10 tips for making public diplomacy work on a sub-state level

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Picture by @HelleKettner

(This article is also available in Catalan)

As the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat) has now been closed down due to the application of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, I thought it would be appropriate to write, as a reflection and guidance, some points that the experience of having worked in Diplocat gave me that could eventually be used in the future, either by those who create a new Diplocat (or whatever  name the new institution would have) or by other sub-state entities or agencies throughout the world willing to carry out a public diplomacy programme.

I am well aware of the confusion in Catalonia and Spain regarding the term “public diplomacy”. For instance, the vice president of the Spanish government, Ms. Saenz de Santamaría, said that autonomous communities cannot carry out public diplomacy and the Constitutional Court has confirmed this. Neither Ms. Sanez de Santamaría nor the Spanish High Court tried to give a definition of what “public diplomacy” means, though, and this is why I am inclined to think that either they ignore it (I hope not) or they are deliberately playing with the confusion and want the Spanish public opinion to think of “public diplomacy” as a concept opposed to “private diplomacy”.

Nothing is further from reality. We at Diplocat explained the meaning of public diplomacy in a document we published on our corporate website, which is sadly already inactive following Spanish government orders. However, I have recovered the document and you can read it by following this link.

In short, there are many definitions of Public Diplomacy but it could be summarized as the art of cultivating relationships with foreign public opinion by an international actor (government of a particular territory or city or even another organization), not necessarily a nation-state, in order to help and foster progress in the strategy of international relations or foreign affairs of the aforementioned actor. What public diplomacy is NOT, undoubtedly, is conventional diplomacy from government to government.

Using this definition I’d ask you  to check whether the other Spanish autonomous communities are carrying out public diplomacy campaigns, because if they are doing so, someone will have to explain why these Spanish regions are allowed to do public diplomacy but Catalonia isn’t.

Having made this clarification, here are my 10 tips for making public diplomacy work on a sub-state level based on my experience working for the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia.

1) Never turn away from your mission and goal. It seems obvious, but the first thing that needs to be clear before developing our strategy is to know why we are carrying out the public diplomacy programme that we aim to implement, what the objectives are and who the target public is. Once these aims are clear, many different siren songs may try to divert us from our goals or encourage us to carry out activities counterproductive to our  mission. If we deviate from the mission and the objective then it will be hard to justify in later evaluations why we carried out these activities.

For instance, if our goal is to reach the European public opinion, do we have to go to a Southeast Asian country just because a window of opportunity has opened there? I think the answer is obvious.

2) Be trustworthy. Another point that seems obvious but is often ignored. Our narrative will not be credible if there are no real, tangible, verifiable measures that give solidity and truthfulness to our story. In the case of Catalonia, for example, we can hardly say that Catalonia is committed to animal welfare because we have prohibited bullfighting when, at the same time, in some parts of Catalonia there are festive events involving bulls with flammable material attached to their horns. It is not clear whether the animal suffers or not but at first glance it’s not a pleasant sight when seen from abroad.

3) Give voice to as many people as possible. Linked to the previous point, this is especially important when we carry out programmes of public diplomacy with a clear content of a political nature, which is not necessarily shared by a clear majority of society. Taking the Catalan case once again as an example, the surveys clearly stated that 80% of the Catalan population is in favour of a political consultation to solve the territorial conflict with Spain, but society is divided over whether independence is the solution or not. Then it is appropriate for programmes to include the opportunity to offer points in favour and against this idea to our target audience. By doing this the organization will be respected as a good reference body to take into account as was the case with Diplocat.

4) Each country requires a different strategy. The strategy and transmission channel used for the Middle East is quite probably not the most suitable one for Latin America, for example. Even within Europe the strategy to apply in, for example, Portugal , could be completely different from the one for Poland, not only due to a completely different political, social and media context but also because the interests that your territory or organization has in Portugal might be completely different from those in Poland.

5) Keep your diaspora in mind … but you will not necessarily work with them. In every public diplomacy plan it is important to know who your Diaspora is and what they stand for in the country or territory that is the object of your programme. It will be necessary to know if they have good relations with the political, social, and media agents of the country in which they reside or if, on the contrary, they have a negative reputation and approaching them can be a setback to our strategy. In any case, what we must not do is to ignore the Diaspora when setting out our strategy.

6) Work with internal actors. From your organization, country or territory, in order to enrich the strategy and make it more attractive, look for synergies between different actors. If you are a university you can incorporate, for instance, students into your programme. If you are a city you can give a voice to the neighbourhoods and if you are a sub-state entity you should seek, among others, to give a voice to different city councils and the economic world, the further away from your capital city, the better.

7) Always remember that your target audience is abroad. Clearly linked to the first point, there may be times when we confuse the fact that we work with internal actors as I mentioned in the previous point with the fact that we may believe that they are also our target audience. They are not, or at least not beyond the necessary accountability measures that may be required periodically. If we carry out public diplomacy, we dedicate ourselves only to the foreign public. This seems obvious, but we must make it clear. Otherwise, what we will be doing is Public Relations, not Public Diplomacy.

8) 21st century public diplomacy is bidirectional. Yes, it is true, public diplomacy allows us to send our message to the foreign public opinion, but it also represents an important exercise in listening to what external actors might want to say. The time of the cold war is over, this was when the concept of public diplomacy was created. We either listen and adapt or risk being perceived as propaganda.

9) Innovation is key for you. This advice is valid for anybody that carries out public diplomacy programmes but it is especially important if you are not a state actor. State actors have a bigger budget and brand image than other actors in international relations, but they are usually more limited in terms of the actions they can carry out due to having to follow more stringent action protocols and their vertical structures. Small organizations, with a lower budget, have more freedom to innovate and, if they really want to achieve visibility, they must be constantly innovating.

10) And all this … to obtain results mostly in the medium and long term. Public diplomacy gives results but these, with the exception of those carried out in the field of the press and social networks, are not usually results in the short term. Public diplomacy is about cultivating trusted relationships with outside actors and this does not give measurable results immediately. Nevertheless, public diplomacy cannot be disdained, it is something that everyone does today. Disdain it and you risk staying out of the race.

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