Strategic Communication vs. Public Diplomacy vs. Dialogue

by Bud Goodall

In today’s “Blogger’s Roundtable” with Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James K. Glassman, Matt Armstrong from MountainRunner asked a really good question about the relationship of strategic communication to public diplomacy.  Under Secretary Glassman provided a detailed and thoughtful response that distinguished public diplomacy, which is aimed at various publics engaging each other, from official diplomacy, which is aimed at officials engaging each other.  He went to say that he viewed strategic communication as a “subset of public diplomacy . . . [a term that is] interchangeable with the war of ideas.”

This last idea was new to me.  I’ve always understood strategic communication to be the goal-oriented means by which, and through which, public diplomacy (as well as official diplomacy and other forms of political interaction) operates.  In today’s volatile and highly mediated “war of ideas” environment, PD must be thought of and thoroughly integrated into SC operations.  SC is not an operational “subset” any more than PD is simply about “message.”  If anything, it is the other way around:  PD is better conceived as a subset of SC because PD activities are but one theater of SC operations across the global stage.

Under Secretary Glassman went on to identify three kinds of strategic communication activities:

He explained that all of these activities are part of “a conversation,” a statement that suggests an underlying model of all strategic communication is based on the achievement of dialogue.

Yet it seems to me that a dialogue and strategic communication are not synonymous.  For dialogue to take place, both partners to the conversation must be, as Martin Buber expressed it and we have explained in a previous white paper, “profoundly open to change.” While this principle of reciprocal openness to change may characterize economic educational and cultural exchanges, I doubt they operate at all in either “Telling America’s Story” or in “War of Ideas.”  America doesn’t want to change its story, and violent extremists have demonstrated a decided lack of openness to our ideas.

Another discrepancy between these terms is their very different relationships to ambiguity.  Strategic communication, when it is most effective in combating ideological support for terrorism, must always rely on ambiguity as part of the overall strategy.  Conversely, ambiguity in dialogue leads to a lack of trust, which in turn prevents that profound openness so inherently tied to productive change.

I applaud Under Secretary Glassman’s willingness to share his ideas about the relationship of strategic communication to public diplomacy.  But I worry that viewing SC as a subset of PD, and that tying all forms and practices of SC to dialogue reifies an outdated way of thinking about communication.  Strategic communication operates in a “rugged landscape” that is more complex than a conversation or dialogue. Continuing to think of SC in those terms is both theoretically muddled and pragmatically too simplistic.