Saturday, February 23, 2019

What is Public Diplomacy?

Sarala Fernando,

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image (not from article) from

A well written informative news release from the Foreign Ministry received wide coverage recently regarding a Public Diplomacy [JB emphasis] and Media Relations seminar organised for the “first time” for officers of the Foreign Ministry. It was good to see a conversation started on the merits of Public Diplomacy in the work of the Foreign Ministry.

So why has there been some scepticism and push-back from senior journalists? One problem is that people understand or misunderstand what is Public Diplomacy (PD). Does it mean transparency in diplomatic negotiations? Is it cultivating the press? Is it cultural promotion? Perhaps our Foreign Ministry should have first put in the public domain a strategy document explaining the rationale together with some planned projects, and whether this initiative is to be taken forward on a bipartisan basis to avoid the dread charge of “propaganda”. At a time when other countries like South Korea have approved landmark legislation on PD and most Foreign Ministries have already set up dedicated divisions, our Ministry has some work to do to avoid public scepticism.

According to the report, the Foreign Minister’s address at this seminar had referred to the need to promote “Buddhism, gems, tea, spices, high end export products and traditional Sri Lanka hospitality” and to portray Sri Lanka’s image abroad as a “civilised nation with people full of loving kindness who feel for each other and an abundance of talent”. This reference met with a retort from a senior journalist pointing out the dilemma of promoting “Buddhism” as a brand given the inherent ideological schisms and politics of constituent groups which have caused a few monks problems with the police and the law.

Perhaps there may be some confusion with the successful “Buddhist Diplomacy” initiative developed by former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgarmar, which was not intended as a branding exercise but rather to bring together like-minded countries which could be supportive of Sri Lanka internationally. As for the call to promote “loving kindness” this is a brave initiative indeed but will the Foreign Ministry give the lead? This is no easy task given the notorious politicisation of administrative decisions perceived as leading to unfair decisions which have led to some of our most talented young officers quitting the ministry.

Diplomatic training everywhere routinely incorporates elements of press communication and negotiation skills. However, training young officers in media relations has limited results since good journalists will always write their own stories and not everyone will have the natural ability to counter diaspora propaganda as effectively as Lakshman Kadirgarmar did. Ask any Foreign Service officer and he will say the biggest handicap in missions abroad is the lack of reliable information and timely briefings. This is why the Foreign Ministry has always had a special role to provide correct information and good assessments to respond to a crisis situation quickly. Ironically this may have been easier during the time of the armed conflict than now during a period of domestic political upheavals and fake news!

There is plenty of international research available on PD strategies, with examples of what works and what does not. Let us hope the seminar had discussed for example how PD differs from branding and questioned the usefulness of traditional forms of country promotion like food festivals and cultural exhibitions. In essence, PD distinguishes itself from branding and advertising because these campaigns are perceived as unidirectional whereas PD underlines the importance of two-way communication, focusing on building sustainable relationships with foreign publics.

In that perspective it would be possible for a successful PD exercise to support a cultural activity launched by the receiving state, similar to the US Embassy initiative to promote cultural sites restoration in Sri Lanka such as at Rajagala. The move has received much appreciation from local experts and visitors.

Two media releases which appeared on the same page in the newspapers recently provide a perfect example of the difference between the traditional and modern approaches to public relations and how public funds for Independence Day celebrations could be most effectively used. One news release from an East European embassy depicted Sri Lankan staff reading the official messages and a speech by the Ambassador, with low visitor participation. The other news release from a Consulate in Australia showed a packed hall, huge multicultural gathering from both the receiving and sending states, a host of receiving state local dignitaries and celebration of educational excellence by Sri Lankan students as seen through the eyes of the local authorities, bringing out perfectly the strengthening of the bilateral relationship through common values.

Having great cultural assets is not always synonymous with the manner of their promotion. Cultural promotion could be undertaken sometimes without using any of the sending country’s own resources. Take for example the French, German, Russian and Chinese who establish their own cultural houses in receiving states and set aside considerable resources to support these programmes. However, the British have chosen a different path, by commercialising the British Council which has been quite successful in promoting their English language training programmes, a good example of how a brand can succeed despite the high cost and availability of similar alternatives.

PD underlines the importance of “listening to the other” which is rare in Sri Lanka where we seem to expose our differences instead of what can bring us together. The present controversy over the Constitutional Council is illustrative of this difficulty where the Opposition Leader who takes seriously that he is a Prime Minister-in-waiting, seems to want certain decisions his way instead of striving for consensus. We have inherited the Westminster type of confrontational politics and parry and thrust tactics, as illustrated in coverage of the Brexit debates in Parliament where it seems that British Prime Minister May has been far too late in seeking cross-party consultations towards an agreed outcome on a vital national undertaking. Then there is the verbal violence and physical violence which appear without discrimination in images seen today in the press and on TV, apparently reflective of real life situations, but one wonders to what extent such images are influencing the younger generations into criminal behaviour.

Over the years we have been unable to agree even on a country brand or national ad campaign – viz the differences of opinion on “ A Country like No Other” , “Small Wonder” and now “So Sri Lanka”. In contrast, countries like New Zealand have succeeded in creating a sustainable brand focusing on what they consider their best assets: “cool, green, technologically advanced”, one catchy brand covering every sphere of activity.

In conclusion, if the Foreign Ministry and the Tourism and Investment Promotion authorities have been unable to develop a national PD strategy for Sri Lanka, could the humanitarian activities carried out by the military provide some lessons? This will be taken up in my next article.

(The writer is a retired Foreign Service diplomat.)

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