Public Diplomacy

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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

The term Public Diplomacy refers to an area of foreign policy which seeks to promote the sponsor’s interests abroad by influencing foreign audiences. Public Diplomacy is a very modern phenomenon, being concerned with the transnational flow of information and ideas among wide and diverse audiences. Public Diplomacy is separate to Public Affairs, which refers to the promotion of a sponsor’s interests among a domestic audience[1].

Most early definitions of the concept consider Public Diplomacy as solely a Government pursuit; the conduct of international relations through engagement with public communications media and liaison with a variety of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As a state-sponsored initiative, the notion of Public Diplomacy recognises the impact that public opinion has on the formation and execution of foreign policies among other states. Government-endorsed Public Diplomacy attempts to sway foreign public opinion in order to exercise influence over their foreign policy decisions.

More modern definitions of Public Diplomacy see the concept expanding beyond the realms of Government. This ‘New’ Public Diplomacy recognises that different media outlets, transnational corporations and NGOs are all now active participants in this field [2].

The Evolving Nature of Public Diplomacy

Traditional Public Diplomacy

A ‘Narrow’ Pursuit

The modern use of the phrase ‘Public Diplomacy’ was coined in the mid-1960s by former US diplomat Edmund Gullion, who was seeking a way to publicly promote U.S. interests oversees whilst avoiding the negatively loaded territory of Propaganda.

In the decades that followed, Public Diplomacy referred to the transparent means by which a country would communicate with foreign publics in order to promote its own foreign policy objectives and promote national interest. In this traditional sense, Public Diplomacy was an essential part of state-state relations, focused on improving the sponsor’s reputation in eyes of the recipient public, as a way to shape the wider policy environment in that country. This would often include ventures like educational exchange programs for scholars and students; visitor programs; language training; cultural exchanges and events; radio broadcasting and television programs that were specifically tailored to the target recipient. [3]. It is in this sense that Public Diplomacy has also been referred to as ‘Nation Branding’[4].

New Public Diplomacy

A ‘Broad’ Pursuit

In the increasingly globalised twenty-first century, Public Diplomacy has started to take on a new meaning. Distancing it from the ‘narrow’ traditional, state orchestrated concept of Public Diplomacy, renewed scholarship around the subject has offered up ideas about a more ‘broad’ conception of Public Diplomacy. This idea of a New Public Diplomacy pays homage to the increasing range of actors which are now engaging in transnational foreign policy campaigns. Many non-state actors and private companies with some presence in world politics are now learning to communicate and engage effectively with foreign publics to develop and promote their own agendas.

The ability of NGOs to influence audiences transnationally has only become possible due to the advances of new media and communication technology brought about in the twenty-first century, elevating the role that NGOs play in politics on the global stage [3].

Public Diplomacy and Propaganda

Since the concept’s conception, it has been argued that ‘Public Diplomacy’ is just a nice way of saying ‘Propaganda’. Critics have argued that there is no significant difference between Public Diplomacy and propaganda, with both involving a manipulation of their audiences on behalf of their sponsors [5].

Other critics do not go as far as to equate to Public Diplomacy to pure propaganda, but suggest that they are both two intrinsically linked concepts in the global political arena. They would suggest that Public Diplomacy does fundamentally incorporate aspects of propaganda, but it is not identical to it [6].

Soft Power

Like propaganda, Public Diplomacy is intrinsically linked to power. The power that Public Diplomacy can exert is cultivated through indirect influences on the culture, values and mainstream ideology of the target public. This type of power is known as Soft Power, and directs both the sponsor and the recipient toward interdependence and away from confrontation. Public Diplomacy aims to foster this complicit relationship far less conspicuously than some overt propaganda measures [7].



  1. PDAA, About U.S. Public Diplomacy, PDAA website, accessed 12 March 2015
  2. The Fletcher School, Definitions of Public Diplomacy, The Fletcher School website, accessed 12 March 2015
  3. 3.0 3.1 University of Southern California, What is Public Diplomacy?, University of Southern California website, accessed 12 March 2015
  4. Nancy Snow, Japan’s ‘brand’ as good as the people behind it, The Japan Times website, 10 October 2013, accessed 12 March 2015
  5. John Brown, Public Diplomacy & Propaganda: Their Differences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website, September 2008, accessed 12 March 2015
  6. Jan Melissen (May 2005), Wielding Soft Power: The New Public Diplomacy, Netherland Institute of International Relations: Palgrave Macmillan, accessed 12 March 2015
  7. Nancy Snow, Public Diplomacy and Propaganda: Rethinking Diplomacy in the Age of Persuasion, E-International Relations website, 04 December 2012, accessed 12 March 2015