Center for Strategic Communication

The following are the talking points from a presentation to the International Studies Association annual conference on Feb 20, 2015.

This Emerging Scholars panel is held every year at the International Studies Association conference to highlight upcoming scholars and studies of public diplomacy. This year, as part of the program, I would like to provide some sense of what has come before, and, how this has defined the nature of questions currently being asked in PD research. This is my own perspective as much as it is a snap shot of public diplomacy research – so I apologize if I have missed something that you feel strongly about. I defer to the curation of power of Bruce Gregory’s periodic literature review to fill in the gaps.

So this is not a road map of where to go from here, but something more like a complicated subway map around the hub of pubic diplomacy studies. This panel is ultimately part of a growing effort to cultivate the stakeholders of public diplomacy research, and to encourage scholars from a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives see public diplomacy questions as their own.

Here are some areas that I believe define the nature of public diplomacy scholarship right now, followed by a list of notable absences and areas to encourage future work:

1. The New Public Diplomacy

The fallout of this term has been a renewed focus on non-state actors, polylateral approaches to international politics, and a marked normative emphasis on how public diplomacy should be practiced. As public diplomacy scholars wrestle with emergent factors that may – or may not – challenge what we understand public diplomacy to be – the term “New Public Diplomacy” roughly encapsulates the factors that have influenced the practice and institutional thinking around PD. I won’t belabor the long list of those who situate themselves in this body of writing, but they may be found among scholars from across disciplines such as History, Diplomatic Studies (especially those concerned with the existential crisis of diplomacy as an enduring institution), and Communication.

2. The Continuing Refinement and Critique of the Soft Power Concept

The currency of soft power as a way to talk about the strategic necessity of public diplomacy continues to resonate. However the difficulties associated with defining and analyzing soft power continues. We find work by scholars concerned with:

– Empirical public opinion and media effects research
– Conceptual and Typological development
– Institutional and organizational analysis
– “Relational” Approaches to comparative soft power

From public diplomacy research has come theoretical and normatively charged pieces on the rise of “relational” approaches to soft power, where the capacity of soft power is found in the cultivation of social capital over time, which changes the way publics may assign legitimacy or tolerate foreign policy actions in the future.

I believe that “relational” public diplomacy is not so much a new thing, as it is an articulation – through both practice and strategy – identifying where the leverage of public diplomacy is found given new political and media-related circumstances.

3. Public Relations

It is important to recognize the continued efforts by Public Relations scholars to study public diplomacy. Though not always visible to International Studies scholars, PR scholars have steadily applied long-standing PR theories (e.g. excellence theory) and hypotheses to the practice of public diplomacy. I think these studies should prompt new thinking about theories and methods to approach public diplomacy for those studying the field outside of PR.

4. Mediated Public Diplomacy

This emerging body of work builds off the currency of a 2008 Robert Entman article about the viability of media framing and public diplomacy strategy, to open up and invite the insights of political communication scholars into the field of PD.

What I think is important about this emerging perspective is that encourages empirical studies from established fields of inquiry – deploying rigorous methods, using potentially important primary and secondary data, and laying a foundation for thinking about the attribution of impact to public diplomacy and its inevitable relation to media flows and conflict. I also think it highlights the importance of media framing as a vehicle for strategic narrative making, which is something of concern to international studies scholars. It also has the potential to advance studies in press/state relations.

5. Content Analytic Approaches

I have noticed a rise in studies of media content (especially here at ISA) – that examines newspapers, websites, television, social media (though not always explicitly framed as public diplomacy study). These include both automated and hand-coded methods.

What’s exciting about these studies is how they can point to correlations between efforts of advocacy (and other forms of PD) and impact found in media coverage, framing, or in the diffusion of messages and tags on twitter – “engagement actions” like sharing.

Like the mediated public diplomacy perspective, I think these kind of studies that rely on empirical assessment of discourse begin to unearth the sometimes elusive role that public diplomacy plays in providing the narrative equipment used in the imagination of foreign policy options – among both publics and policy-makers.

6. Digital Diplomacy

This is related to the previously mentioned studies, in that this kind of work deals with the significance of media and communication technology. Technology-focused studies examine the impact of technology affordances – in how organizations perceive the transformative potential of platforms like social media, as well as act on those strategic assumptions. These kinds of studies offer varying degrees of unpacking the concept of “mediatization” from both sociological and instrumental perspectives. From how strategic thinking is transformed, to the basics of how diplomats use tools like Twitter.

7. Comparative Studies

There has been significant attention to comparative approaches – this is not surprising, given how the concept has grown, and become refracted, through local contexts, imperatives, and exigencies. Public diplomacy may share some surface level terminological similarities, but it proceeds from often very different cultural and political understandings of why and how states need to communicate to foreign publics.

8. Related and cognate concepts

Public diplomacy is a large umbrella term that combines a variety of arguably disparate practices of international communication and influence oriented tactics. These have spawned growing sub-fields of their own, including:

– Gastro diplomacy, Music Diplomacy, as well as those studies that are identifying the leading edge of cultural diplomacy practices.

– Nation-branding – which shares some of the ambitions of public diplomacy though is often concerned with shorter time horizons, different institutional stakeholders, and a commitment to the possibility of brand transformation. This field of study is itself diverging, between a growing field of critical-cultural scholarship, as well as instrumental approaches to practice and evaluation.

– Education and Exchange – I put those here, mainly to note that there is a considerable body of scholarship on international education, cross-cultural communication, and language instruction that is directly relevant to public diplomacy studies, but exists in a parallel universe of Education publications. These studies cannot be ignored.

– Strategic Communication and Information Operations – some of these topics are located in yet another parallel universe of armed service and related journals, yet deal with similar issues, concepts, and problems.

– The informal (and sometimes formal) role of popular culture in the landscape of public diplomacy. From the growth of Turkish soap operas as a vehicle for soft power, to the critique of US popular culture, these kinds of perspectives highlight the inevitable backdrop for how publics perceive states.

Notable Absences and Ways to Move Forward

Here are some quick takes on where public diplomacy research can go:

Network analysis of relationship structures transformed through and around public diplomacy. “Moving the needle” is a poor metaphor for understanding what public diplomacy can accomplish. We need a more elaborate understanding of the relationships that are forged as a result of public diplomacy, as well as how they may constrain or amplify such activity in the future.

International Broadcasting research is thin on the ground. Given the growth of international broadcasting it is worthy of attention. From a strategic perspective (e.g. the rise of RT as a vehicle for influence), to the possibilities for media-based development initiatives and transparency.

Critical Approaches – Despite the preponderance of interest in soft power, there needs to be more writing on the critical role of power in public diplomacy – from asymmetries of information resources, to political economy approaches, to the cultural politics that underscores the scene of influence in public diplomacy. Some, like Edward Comor and Hamilton Bean, have addressed this – but more is needed as a counter-point to the uncritical valorization of PD practices.

– I also believe that more attention should be directed to what Monroe Price calls architecture – how do communication systems cultivate, sustain, or complicate the media environment of public diplomacy. This means linking public diplomacy concerns to the study of media systems, governance, and technologically-enabled insurgent political agency. Understanding the politics of communication encoded into global media and cultural flows can only enrich understanding of the relationship between public diplomacy and the changing nature mediated publics, surveillance, and advocacy.

Finally, I think it is important that public diplomacy researchers think about how their work fits into the existing problems and questions that animate work in other disciplines. This can provide a path to more high-profile publications, as well as create the conditions for a broader community of interested scholars. This also means asking bolder questions – about the impact of communication content, about institutional transformation, and on clarifying the attribution of impact to public diplomacy in soundly designed analytical narratives.