Center for Strategic Communication

I just read Robin Brown’s thoughtful commentary on the UT-Austin PD-MAP assessment report and tool. In my previous take, I was focused primarily on the utility of the instrument: the methodological implications for how it can be used by policy-makers and as a roadmap to knowledge building about effectiveness.

But I think Brown’s blog reflects what I think is really interesting about the PD-MAP exercise and what animates my own academic project – how actors conceptualize, argue for, and implement strategies of influence that are indelibly marked by their own political, social, and cultural context. When people write about measures of effectiveness – what are they saying about the mechanics of persuasion, the ideal relationship between the subject (the audience) and the state, and the normative implications of intervening in other people’s world-views? As Janice Bially-Mattern has argued, we need to think carefully about how we so casually talk about tweaking people’s “ontological security” when we use “representational force.”

And that’s what make’s Brown’s comments important. He highlight’s the most obvious and persistant critical aspect of public diplomacy – the observeration that U.S. public diplomacy is itself a product of ideological positions that sustain particular material advantages and asymmetries. He says this is a “realist” response to the classically liberal attitudes towards international communication that justify public diplomacy, but I think it’s more of a critical stance. The purported goals of compliance, couched in terms of harmony of interests and understanding, mask objectives that sustain the status quo to the benefit of the communicator.

Edward Comor reminded a gathering of public diplomacy scholars earlier this year at the ISA convention in New Orleans that despite how exciting and innovative public diplomacy research may be – we cannot forget the critical side of scholarship. For all the new work that’s being done on how communication modalities are being used in public diplomacy campaigns, or how communication ecologies like networks reflect new dynamics of persuasion – we must also be reflexive about the “why” of public diplomacy. Granted, this critical kind of scholarship isn’t for everyone.

But as Brown implies, a critical sensitivity to public diplomacy may actually help practitioners. Not necessarily by provoking reflexive stances towards their role as agents of the state. But, by providing a perspective that is outside their comfort-zone as policy-planners, immersed in organizational and political cultures that make the practice and content of public diplomacy seem self-evidently rational and ethical. A critical stance towards the messages and practices of public diplomacy should ideally reveal the ways in which it may be perceived by other “audiences,” especially when the norms of communication, the commonplaces of public discourse, and the rituals of communication (to borrow a phrase from James Carey) are quite different.

The path to a more effective public diplomacy obviously requires some form of systematic inquiry, data-collection, and assessment. But it can also benefit from a clear-eyed view of its situated-ness in the ideological assumptions that justify such practices in international relations.