There’s a perception within many foreign policy establishments that public diplomacy is definately not public relations.   Last year’s publication by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), entitled  Engagement: Public Diplomacy in a Globalised World, is definitive.  On page 10, Jim Murphy MP, then Minister for Europe, exhorts that:

“… foreign ministries must stop seeing public diplomacy as a form of public relations, shouting out core messages and top lines, louder and louder, in the false belief that they haven’t been heard clearly enough.  To succeed in today’s world, we need genuine engagement, not clumsy propoaganda.”

The US has a specific problem in this regard, but that appears to be borne of a more restricted view of PR than that of the Brits (however, CB3 does agree with the sentiment of Montainrunner’s blog), and several constitutional issues surrounding PD, such as the Smith-Mundt act.  Currently, the Obama Adminstration is raising the very issue of what PD should be, but many in the US tend to bunch PR in with advertising, marketing and branding, unlike in the UK, where a clearer delineation can be made.

Yes, with regard to PD and PR, there are differences, but only in context.  Even CB3 recognises that PD isn’t quite public relations, but only in the sensitivities, audiences and proximity to information operations.  The similarities? Engagement, dialogue, symmetry, vision, relationships – these are espoused by Public diplomats, and just happen to also be the cornerstone of PR ideology, as taught by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Indeed, CB3 challenges any ethical PR practitioner (certainly those trained in the UK), to see massive differences in the ideals, practices and objectives between PR and PD.  Academic studies by Signitzer and Coombs, Yun, even Grunig himself, indicate a real convergence of PR and PD in an era of global information. The resistance of foreign ministries to accept synonymity seems borne of a lack of understanding of contemporary PR (as opposed to mere publicity) and fear of being tarred with the negative connotations of PR (often brought about by publicists).  It is moot that many reviews of PD indicate that it is also hampered by the regime of one-way, conveyor-belt traffic – an accusation often levelled at PR.

However, there is a shift, as evidenced by a recent workshop for diplomats in Rome.  During the Georgian war of 2008, it was claimed that ‘plucky, little Georgia’ won the PR battle with Russia.

Does it really matter?  It is just a question of semantics?  Well, to a degree.  But there is a danger of artificial firewalls being established between practitioners of public diplomacy and public relations.  The debate is good, and we must understand the nuances of each but, let’s face it, we’re all in communications, and have a lot to learn from each other.   To use a cliche, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

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