Public diplomacy: a higher calling for public relations

John Paluszek, “From The ‘Harmonious Society’ to the Harmonious Global Society” July 2011, China International Public Relations Society, Beijing

Public diplomacy: a higher calling for public relations

Guest post by John Paluszek, APR, Fellow PRSA

It is not hyperbolic to say it:

Public relations professionals now have an epic opportunity to serve the global society and thereby win new appreciation of our profession.

In fact, some are already well into that mission.

Let’s quickly examine the case for this admittedly bold assertion.

The “case” is a continuum, ranging from Harold Burson talking to the Soviets in Moscow in 1988, all the way to Toni Muzi Falconi’s recent guest blog post on PR Conversations,  summarizing the first Global Congress for Muslim Public Relations Practitioners—with many “stops” and elements in between.

“Mr. Burson meets the Soviets”…and onward

President Ronald Reagan in his December 23, 1988, letter:

This is simply to thank you for all you’ve done for America by fostering private sector initiatives.… I’ve always believed government could draw on the counsel of private citizens who had the knowledge and expertise to solve problems and who would willingly share them at no cost to the taxpayers…. You have given invaluable advice about public relations…. I salute you for proving so well the private sector’s capabilities.

Harold Burson had just led a group of about a dozen US public relations executives (including me) in a series of Washington, DC and Moscow meetings with our putative Soviet counterparts in an exchange of views and experiences. The Soviets were led by Alexander Yakovlev, the chief of the USSR’s Communist Party ideology and considered to be the intellectual force behind Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program of glasnost and perestroika.

Did we help change the world, even a bit? We’ll never know, but it’s just possible. For example:

Fast forward to Stockholm, Sweden 2010 and the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management’s Sixth World Public Relations Forum. Klaus Schwab, eponymous founder and executive chair of the globally influential World Economic Forum and a forum keynote speaker, encouraged our “higher calling”:

In a complex network future, public relations must build trust and create sustainable communities…public relations [has] become even more crucial….provided global and other issues are addressed in the framework of the common interest of all stakeholders.

Having visited with colleagues around the world—particularly in Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia—in Beijing last July, at the 20th anniversary of the China International Public Relations Society, we discussed, “From The ‘Harmonious Society’ to the Harmonious Global Society’” and a short time earlier, in Helsinki, “The New Global CSR Business Model—Good News for Public Relations Professionals”—a derivative of diplomat Vernon Walters’ famous counsel:

“Let us make the world so economically interdependent that war will go out of style.”

And, coming full circle, in December 2011, three Global Alliance leaders were key presenters at the Kuala Lampur First Global Congress for Muslim Public Relations Practitioners, “The Voice of Moderation and Harmony.” Toni Muzi Falconi’s bottom-line reflection on the congress:

“…the relationship between Islam and human sciences and PR and communication is strong and could well become a major component of global public relations’ curricula.”

The new global zeitgeist: epic opportunity

Rarely, if ever, has the global intellectual, moral and cultural climate so coalesced in accord with public relations philosophy and principles. Technological progress has always influenced zeitgeist; now, the constant evolution and the sociological dynamism of social media has become an epic catalyst.

As a result, international relations—and international relationships—are increasingly dependent on “public diplomacy”, i.e., mainly people-to-people communications and interactions gradually building mutual understanding.

This “public diplomacy” is, at root—and at last—public relations writ large.

Today, many diplomats and geopolitical experts have co-opted this principle in emphasizing “soft power” and “smart power” in international relations. Scott Cutlip and Allen Center, authors of the widely respected, Effective Public Relations, told us that all professions must have a social purpose and that, ultimately, public relations has as its social purpose harmony.


And now, no doubt related, something quite significant seems to have entered the global ether. Put crudely, it is “the vox populi” on steroids.

From Tahrir Square to the many “Occupy” sites (and, most recently, in Moscow and villages in China!) the energy and yearnings of a “new generation” (yes, young people, but not only the younger generations)—wedded to the new information technologies—articulate a common, fundamental search for greater social justice, freedom, equality and “voice.

These proliferating demands (sometimes unfocused) for dialogue, transparency, trust and accountability—as well as for an improved standard of living and quality of life—now confront not only governments but also corporations and other institutions around the world. This, when ideas travel globally in an instant, when social media produces ferment for exchanges that have impact, regardless of origin.

It is a context in which—over time—cultures will develop, societies will evolve and nations will change. Public relations principles and professionals—both practitioners and educators—can help.

What is to be done?

Importantly, this public service “higher calling” shouldn’t be seen as in any way mutually exclusive with, or a distraction from, the myriad of contemporary services public relations professionals now provide all over the world, helping to build or maintain reciprocal relationships with  the stakeholders of virtually every organization and institution in modern society.

In fact, in an inversion of the “public diplomacy” model, such client service itself can sometimes edge the global society toward harmony. The example with which I’m most familiar is my employer Ketchum’s transparency counsel for Chinese companies, partially or totally government owned, that seek to “go public” with initial stock offerings on Western exchanges. These companies benefit from exposure to a new, necessary degree of transparency even as the political-economic system in China is nudged, in fits and starts, toward a variant of democratic capitalism that would make Chairman Mao spin in his grave.

Our senior executives might well ponder that in a number of countries, many accomplished lawyers have long been high-level participants in government, sometimes pro bono and temporarily, other times as departmental ministers or cabinet members. In the United States, there is a tradition of such patriotic service which has valued legal expertise as well as the wisdom of life experience—the highly influential “The Wise Men” of the last century.

With effective two-way communication and harmony so vital in international relations today, is it not time for the public relations equivalent—“The Wise Women and Men”? Of course, we should be invited to undertake that mission.

There is much to be done at other levels and quadrants of the profession as well. It is advocacy—that is, advocacy for the very concept of “public diplomacy” in any of its iterations, and support for the many organizations—large and small, non-government and government—dedicated to this mission.

Personal experience

I have found inspiration and a rewarding pro bono involvement in this space as an advocate and adviser for the international civil society organization, Bridging the Divide. This international justice and peace organization links civil society groups in the West and Middle East/North Africa mainly through new information technology and on-the-ground services. With a diverse network of local partner organizations in the Middle East and the Caucasus Region, it has just completed a study of means of improving Turkish-Armenian relations.

David Holdridge, Bridging the Divide’s founder, has articulated the opportunity for greater global harmony quite impressively:

“Sovereignty is not what it used to be…. Now the technologies and a youth fed up with war and despair are silently, but inexorably, creating a union…. They are, in historic proportions, going online. They are accelerating daily the trade in ideas over the World Wide Web.”

In another context, Holdridge recently wrote,

“I would bet that the key words of the century ahead will be “global, “participatory” and “modern”…. I believe [this] has a certain inevitability, albeit with the commensurate pain which always accompanies great change.”

A “To Do” list

To be sure, many of our colleagues are now fully engaged in the cause of improved international relations, as staffers and leaders at multilateral organizations, including the United Nations, The World Bank and many regional, national and international civil society groups such as Bridging the Divide.

But there is much to be done by the many who, even in the midst of private sector public relations careers, could respond to the “higher calling.” In addition to the proposed patriotic service of “The Wise Women and Men” echelon, international civil society organizations such as Bridging the Divide need pro bono expertise to generate exposure and support for their missions.

Our educational institutions can also play a vital role, doing what they do best—conducting research on “soft power” (i.e., public diplomacy) case histories and teaching this discipline. Syracuse University has provided an outstanding example: It offers public diplomacy-related dual graduate degrees conferred by its S.I. Newhouse School of Communications along with its Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

And on the more systemic level, perhaps our global and national PR associations will consider advocacy for “public diplomacy” as consistent with their missions. Too, national governments can find models for “soft power/smart power” with impact in the track record of the highly respected BBC and the Cold War-era U.S. Information Agency.

On a final note

Public relations professionals at all levels might well reflect on the legacy aphorism by the late Walter Annenberg, renowned philanthropist, publisher and diplomat:

“Every human advancement or reversal can be understood through communications.”

Some 10 years after Mr. Annenberg’s death, we can honor his seminal observation by more actively addressing the macro issues of our time.

* * *

Also see the Global Alliance’s (July 2011) Corporate Social Responsibility Communications: interview with John Paluszek


John Paluszek, APR, Fellow PRSA, is senior counsel at Ketchum, specializing in reputation management and corporate responsibility. He is immediate past chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA); liaison to the United Nations for the GA and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA); and a member of the Commission on Public Relations Education. He served as PRSA’s 1989 president and was the 2010 recipient of its Atlas Award for lifetime achievement in international public relations.

In 1988, he represented PRSA in the first US-Soviet Bilateral Information Talks in Moscow and in the first East-West Public Relations Summit in Vienna. In December 2002, he chaired the plenary session on communications at the Berlin United Nations Global Compact Forum and, in April 2004, addressed the Paris Global Compact meeting on “Sustainable Consumption.” A former journalist, John has written many commentaries for business and academic journals, including Journalism Studies, the Foreign Policy Association’s Viewpoints and a CNBC blog. He is the author of An American Journey, his family’s multi-generational memoir, and seminal books on corporate social responsibility, Organizing for Corporate Social Responsibility (Amacom, 1973) and Will The Corporation Survive? (Prentice-Hall, 1977). Contact him by email.

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12 Replies to “Public diplomacy: a higher calling for public relations

  1. I find that PR CONVERSATIONS provides an ideal forum for the exchange of valuable information on best practices and advanced commentary by public relations colleagues around the world.

    My recent guest blog, “Public diplomacy; a higher calling for public relations” is a case in point: Beacuse of PRC’s impressive reach and entre (not any particular eloquence or incisiveness by the author), the blog has so far been visited by more than 850 colleagues referred through a variety of platforms (Twitter, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn). I’ve been very impressed!

    These visits have generated new, or renewed, relationships with several influential individuals involved in the subject that will keep the public diplomacy/public relations discussion alive and, hopefully, impactful.

    Bottom line (literally): Public relations professionals often counsel their clients to listen and dialogue with key audiences, but we sometimes forget that this counsel also applies within our profession.

    John Paluszek
    Senior Counsel, Ketchum
    Immediate past chair, The Global Alliance For Public Relations and Communication Management

  2. Thank you for this intriguing article, which I will have the pleasure of citing in the next edition of the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review. Best for the New Year, John Brown, Georgetown University

    1. Toni,

      I stand corrected. It is probably because of Campbells hyperactivity on the lecture circuit that I overlooked Mandelson’s contribution to the revival of the Labour Party. Thanks.

  3. After reading John’s “hyperbolic” post with many behind the scenes movers and shakers, one notable
    mover and shaker on the recent political landscape comes to mind: Tony Blair’s PR and Comms strategist Alastair Campbell.

    One may differ with his politics, but his reinvention of the British Labour Party and subsequent electoral victories, attest to the power PR and comms when strategically deployed.

  4. When John writes ‘Technological progress has always influenced zeitgeist; now, the constant evolution and the sociological dynamism of social media has become an epic catalyst’ I shudder.
    What a bold and encompassing statement.

    John’s interpretation of ‘public diplomacy’ as it relates to each of us (John, I am gratified by your citation, by the way) is intriguing as well as greatly challenging.

    It sounds to me something like: if each of us was truly aware of her/his real impact on society and therefore acted responsibly, we would be a relevant force in effectively advocating the value of our profession, because: ‘rarely, if ever, has the global intellectual, moral and cultural climate so coalesced in accord with public relations philosophy and principles’.
    Well done, John.

  5. As always my friend John has a lot of good things to say that are pregnant with possibilities as he would say himself.
    Public Relations does cover the waterfront which is one of the reasons it is difficult to define. Public Diplomacy is just one more facet of our profession.

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