Culture Posts: Giving Voice to Publics

February 9, 2013 § 16 Comments

Last week, before the world caught on fire over a film clip, I wrote about the paradox of value promotion in public diplomacy. No matter how appealing promoting one’s values may be, trying to do so in a global arena is fraught with difficulty. Yet, because values are integral to a nation’s communication, public diplomacy will inevitably reflect those values. What’s happening between the U.S. and publics in the Islamic world reflects the immediate consequence of the paradox of value promotion – both sides are trying to communicate what they value, but rather than being understood – they are less so.

The more they persist in their efforts, the more likely the cycle may escalate. In the long term, a battle over value promotion is a no-win scenario in today’s global communication arena. To be savvy, public diplomacy strategists need to find ways to give voice and bring the public into the public diplomacy equation.

Value Contests

Let me speak first to the immediate term, then the long term, of trying to play out value contests.

In the short term, value promotion can cause more misunderstanding rather than less. Greater misunderstanding often leads to greater frustration. Unresolved frustration often leads to anger. That’s the chain.

There is also the communication chain. When people become frustrated that their verbal efforts to communicate aren’t working, they often resort to more disparate physical means.

The chains explain how anger develops, but they do not justify violence – physical, verbal, or visual. It is important to recognize that verbal and visual violence can be as damaging to human spirit as physical violence is to the life and limb. Verbal assaults that strike the soul can take longer to heal than physical ones. Images seared in the mind are difficult to erase, if ever.

While anger may be the emotion, violence does not have to be the inevitable or the only avenue of expression.

Digital Protest Venues

An immediate short term step that an entity can do in a crisis situation is to try to create public communication channels for publics to express strong emotion – confusion, discontent, anger. This strategy of capturing and trying to diffuse hostile public sentiment was done in several domestic U.S. crises by using the social media. One technique was setting up a ‘gripe’ Facebook page. A similar strategy was used in Singapore: the very same social media tools that had been used to spark the public outrage were used to capture and contain that outrage.

Here is where U.S. public diplomacy must be creative and innovative in adapting its expertise in social media. Rather than using the tools to get the U.S. message out, the tools are creatively used to give others a voice.

Philip Seib, in a personal email, put a nice label on this strategy: it is “providing electronic protest venues.”

Naturally, there will be those whose interests are in promoting violence, not quelling it. However, physical forms of communication are costly. Most people seeking communication want to be heard and understood. By creating a credible a space or forum for verbal expression, the need or justification for physical expression becomes less pressing and others are less able to exploit public sentiment.

The need to give voice is not just an immediate short term strategy. Creating channels for publics to communicate — or speak to power – is especially important for a superpower.

A Second Wakeup Call

Since 9/11, much of public diplomacy has focused on how nations can get their messages out–how to strengthen their voices. Engagement and networks are more efficient strategies for communicating to or with publics.

If 9/11 was a wakeup call for state-centric public diplomacy; the events by publics over the past couple of years should be a second wakeup call to explore the public role in public diplomacy. Publics are participatory. They are networked. They are increasingly communication savvy.

Strategic public diplomacy is no longer communicating to or even with publics. It is integrating communication from publics.

For the U.S., as a superpower, it is not about “being heard,” but about giving voice to those who feel they are not. The U.S. may lament that it is not understood and feel compelled to work harder and shout louder.

But much of humanity across the globe shares that frustration of not being understood and wants to shout louder. Yet, unlike the U.S. government, they do not have the means or resources. That imbalance of communication power further fuels frustration.


Building bridges in an interconnected world represents a mindshift in thinking from “mutual interests” to “mutuality” as the basis of global communication. The tendency is to look for mutual interests and benefits – finding what two parties have in common. If there is nothing in common, the one without power loses. “Mutuality,” as outlined in a British Council report, is unconditional recognition of the needs of the other. Kathy Fitzpatrick also wrote about “mutuality” in her CPD fellowship.

To be effective in a connected network world, the U.S. as a superpower needs to shift its perspective from thinking of “mutual interests and benefits” with equally powerful players to “mutuality” and adjusting its power with less powerful players. We live in an interconnected world. The publics around the world have seized on the reality. Adopting the mindset of mutuality will help ease the communication tensions and create communication bridges instead of battles.

FROM Culture Post series:

Zaharna, R. S. (September 18, 2012). “Culture Posts: Giving Voice to Publics,” in USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Blog Series




The Cultural Underbelly of Public Diplomacy

July 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

Culture as an underlying force that shapes global public diplomacy remains curiously unexplored. Yet, every aspect of an entity’s public diplomacy, from the values and ideals buried in its political goals to how it tries to communicate with publics is touched by culture. Intercultural scholars have cautioned that to overlook culture’s influence is to remain vulnerable to its power. Conversely, with the benefit of cultural knowledge, one can more effectively harness that power.

At present, scholars may only be scratching the surface of culture’s presence in public diplomacy. In the major public diplomacy readers, discussions of culture are contained primarily under the heading of cultural diplomacy. Here culture is not only visible, but it is viewed as a positive force in fostering mutual understanding. Jan Melissen does hint to the importance of culture for public diplomats who serve as boundary spanners across traditional divides. Interestingly, one piece that does focus on the influence of culture down plays its significance.

The attention paid to culture in public diplomacy lags well behind the exploration found in public diplomacy’s sister fields in both communication and international relations (IR) studies. Since the early 1990s, scholars have been exploring culture’s role in political theory, conflict resolution, security studies, and traditional diplomacy.

The example of traditional diplomacy is revealing. Originally, diplomatic scholars maintained that principles of negotiations were “universal.” Raymond Cohen’s landmark study, which was soon followed by others, found that culture does matter. He demonstrated, what seasoned diplomats instinctively knew, namely that Arab, Japanese and U.S. diplomats do not “negotiate” the same way or necessarily from the same premise. The distinctive styles were traceable to the differing cultural and intellectual heritages. The benefit of exploring culture ultimately led to diplomats being better able to “negotiate” across different contexts.

Similarly, in communication subfields, scholars are excavating cultural features buried in public relations, marketing and advertising practices and scholarship. It is not only a matter of what sells – a double-chocolate doughnut in Denver or the dried pork and seaweed doughnut in Shanghai – Dunkin’ Donuts discovered it matters how they are sold. For health communicators, knowledge of cultural nuances can literally mean the difference between programs that falter and those that save lives. Public diplomacy, as a form of international communication, spans not only across national but also cultural borders. It is exposed to similar challenges in communicating with culturally diverse publics.

The reasons why culture is often overlooked makes the need to explore it even more compelling.

In international studies, culture was seen as an “irrational” element that, like religion, did not fit nicely in rational models. In 1993, Samuel Huntington ’s influential piece the “Clash of Civilizations” sounded alarm bells about the inevitable consequences of cultural differences. Research in culture mushroomed. That new research revealed that conflicts are more likely to stem from economic factors, particularly competition over scarce resources, rather than purely cultural differences. And, rather than being the source of conflict, cultural contact led to cross-fertilization of ideas and rejuvenation of civilizations. The polemic lens may highlight the battles of the Crusaders, yet the Islamic scholarship and innovations they brought back was the wellspring of the European renaissance.

More recently, cultural knowledge, including the other irrational component of religion, is being used in “faith diplomacy.” Rather than being the source of conflicts, culture has become a strategic tool for mitigating conflicts. Without an understanding of culture, scholars were vulnerable to not only overlooking its significance, but over exaggerating its power. In neither instance was culture seen as a potential tool.

Lack of cultural self-awareness is another problem.  The tendency is to view public diplomacy as “culture free,” something the audience has but not the sponsor. While officials may overlook culture’s affect on their public diplomacy initiatives, foreign publics often find the cultural overtones glaring and even inappropriate. U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab world could have avoided costly mistakes with greater cultural knowledge.

Culture’s role in public diplomacy has also has been somewhat controversial in that it challenges notions about universalism and cultural variation. The tendency to view the dominant perspective as universal is not unique to public diplomacy.

Even such assumed universals as cognitive processes are being debated. On the one hand, CPD professor Kelton Rhoads cites research that cognitive processes are widely viewed as “universal.” However, an international team of researchers led by Richard E. Nisbett claimed, “assumptions that cognitive processes are universally the same and biologically fixed may both be quite wrong.” As they explain, “even if all cultures possessed essentially the same basic cognitive processes as their tools, the tools of choice for the same problems may habitually be different.” One might add that there may be even difference not only in what tools, but how those tools are used.

That culture’s role is controversial and that controversy is coming from different vantage points may make the need to study culture all the more warranted. Not only public diplomacy scholars but even Wikipedia have brought attention to the U.S. concentration. Charges of systemic bias challenge not only US dominance, but indirectly question the universality of the US model and perspective.

The predominance of U.S. scholarship as a cultural force in public diplomacy cannot be underestimated. First, the U.S. perspective represents a mono-cultural perspective in what is undeniably a multicultural world of diverse publics and perspectives. Second, the U.S. model, with its buried assumptions, may not be the best fit for other countries that may have different political values or communication styles. Chinese Professor Yiwei Wang, for example, noted that Chinese public diplomacy had used “U.S. public diplomacy as a major model even though he believed the Chinese approach was closer to the cultural exchange/cultural diplomacy of the French than to “American-style media diplomacy.” Third, if the U.S. model is posed as the standard, approaches that reflect elements of other cultural heritages may appear lacking rather different. Prof. Wang described the Chinese culture as a “considerable obstacle to effective Chinese public diplomacy.” Finally, the dominance of one cultural perspective may overshadow the rich contributions that the intellectual heritages of other societies can offer to expand the vision of public diplomacy scholarship and practice.

These lessons about the need for cultural knowledge take on greater urgency for public diplomacy given two trends that are likely to intensify.

The first trend that will require greater cultural knowledge is the growing salience of cultural identity by publics. Public diplomacy, like other forms of communication, is inherently about identity and image in that it says something about how each party sees itself (identity) and the other (image). Public diplomacy has focused primarily on one side of the equation; that of a sponsor protecting and promoting its own image. However, a public may also have a shared sense of collective or cultural identity. Communication that is perceived as challenging or violating a public’s cultural identity can inadvertently trigger a backlash. Such incidents involving the mass media, because of its magnifying effect, can spiral out of the sponsor’s control. The 2005 Danish cartoon incident was a vivid example. For public diplomats to avoid such cases in the future will require a sophisticated awareness of the cues and strategies for navigating the dynamics of cultural identities and representation in the international arena.

A second trend that is also likely to intensify and require greater cultural knowledge is the move within public diplomacy toward collaboration in an effort to tackle complex global problems. The recent mantra of relationship-building, networking, alliances, partnership and engagement are all part of the vocabulary of collaboration. Collaboration in public diplomacy may well become the strategic equivalent of negotiation in traditional diplomacy. At the heart of collaboration is the ability to bring people of diverse backgrounds together and get them to combine their efforts to achieve a unified goal. Recent research reveals that cultural and ethnic diversity are the biggest sources of friction – and synergy – in collaborative teams. A public diplomat’s skills in invoking culture’s blessing or curse will rest on cultural knowledge.

Cohen, R., & United States Institute of Peace. (1991). Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy. Washington, D.C: United States Institute of Peace.

Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (n.d.). Culture and Systems of Through: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition. Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

Wang, Y. (2008). Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616(1), 257-273. doi:10.1177/0002716207312757

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