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What is public diplomacy?

Public diplomacy is a key concept referring to an explicit strategy of self-promotion. This article looks at two different approaches.

Diplomacy is generally associated with secrecy: closed dinners, secret agreements and meetings. But a large part of the diplomatic process is strategically made public.

What is public diplomacy?

Public diplomacy is a state’s strategy to communicate directly with foreign publics. It can take the form of press conferences and policymakers’ statements. But it is a professional field in itself in which there are dedicated governmental organisations that launch campaigns and develop efforts to provide international media with an image of the country’s policy and target certain audiences.

Branding vs Advocacy

There are two types of approaches to public diplomacy: branding and advocacy.


Branding has to do with the strategies and actions put in place by a country to promote a positive image of itself. It consists in packaging the country’s identity, highlighting certain elements of its history, its cultural production, and its foreign policy, in order to make it attractive, and associate it with positive values.

For instance, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations promotes an image of India as an emerging economy and stresses the country’s advancement in the field of high technologies. Similarly, Canada’s public diplomacy efforts present the country as multicultural and creative and highlight its natural resources.

This approach to public diplomacy can also be reactive, and thus it can attempt to counter the negative image that international media can portray of a country. It is intended to dismantle stereotypes and rectify wrong information.


Advocacy, refers to the strategies put in place to achieve specific objectives. Diplomats, in fact, can contribute to put an issue on the local political agenda and encourage governments to take measures. In a context in which the media often present international issues in a Manichean manner, it has become crucial to provide a narrative explaining the position taken by a country.

The Middle East

Looking at recent conflicts in the Middle East, this appears quite clear. In 2003, when the U.S. intervened in Iraq, they presented their initiative as a fight against weapons of mass destruction and to spread democracy. More than a decade later, when the Russian Federation intervened in Syria, it portrayed this military operation as a fight against terrorism. Such public diplomacy tactics are important to secure the support of allies and to legitimize these military actions on the national political scene.


More recently, on April 30th 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, disclosed intelligence revelations to the public in a press conference about the Iranian nuclear programme, in order to influence the decision of the United States to withdraw from the agreement signed in 2015 to lift the economic sanctions on Iran.

This act of public diplomacy was controversial in Israel as it was viewed as potentially detrimental to the country’ intelligence capacities. However, it reached its objectives as on May 8th 2018, the U.S. President took the decision to pull out of the accord.

Environmental advocacy

Advocacy can be important in other domains such as environmental diplomacy, in which citizens increasingly scrutinize the actions of their politicians. Advocating for ambitious measures to fight climate change requires the involvement of citizens.

Public diplomacy

Many of the public diplomacy tools we mentioned so far, such as media appearances and information campaigns, are distinct from cultural diplomacy. That said, there are many overlaps between cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy. Most of the cultural diplomacy activities are considered to be a dimension of public diplomacy.

The international recognition of a country’s cultural production, for example, is widely viewed as an important part of its image. Think of K-pop for South Korea or Hollywood for the United States that have represented an asset to the countries’ branding.

Cultural diplomacy

In order to understand the place of cultural diplomacy in public diplomacy, Mark Leonard, Catherin Stead and Conrad Smewing , in their book on Public Diplomacy, published in 2002 have argued that there are three time frames of public diplomacy.

The short-term part of public diplomacy corresponds to immediate reactions in the media, in the hours or days following a specific event. Media strategies tend to have a mid-run time frame, of several months. But cultural diplomacy is about the development of durable relationships and supposes years of effort.

This is why it is also the part of public diplomacy that is the most difficult to evaluate.

© European University Institute
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Cultural Diplomacy

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