Category Archives: Political Communication

Obama Has Rebranded USA

Public diplomacy is alive and well — Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other musicians and artists have been gussying up the brand image of the US abroad for decades.
But according to a marketing study of Brand USA’s perception abroad, Obama’s election itself (as confirmed by the curious prematurity of his recent Nobel Peace Prize award) has — all by itself — managed to rebrand the USA.  This rebranding was something that secretaries of public diplomacy — Charlotte Beers, the Aflac/advertising Queen and secretary of public diplomacy under Clinton, for one — have sought in vain to pull off for a decade or more. Same with Karen Hughes, secretary in the Bush 43 administration. For her, it was all about listening and responding to world perception about America — misperception, she believed. For Beers it was all about telling our story, like the great stories of great brands.

All that didn’t work. Those strategies failed. Until the election of the first African-American president who happens to be a citizen of the world — so the world and even Obama’s rightwing enemies agree — and a Wilsonian visionary, the world perception of brand USA was in the dumps. But all that has changed, at least, according to signs such as the Nobel and this new marketing study.

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President of the World: Eyes on Obama’s Prize

Yes, I know. The Nobel Prize committee got it wrong.

A couple of days ago, the Nobel Prize committee once again snubbed Philip Roth, an American author whose body of work is prize-worthy. I was honored to be a student in a small class he taught on world literature more than 40 years ago at the University of Pennsylavania.  This morning, the backwards committee awarded the peace prize to a leader whose major, if not only, accomplishment was to get himself elected.

Full disclosure: I voted for him. Also full disclosure: I’m sorry the Nobel folks hung this albatross around Mr. Obama’s neck. Iran — whose ancestors invested chess –issued a statement of approval. Finally, after American invasions and torture and exceptionalism under the mean old President Bush, there’s a nice, peaceful fellow America picked as its leader.

The selection of Obama does him no or the U.S. no good. His selection, based apparently on nomination papers submitted just weeks into his presidency, appears to be for his having been elected. No kinetic energy — just potential.

In a way, it’s understandable. On one level, it’s really not about Obama the man, but Obama the symbol. The multicultural, African-American, history-making, narrative-changing, citizen of the world.

If Bill Clinton had been what Toni Morrison called ‘the first black president,’ then Obama is the first global president. (Let’s leave aside the fact that he’s commander-in-chief of the US military now waging two wars.)

Awarding the prize to Obama reminds me of that misguided self-esteem movement in education, which awarded all children A’s just for existing,rather than for accomplishment. That approach soon was recognized for the well-intended foolishness it is, and as a result we have had the 20-year pendulum swing to 24/7 testing the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama no-child-left-untested. As usual,after a policy failure comes an over-correction.

The rightwing has won the conservative Exacta: first, the embarrassment for the Obamas that their efforts to lobby the Olympic committee for Chicago failed. And now this Peace Prize awkward moment.

Obama’s domestic enemies are chuckling. But Obama may yet get the last laugh. The very “poison” so feared by the Ronald Reagan-led conservative movement, and now echoed by the radical right (Beck, Limbaugh, Malkin and O’Reilly, Inc.): socialized medicine. The all-but-certain passage of significant healthcare reform is exactly the sort of accomplishment that prize committees generally use as a criterion. And I suspect that over this first term there may well be other significant accomplishments that could well turn out to make the obviously premature award appear not idiotic and naive but prescient.

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Politics, Policy & Principles

You’re a member of congress. There’s a contentious  public issue facing you, the congress and the nation.  You know where you stand and what you stand for. But you’re torn.

On the one hand, there’s policy at stake. A bill is up for a vote — a momentous bill, a momentous vote. If the bill passes — and you dearly want it to pass — it will be the economic enfranchisement of millions of citizens. If it doesn’t, it could spell not only their continued disenfranchisement, but the downfall of the administration you support with all your heart and soul.

So why are you torn? Because in order to get to point C — the bill’s passage — you first need to get to point B, which happens to be a fork in the road. Point B calls for you to  cast a vote for or against another bill. And it’s a tricky question. You came to congress as a freshman in 2009. The bill which we’re called Point B asks that the intention of a previous bill be turned topysy-turvy — a complete reversal of principles that were embedded in the previous bill. And the previous bill was deeply principled in that it called for a public issue to be settled in the democratic way — through an election. Vox populi.

But the bill before you and your colleagues now would overturn that principled bill — and for what? For even higher principles, some would argue — for the economic enfranchisement of millions of citizens across the nation.

But you’re torn. If you vote for the bill before you now, you would be casting  vote that could be perceived as being a rebuke to a dearly held principle of democracy: allowing the citizens to vote on a public issue. If you vote for the bill before you now, you are vulnerable to the not unreasonable charge by your political opponents of hypocrisy. Your party supported the previous bill which called for the people to decide through an election.

So if you were  to now cast your vote along with your party to oppose such a free election, you would be seen as someone who doesn’t stand for anything other than partisanship. You could be seen as just one of those politicians who choose principles over politics only when the principles suit your politics. You could be seen as someone without the gumption to stand up to the pressure  of your leadership.

And what would be your defense? That you weren’t yet elected when that previous bill was voted? And thus somehow you feel you’re owed a waiver from principles because you weren’t there back then?

How confident are you that such an argument would cut any ice with the voters? How sure are you that the people who came out for you wouldn’t see your vote as expedient and unprincipled — especially when the opposition media (and even some of the media you have counted on) publish editorial nailing you to the cross of hypocrisy and expediency?

No, you’re going to have to come up with a stronger defense of your vote than that you weren’t around in the not-so-old days when your party supported the democratic principle  of elections to settle a public issue. And looking more closely at the previous bill, your opponents could argue that your party didn’t support it out of respect for democratic principles, but in order to avoid the possibility of an opposition governor simply doing what he and his party wanted to do. So your party would not even get credit for casting a principled vote on the previous bill.

What a conundrum! What can you do? What ought you to do?

You could buck your party’s pressure and vote for the democratic principle of a free election to  decide a public issue. In doing so, you would be showing that you’re not just another pol who caves in to party pressue. In doing so, you would be showing that you had the heart and soul and intellect to stand for what you assert to be the higher principle — democratic election to decide a public issue. And that in casting such a vote, you are acknowledging that you are willing to sacrifice having it both ways — having not to choose between principles. You would be not be voting against the economic enfranchisement of millions of Americans because you deeply believ in that principle. But by casting your vote on the bill before you, you would be publicly stating that you are not willing to game the system.

That’s what you could think, although you wouldn’t put it that way, of course. You  would say that you believe deeply in both principles — enfranchisement of all but also in vox populi, rather than the avoidance of listening to that public voice.

It  isn’t easy to be an elected public official. With every vote, your brand is on the line. The perception of you is at risk. Did you act on the principles you were elected for? Or did you abandon them out of deference to pressure and expediency?

Each year the Kennedy Foundation Library and Museum recognize public officials who demonstrate the virtue JFK held more dearly than any other —  courage. These officials of both parties and neither party have shown that they acted, voted, spoke from positive, pro-social, pro-democratic, ethical and moral principles — and sometimes at terrible political and personal cost to themselves. Each year thousands of  high school students write essays about just such politically courageous public officials — Southern governors who opposed segregation; Liberian women who stood up to terror and rape and refused to be silenced.

I am proud to be a judge in that essay contest.

I am also proud to be a friend of an elected official who is so deeply motivated by principle — and so mature and sophisticated and unselfish and aware — that her votes emerge from a profoundly  moral and ethical space, but never a reckless or foolish or self-subverting place.

This is the rare politician the people are rewarded for electing and re-electing. Not because all  her votes are “perfect” because there is not perfection on this earth. We can never be utterly free of self-interest, nor ought we to be. Politics, like literary translation is, in some sense, impossible. It is an art, not a science. A conversation and a compromise — at least, up to a point. And the location of that point is what a politician must, unlike the rest of us — decide over and over again in public. And it is this continual pressure to declare, decide and reveal which is why politics is so bound up with courage.

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Heckles and F-bombs

A public radio piece suggested that America is defining  civility down. After Congressman Joe Wilson (“You lie!”) and Serena Williams (F#$%!!!) lost their respective tempers in a single week, their outbursts have set the agenda for another visit to civility country.

What speech is socially acceptable now — and where and when? After years of watching John McEnroe get his freak on at line judges who thought his balls were out when they should have been in, it’s hard to be shocked (shocked!) by Serena’s salty sailor’s tongue — except that it turned out to be her US Open swan song.

Context, context, context: The real estate principle of speech. It’s the location, stupid! Should Serena have been called out for calling out? Sure. She had it coming. Sociologist Erving Goffman (I miss him now that I’ve never met him and he’s passed into social science heaven) would have called those outbursts a “lack of dramaturgical discipline.”  In nonacademic jargon, it’s a failiure to “maintain.”

As for the You Lie Guy, I’m not buying his excuse that his emo got the best of him — or the worst of him. Yes, he was seen to be chewing his cheeks during the president’s scolding speech. But when he spit out his imprecation, Wilson seemed more like a fellow who had calculated just when to let ‘er rip. After all, with the 1,000-page bill full of communist lies, he could have picked any of them — like Tom Brady looking downfield to see a whole heap of receivers. Wilson played the Illegal Immigrant card. But there was Death Panels, all alone in the end zone.

Homo ludens — man the game player. That was Huizinga’s definitive take on our human nature. We play, therefore we exist. Politics, like tennis, is a very engaging game, and at the highest level —  the US congress, the US Tennis Open– the professional play to win.

Unlike tennis — a game with short-term winners and losers — politics tends to be a longterm contest with clear-cut wins and losses mostly at primary and election time. True, the perpetual news cycle is full of folks calling winners and losers every hour on the  hour. But it’s not hard to see that winning and losing in tennis is a different ball of fuzz with a different spin.

Not that winning isn’t what politics can be about. It is now, as the nation turns its lonely and glazed eyes to health care whatever — reform, socialism, Nazism, Euro-ism, liberalism. It doesn’t take a genius to know that there’s a lot more at stake in the health care game than in the women’s final in Queens. After all, when Serena lost, she could walk away and say she’d been a naughty girl. But half the country seems to believe that if one of the zillion Obama-driven health care bills are passed, we’ll be offing grandma.

But back to the topic at hand — the civil  or uncivil  tongue. A half hour  of watching Brit prime minister Gordon Brown get loudly dissed by backbenchers in parliament and it’s apparent that Americans are  — depending on your perspective — uptight, priggish or far more decorous. But one man’s decorum is another’s outburst. Culture rules in these matters.  Say It Ain’t So, Joe broke the rules, as did potty-mouthed Serena.

If you want to be a homo ludens in good standing, you’ve got to play by the rules. Or you lose.

Whether Wilson’s wildness got his side a W remains to be seen. I doubt that his mouth has legs, so to speak.  It doesn’t even rate a beer summit. But I do suspect that, unlike Serena,  he crossed a line in political communication.

I’ll be perking up my ears for more outbursts from both teams in this political season.

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What Obama Should Say Over the Beers

SCENE:  THREE MEN SEATED AT A PICNIC TABLE IN A REASONABLY PRIVATE SPOT ON THE WHITE HOUSE GROUNDS.  PRESIDENT OBAMA,  PROFESSOR GATES AND SERGEANT CROWLEY.

OBAMA:  I know. I know. This is the biggest fishbowl in the nation. I’m almost used to it. There isn’t a whole lot of privacy.

What I want to tell both of you right off is how much I appreciate your coming here today. Skip, we’ve known each other for a long time, and you already know how much respect I have for you — what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done with your life, what you’ve done as a teacher, a scholar, and a leader and friend of black and white communities in this country and around the world.  Had you not been the man you are, we very likely wouldn’t be about to drink this beer today. And, by the way, you know that we’ve got a selection of brands made right here in the U.S. — in fact, a couple of them are from New England. I know you like that foreign brand, Sergeant Crowley. But I’m just a tenant in this house — I’ve got to follow the rules on beer selection!

Sergeant Crowley — OK, that’s a little formal, but we’re just meeting each other for the first time — I am so pleased that you accepted my invitation to come to my house — the nation’s house. And as I’ve already told you, everything that’s been said about you by folks who evidently know you well professionally as an officer and personally as an outstanding leader and teacher in New England communities — everything I’ve heard makes me proud to welcome you to the White House.

Look. A whole lot’s been said about what happened back in Cambridge.  But I really do believe that this can’t help but be a teachable moment. All three of us have been teachers. Are teachers. In a way, not only has the nation become a classroom — so has  the world, judging by the media from everywhere.

I’ll say one more thing before I offer a toast and we all get to drink our beer on this hot and humid typical July day in D.C. And, really,  it’s a hell of lot  better to be drinking our beer than crying in it.

One more thing. My chief of staff — you know  about him — Rahm Emmanuel — got a little famous for saying “Never let a crisis go to waste.” So to the extent that what we’re doing here started out as a crisis, I wanted to make damn sure we didn’t let it go to waste.

So, all right. Here’s that toast. Let’s raise our glasses of this fine New England brew and drink to understanding and respect and peace and friendship — and to the very best lessons our meeting can teach the communities of this nation and the world — and what we still have to learn from each other!

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No Business Like Zoo Business

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 — Facing a brutal budget cut from cash-strapped Massachusetts, ZOO New England — Franklin Park Zoo and the smaller Stone Zoo — swung from its PR heels and hit what appears to be a PR home run. With the veteran counsel of its Boston-based PR firm, Marlo Marketing, ZOO New England responded to the hovering budget cuts by putting out the word that the Zoo might have to shut down its operations which could result in some of the animals being (here’s the Long Ball) EUTHANIZED!

OMG!  When I saw the newspaper coverage (ZOO NEW ENGLAND ANIMALS COULD BE EUTHANIZED — to closely paraphrase the hook), I could plainly see the storm of public opinion that such a PR “framing” would be certain to generate (those POOR BABY GIRAFFES! THOSE CUTE LITTLE CHIMPS!). And of course it has.

Governor Patrick shot back at the Zoo that no such thing was sure to happen — and that it was unconscionable and unethical for the ZNE to distort the truth like that. And how selfish of the Zoo, when the entire state — including the elderly and poor and others whose state services have been slashed — is feeling the pain of the financial meltdown.

Of course, the governor and his spokespersons’ defensive reactions — no matter how rational — are too little and too late. The first big shot was fired. The PR battle has already been won, it appears, by Zoo New England because it moved swiftly and boldly and found the sweet (or is it bitter?) spot with the image of the heartles murder of defenseless critters. Even the Boston Globe, that LIB-RUL newspaper that conservatives and bean counters and others on the right love to despise, editorialized that Zoo New England had clearly sidestepped the truth and failed to consider very rational management options such as consolidating the functions of the two zoos and seeking donor dollars — not to mention the ME ME ME! selfishness of ZNE’s claim, considering the misery being endured by so many other, less well-funded and PR-savvy constituencies in the Commonwealth.

But, so what? It looks like a done deal in PR  terms.

So when you hear whimpers that “PR is dead!” — don’t believe it. That’s like saying influence is dead. Persuasion is dead. Politics is dead. Pleeeze! T’ain’t so.

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What’s Behind Public Diplomacy’s Uncritical Dismissal of Public Relations?

It’s hard to think of a more despised social institution than public relations.

So it’s not at all surprising to see the explicit rejection of public relations by some prominent public diplomats. Joseph Duffey, the director of the USIA (United States Information Agency) under Bill Clinton, dismissed the idea that public diplomacy had anything to do with with public relations:

Let me just say a word about public diplomacy. It is not public relations. It is not flakking for a Government agency or even flakking for America. It Is trying to relate beyond government-to-government relationships the private Institutions, the individuals, the long-term contact, the accurate understanding, the full range of perceptions of America to the rest of the world. (Quoted in N. Snow, Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy. London & NY: Routledge, 2009.

Mr. Duffey is not the first or most virulent critic of public relations. Noam Chomsky, one of the most widely read critics of public relations and U.S. foreign policy, has written reams about “media control” and “the engineering of consent,” a term coined by Edward Bernays, a pioneer of modern public relations. In l961, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, wrote a withering deconstruction of public relations as the dark art of staging “pseudo events”. But perhaps the most effective critics of PR do so unwittingly. They’re the public relations scholars and professors who continue to report that public relations began with P.T. Barnum, the charlatan and circus showman whose summed up his philosophy with the oft-quoted line that there’s a sucker born every minute.

At the risk of going overboard with an apologia for public relations, I should point out that its theorists, scholars and practitioners have included Aristotle, St. Paul and the popes who created the Congregation de Propaganda fide (Organization to propagate the faith) during the Catholic Reformation, when the new-new thing was insurgent Protestantism. In truth, it is impossible to sever public relations from Aristotelian rhetoric, Pauline Christianity, the papal patronage of Michelangelo and Bernini, the ecstacy of St Teresa, the fugues of Bach, and the architecture of the Sistine Chapel. Whatever other associations public relations has, it is most certainly in league with the beautiful and the visceral.

Of course, it is also impossible to sever public relations from the propaganda machines of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, not to mention the propaganda techniques of their enemies. In this sense, then, public relations must be regarded as paradoxical as well as amoral. Paradoxical because it is so closely allied not only with what we may approve of — argument, debate and persuasion, all of which has been shown to flourish in in democracies but perish under tyranny. Public relations is amoral because it can and has been used for good and evil, which motivated Hiter’s Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, to make an unsuccessful attempt to hire Bernays, a founder of modern public relations, to help engineer consent for Nazism among the German masses of the l920s. Despite Bernays changing the name of his agency from a propaganda bureau to a public relations counsel at the end of the l920s, he was never able to rebrand PR as some sort of pro-democratic, innovative engineering. And during the decades that followed, PR’s propaganda problem grew immeasurably worse with the blood-soaked propaganda of twentieth century totalitarian regimes. But what of public diplomacy?

Even a cursory examination of the history of public diplomacy reveals that it, too, has a propaganda problem, although some public diplomats prefer to frame it as a public relations problem. Are they then not sisters under the skin, PR and public diplomacy? They do appear to share a common problem: They’re misunderstood. But why should this be?

History – even fairly recent history –  furnishes a clue. For one thing, both public relations and public diplomacy claim to have “evolved,” which means both PR and public diplomacy claims to have shed their dark side and improved upon themselves. In the case of public relations, its so-called “evolution” is reported in PR textbooks to have “evolved” not only beyond fakery, but even persuasion. (I prefer to call the apparent changes in public relations “adjustments,” a more common sensical, less pretentiously pseudo-scientific term.)

For the previous generation, the dominant theory of public relations, propounded by its leading scholars, is that “excellent” public relations is “ethical” public relations. Numerous quantitative studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, which purport to demonstrate the statistical reliability of this dubious equation. A score of PR textbooks advances this dubious correlation of excellence and ethics, despite its seriously flawed historiography and its soothing reassurance that, like some single-celled creature, public relations has managed to “evolve” from something bad to something good —  from an unethical morass to a sophisticated, pro-social institution. The term for PR’s evolved, enlightened ethical condition is “symmetrical,” an attempt to apply an anciently rooted theory of ethics mentioned by Epicurus and Cicero. The uncritical belief of academic PR is that it has “evolved” from a-symmetrical to symmetrical. It isn’t a scientifically testable proposition,but rather a political belief akin to liberal progressivism, the notion common in nineteenth century America that mankind and society were moving ever forward, like the stunning innovations of the industrial revolution.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment of PR’s history, me included. (See Jacquie L’etang, Public Relations. Los Angeles, London: 2008, Sage, p. 257). For one thing, the theory of symmetry is rooted in a strangely unhistorical concept of history – one which argues that public relations sprang into existence in mid-nineteenth century America. It just isn’t so. Even PR pioneer Ed Bernays traced PR’s roots back to antiquity. And the defense of that argument – that what is meant by “public relations” is only modern public relations – is simply unpersuasive on many levels. What is “modern” and why should modernity begin in the American Midwest with a circus showman named Barnum? However, if you felt ambivalent about public relations and were attempting to construct  a straw man in order to knock him down in the name of “symmetry”, then you could do worse than tap that old rogue, P.T. Barnum.

Among the legions who dismiss the symmetry theory of public relations are pragmatic, results-driven practitioners of public relations whose job it is to launch campaigns that influence, persuade and motivate.

Little wonder, then, that public relations has been characterized by critically minded historians such as Ray Hiebert, the biographer of Ivy Lee, a twentieth century “father” of public relations,  as a divided institution.

Lately, however, something has happened to shake up the stale PR argument over ethics vs. manipulation: the explosion of social media. The digital age has utterly altered the shape of the argument. What matters most in the era of Facebook and Twitter is now not so much persuasion, excellence or ethics. What counts now is what is commonly called “the conversation” that digitization permits to occur  between anyone and everyone. In the l920s, the model of influence ran downhill from the elite cognoscenti to the ignorant masses. Today, it appears that this model has been turned on its head: In the age of user-generated content, influence, unlike water, can run uphill. Public Relations has entered the age of Me. Traditional tactics of influence — broadcasting, pitching and selling — are increasingly scorned as hopelessly Old School by the new gurus of public relations such as Brian Solis, author of a popular blog called PR 2.0

The literati are dead! Long live the technorati!

At least, that is the newly emerged paradigm of public relations in the age of digital influence. IBM has launched a TV campaign whose theme is Stop talking!

Listening and looking have achieved hegemony with iPod, Google, Photoshop and YouTube. We have entered a new Visual Age, an era which tallies up “eyeballs” and  seduces us with video streams.  And while in some quarters, the word has gone out that PR is dead, I would have to disagree. PR isn’t dead — it’s in love. In love with unique views and links, and it can’t wait to unwrap Web 3.0.

PR has done what it has always done, since long before P.T. Barnum and America and the Catholic propagandio and the persuasive letters of St Paul to the first century Ephesians.  PR has has adjusted and emerged as PR 2.0.  So much for public relations as a simple matter of flakking and spinmeisters. Those days are waning, if not ended. The U.S. has elected its first digitally sophisticated president, addicted to his Blackberry and proud of his l3 million Facebook friends.

But what of public diplomacy? Has it undergone its own adjustment? Apparently so.

Not only has public diplomacy changed, it has adjusted in ways that bear a striking similarity to the adjustments of public relations. For one thing, public diplomacy and public relations are, in the words of the apostle of “soft power,” Joseph Nye, “linked to power”. Soft power – among the most quoted phrases in contemporary diplomacy – is “based on intangible or indirect influences such as culture, values, and ideology,” according to Nye. (http: http://www.wordspy.com; quoted in Snow (2009), p. 3). Those attributes could describe much of the soft power of public relations. For another thing, public diplomacy – like public relations – is beset by a fundamental disagreement about how to frame its definition, strategies and purpose. One side holds that the whole point of public diplomacy has always been, and should always be, to sell the story of the U.S. to foreign allies and adversaries. This was the philosophy of Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of public diplomacy and public affairs in the G.W. Bush administration during the period immediately follow 9-11. An apostle of Old School advertising and marketing, Beers’ claim to fame included success as the brand manager of Uncle Ben’s Rice. She had much less success selling America to the Muslim world.

Following Beers’ brief tenure in public diplomacy came Karen Hughes, a fierce partisan of then-President G.W. Bush. Hughes’ strategy was widely was reported as “listening,” an apparently softer sell than the Beers approach, but nevertheless, a sell. Hughes launched a series of “listening tours” throughout the Middle East, where the reputation of the United States had plunged to perilously low levels after the Bush administration’s engagement in preemptive war, prisoner torture and adamant bellicosity. For Nancy Snow, once a professional public diplomat and now a scholar of public diplomacy, the U.S. must shift public diplomacy from “telling America’s story to the world” to “sharing values, hopes, dreams, and comment respect.” (Snow, p. 5).

And yet, “shared values” was the term used to describe the strategy of brand-conscious Charlotte Beers. It would appear that no matter whether the approach was framed as “listening” or “sharing values,” it was generally perceived as propaganda. It is worth noting that one of the oldest adages in public relations is that perception is reality – a supremely asymmetrical concept.

Today, there’s a sharp division of opinion in the public diplomacy community, according to Snow. She identifies two schools, reminiscent of William James’ taxonomy of people as either “tender minded” or “tough minded”. In public diplomacy, tender minded public diplomacy focuses on “people 2 people” and “government 2 people”. The tough minded strategy emphasizes “insight and influence, anywhere, anytime” (Snow, p. 9).

Just as the public relations world has been divided by the tough and tender minds of persuasion and symmetrical fairness, so the public diplomacy universe is riven by a similar clash of sensibilities. Yet few public diplomats on either side of the divide would openly embrace public relations. “Public diplomacy is not PR,” wrote Price Floyd, a public diplomacy specialist with the U.S. State Department. (Quoted by Snow, Los Angeles Times, op ed, Nov. l7, 2007).

But is that really so? Is public diplomacy all that different from public relations? After all, strategically speaking, both are historically and philosophically traceable to rhetorical foundations. Both are concerned with power.

Snow lands on the slippery slope of the PR symmetry theorists when she argues that “poor public diplomacy sells more than tells”.  Her distinction begs the question of public diplomacy, as it  frames public diplomacy as PR symmetry theorists have framed: as progressive and evolutionary. It is difficult not to see such a conclusion as self-serving.

From the perspective of a critical-thinking intellectual historian, public relations and public diplomacy appear to have a lot more in common than they have differences. Furthermore, while their similarities are substantial, their differences are more stylistic, if not trivial. In the endm, what makes for effective public relations is, after all, what makes for effective public diplomacy: a finely tuned ear to public opinion and the communication skills to frame issues so clearly, cogently and sensitively that it results in a significant shift in public opinion.

rbrown@salemstate.edu; rebrown@fas.harvard.edu Member, Editorial Board, Public Relations Review (Elsevier Publishers)

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