the global political order. The aim of diplomacy in general, and public diplomacy in particular, is to promote a country’s image and communicate with and influence foreign audiences, with the ultimate aim of advancing economic and political interests. Diplomacy has always recognized the pivotal role of building and cultivating relationships, and both traditional and public diplomacy have long been the realm of governments and their appointed officials. However, the advent of the communication revolution and the rise of non-state actors has created an environment where people and non-state actors play an increasingly prominent role in diplomatic efforts. Hence, the new form of public diplomacy becomes “everyone’s business,” 2 and it emphasizes the “relationship building between nations and cultures through better communication.” 3

Today, more than ever, it is crucial for governments to become more innovative in the way they engage citizens and utilize technology to introduce a new form of public diplomacy. The transition of the concept and conduct of public diplomacy to innovative public diplomacy provides an opportunity for nations to play a bigger role in international relations. This can enable them to go on to cultivate long-term social, economic, and political advantages.

How can public diplomacy be innovative?

Simply, by conducting diplomacy through more creative and impactful methods that will achieve better results, while remaining flexible and adaptive to future developments. Through innovative public diplomacy, a nation’s citizens, businesses, NGOs and entrepreneurs, serve as its “unofficial diplomats,” and they can do so on an international scale. These unofficial diplomats tell “the story” on behalf of the nation, utilizing modern technologies and approaches. While the ability of a government to control its branding and communications both internally and externally is more limited in this digital age, by engaging its citizens and other players, a government can extend that branding further than ever before.

“Winning the story,” then, is now not only about the narrative conveyed by a nation’s ambassador to agents of a foreign government, but the story told by a nation to its citizens, and its retelling by those citizens to the world. Directing public diplomacy from its traditional forms into innovative areas should have a solid foundation. Genuine efforts are required by a government towards improving policies, services, living standards, economic opportunities, and other institutional and social infrastructure that would encourage people to become positive unofficial diplomats. It is critical to remember that the new strategies, policies, and plans must be rooted in citizen’s lived experiences (“on the ground”, and aimed at actual achievements, not simply public relations ploys. If a government puts its citizens’ wellbeing and satisfaction at the heart of its agenda, and utilizes new digital tools and open communication, it will give rise to real, positive changes in their lives. This in turn creates the narrative that the unofficial diplomats will use when sharing their experience and success stories.

With this new foundation, it will be easier for governments to develop “the story” of their brand and spread it to the citizens, with the aim of influencing their digital diplomacy. Additional possibilities include a government creating platforms (e.g., applications, websites, etc.) that would enable its citizens to better engage with the government and other citizens, and to contribute to the discussion of the government’s messaging. In line with these efforts, governments can further support investment in digital innovation by providing incentives for startups in digital media and communications, which would be creating new tools for people to use when telling their stories. The private sector, NGOs, and business community, whether local or foreign, also play a key role in promoting a country’s potential and should be engaged in the process.

Again, having the private sector and entrepreneurs as genuine ambassadors requires offering a welcoming and attractive ecosystem that provides the right conditions and incentives for the private sector (same applies to NGOs) to grow and thrive. Citizens and businesses who are happy and appreciative of their leaders and governments provide a credible outlet for promoting a country. It is important to note that a government’s public diplomacy strategies should continue to include official public diplomats, and can be expanded to all government employees. The government should share the narrative with them, too. Whether aimed at a nation’s citizens, private sector, or public servants, the brand and messaging that a government wishes to disseminate needs to be simple, in order to make it appealing to people and easy for them to tell.

A further innovation in public diplomacy would be for governments to closely monitor and asses public sentiment and how citizens are communicating with each other and with the outside world. The “on the ground” perception of a government’s brand and image can be assessed by paying attention to the posts of its unofficial diplomats, which gives the government the opportunity to set up and improve two-way communication with its citizens and private sector. In order to encourage open, two-way conversations, the government can create open forums to drive public dialogue, in which people can share their views, concerns, suggestions, and new ideas. If possible, governments can also build relationships with social media influencers, who can become partners in disseminating messaging. This innovative approach to public diplomacy brings the additional, but not at all lesser, benefit of being proactive in managing the government’s branding. A government need not always be focused on responding to negative events and therefore on the defensive, but can instead preemptively create and spread positive news. This approach helps a government keep long-term focus rather than being stuck in a perpetual state of reactivity.

In summary, innovative public diplomacy comprises a shift from the way a government used to lead its audiences, citizens, and private sector, to the new mode - a government partnering and collaborating with its audiences, citizens, and private sector for the collective greater good.

The key features of innovative public diplomacy include:

  • Governments influence rather than lead diplomacy
  • Governments lay a solid foundation by creating policies, services, quality living standards, economic opportunities, and other institutional and social infrastructure that would encourage people to become positive unofficial diplomats
  • With this solid foundation, governments develop the setting for “the story” and pass it on to these unofficial diplomats
  • Governments provide and foster access to new digital tools, and encourage social media diplomacy (such as posts and comments on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and blogs)
  • Governments can in some cases influence the public to tell a story targeting a certain cause or nations by circulating messages or creating platforms on which people can contribute and engage (such as applications, websites, etc.)
  • Governments can assess their brand and image via its people’s posts and stories, and they can address potentially negative perceptions

1 Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Power Shifts,” Time (May 9, 2011), http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2068114,00.html.
2 N. J. Cull, “Public Diplomacy: Seven Lessons for Its Future from Its Past,” in Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalized World (London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2008), http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/sites/uscpublicdiplomacy.org/files/useruploads/u26739/Engagement_FCO.pdf.
3 J. Wang, “Managing National Reputation and International relations in the global era: Public Diplomacy revisited,” Public Relations Review 32 (no. 1): 91–96.

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Hiba Darwish

Hiba Darwish

Director – Government & Public Sector Consulting, PwC Middle East

Tel: +971565475359

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