Public Diplomacy


When asked to distinguish public diplomacy from propaganda, Madeline Albright stated that public diplomacy is “the listening part as well as the telling part of the message”. For Albright and many other public diplomacy scholars and practitioners, listening provides legitimacy to public diplomacy. History has shown that a refusal to listen to a target audience before advocating a position renders public diplomats vulnerable to criticism. As of late, many high profile individuals associated with public diplomacy frequently underscore that importance of listening in conducting public diplomacy. For example, immediately following his confirmation, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy James K. Glassman wrote an op-ed demanding that American public diplomacy must do a better job listening to foreign publics. During the nomination announcement of his predecessor, Karen Hughes, Condoleezza Rice stated that “to be successful we must listen. An important part of telling America's story is learning the stories of others. Our interaction with the rest of the world must not be a monologue. It must be a conversation”. The focus on listening is not an American phenomenon. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office recognizes the importance of listening [1]. Sweden’s own public diplomacy agency, the Swedish Institute, identifies listening as the cornerstone for successful public diplomacy.

Even though listening is universally agreed upon as important, there is no consensus over what listening actually means in a public diplomacy context.


Cognitive psychologists explain listening as a dynamic process based on both cognitive and behavioral models. The cognitive aspect of listening refers to the process occurring in the listener’s brain “at the moment of listening”. The behavioral model is more global as it explains what is going on during the interaction. This includes elements such as the weather or ambient noise [2]. Listening is an interpretative act that is influenced by a specific, temporal environment.

The most direct definition of listening from a public diplomacy scholar comes from the historian, Nicholas J. Cull. According to Cull, “listening is an actor’s attempt to manage the international environment by collecting and collating data about publics and their opinions overseas and using that data to redirect its policy or its wider public diplomacy approach accordingly” 3.

Listening: Scope & Problems

Traditionally listening is achieved through a set of tools, including polls, focus groups and embassy reports [4]. Empirically these tools have delivered some positive results. Cull finds that these tools were instrumental in Switzerland’s rebranding campaign, Presence Switzerland. Switzerland conducted a series of surveys and polls in target countries, learning that many of its public diplomacy problems were rooted in confusion and misunderstanding. Listening allowed Switzerland to swiftly gauge their current predicaments and develop simple, yet effective solutions [5].

Switzerland’s success is atypical. Many nations are regarded as poor listeners because either their attempts to listen are perfunctory at best or they do not even consider listening in the first place. Bruce Gregory, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, attributes this to a casual approach that many nations have taken towards listening. At a NATO conference in 2007, Gregory said,

“We talk much more about ‘listening.’ But our approach is entirely too casual. Listening means deep comprehension of cultures, attitudes, beliefs, media filters, and social systems. It means seeing how others see us – and how they interpret our motives, actions, and messages. Importantly, it means understanding non-elite networks and youth sub-cultures.” 6

Gregory proposes that instead of just listening through surveys and focus groups, diplomats and scholars should use the following techniques:

  • Media Analysis
  • Internet Mining
  • Social Network Analysis
  • Cultural and Ethnographic Studies

Gregory is particularly wary of those that equate listening as a way to reinforce a predetermined message. Listening is often relegated to a half-hearted attempt to demonstrate that a nation does care about the world’s opinions. Instead of coming across as sincere, this form of listening runs the risk of alienating foreign publics. American diplomats in the Middle East are perceived as “going through the motions, checking off the listening box so they can carry on with their plans.” 7 Rarely does listening translate into a change in policy.

Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman, professor of communication at Purdue University, study about American public diplomacy in the Middle East confirms this checklist approach. Concluding his study, he writes,

“Instead, diplomacy in its current form is used as a platform for using audience data to craft persuasive messages that seek shifting the underlying values and beliefs in the Middle East. Audience inputs conducted in the form of market research are used to diffuse U.S. interests in the population. Inherent in the above conceptualization is the oppressive force of public diplomacy that seeks to alter one culture to suit the preferences of another culture, based on differences in access to power. Although communication here is created to assess the effectiveness of the policies being pushed, it does not create a sense of understanding between the involved stakeholders because of the coercive and unequal framework within which it is conceptualized.” [8]

Dutta’s criticism speaks to the intent of American listening strategies. Listening seeks to influence, not to understand. A study by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management, shows that the American diplomats “fail to show any sensitivity to the values or interests of the audience” 9. Little efforts have been made to alter this approach, as Keith Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action and longtime champion of listening, says “There’s never been a methodological listening study conducted by the U.S. government” 10. Most explanations for this rely on mapping out American public diplomacy strategies. Nancy Snow finds that there are also cultural barriers that hinder good listening skills in the State Department. For the most part, American diplomats are not patient. They are “perceived as superficial, uninterested in other points of view, and therefore arrogant” 11.

Listening Reform in America

If American public diplomacy is to move beyond a “’made in Washington’ label” 12, it must improve upon its listening skills. Too often, messages are devised without seriously taking into account regional and local perspectives. Instead of “push[ing] a product” the United States needs to listen if it wants to restore its global reputation 13. In light of this, there are multiple calls and proposals for improving US listening.

In a comprehensive report covering a wide array problems facing American public diplomacy, the Council on Foreign Relations recommends a budget increase for listening capabilities. Currently, the United States only spends $5 to $10 million on foreign public opinion polling, while hundreds of millions are spent for a US Presidential race [14]. The report fails to specify how much money should be allocated, but it does call for a serious boost in spending.

The Center for Arts and Culture's 2004 report on Cultural Diplomacy recommends that the United States improve “intercultural understanding” by listening to other cultures. The reciprocal nature of exchanges is a form of listening as it provides a forum for different cultures to freely interact with each other.

Listening reforms are not coming just from think tanks. In the Senate and Defense Department, there is a growing demand for more civilian listening posts. Most commonly referred to as open-source intelligence gathering, certain security experts are recognizing the need for the open collection of information by Foreign Service Officers 15. In a 2008 memo, For example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen called for more listening from US armed forces in order to bolster the United States’ international credibility.

In the business world, Keith Reinhard proposes a more unconventional approach, asking for corporations around the globe to use videoconferencing to create a day when America listened. In an interview, Reinhard says he dreams of a scenario where 100 CEO’s kept mum and simply listened to foreigners' voices [16]. In a similar vein, New York Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman wrote that on a trip to Europe in 2005, George W. Bush should have refrained from giving speeches and just listened to America’s allies. Friedman editorialized that this would be the ultimate sign of respect.

Limits of Listening

For some scholars, no amount of listening will improve the United States’ global image. The problem is rooted in credibility and the only way to change course is by changing policy. R.S. Zaharna, assistant professor of public communication at American University, writes “while ‘more ears than mouth’ may counter the U.S. image problem, U.S. public diplomacy has a much more serious problem. It has a credibility deficit of global proportions . . . Unfortunately, even listening—without first establishing credibility—can be perceived as gratuitous and insincere.” 17.

Listening is not a cure-all for American public diplomacy. If the input gained from listening is not incorporated into policy, or at least not given a fair hearing, foreign populations will not treat listening attempts as sincere attempts at communication. This is not to say that listening requires a nation to subject every foreign policy decision to international review. But, the failure to consider other viewpoints is a devastating choice. Even when listening does not translate into a change in policy, the act of listening promotes respect between parties and aids in the reduction of violence [18].


[1] See Nicholas J. Cull, “Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories”

[2] Laura A Janusik, “Teaching Listening: What Do We Do? What Should We Do?”

[3] Cull, “Public Diplomacy: Lessons from the Past”

[4] Bruce Gregory, “Upgrading Public Diplomacy’s Tools”

[5] Cull, “Public Diplomacy: Lessons from the Past”

[6] Gregory, “Upgrading Public Diplomacy’s Tools”

[7] Steven R. Corman, “Narrowing the Listen-Do Gap In U.S. Public Diplomacy,”

[8] Dutta-Bergman, “US Public Diplomacy in the Middle East”

[9] William Triplett, “U.S. needs image tuck,”

[10] Ibid

[11] Nancy Snow, “Anti-Americanism and the Rise of Civic Diplomacy”

[12] Edward S. Walker, “The Importance of Diplomacy in US Foreign Policy”

[13] Snow

[14] Peter G. Peterson, Finding America’s Voice, page 9-10.

[15] Sameer Lalwani, “Redeploying American Power Through Listening, and Civilians”

[16] Ted Pinkus, “America needs to listen”

[17] R.S. Zaharna, “The U.S. Credibility Deficit”

[18] Andrew Kelly, “On Listening”


Albright, Madeline, Interview with the Global Wire, May 14, 2008.

Center for Arts and Culture, “Cultural Diplomacy: Recommendations & Research,” July 2004,

Corman, Steven R., “Narrowing the Listen-Do Gap In U.S. Public Diplomacy,” COMPOS Journal, June 18, 2008. <>

Cull, Nicholas J., “Public Diplomacy: Lessons from the Past,” April 24, 2007. <>

“Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616 (2008).

Dutta-Bergman, Mohan J. “US Public Diplomacy in the Middle East: A Critical Cultural Approach,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 30 (2006)

Friedman, Thomas, “Read My Ears,” New York Times, January 27, 2005.

Glassman, James K., “The animosity does not run deep,” International Herald Tribune, June 15, 2008.

Gregory, Bruce, “Upgrading Public Diplomacy’s Tools – New Challenges, Old Realities,” NATO Public Diplomacy Workshop, Brussels, July 2-3, 2007. <>

Janusik, Laura A, “Teaching Listening: What Do We Do? What Should We Do?” International Journal of Listening, 16 (2002).

Kelly, Andrew, “On Listening,” Peace Review, 10.4 (1998)

Lalwani, Sameer, “Redeploying American Power Through Listening, and Civilians,” The Washington Note, June 30, 2008. /when_listening/#more

Peterson, Peter G., Finding Americas Voice, Council on Foreign Relations, 2003.

Pincus, Ted, “America needs to listen to sentiment abroad” Chicago Sun Times, January 27, 2004.

Rice, Condoleezza, “Announcement of Nominations of Karen P. Hughes as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and Dina Powell as Assistant Secretary of State For Educational and Cultural Affairs,” March 14, 2005. /43385.htm

Snow, Nancy, "Anti-Americanism and the Rise of Civic Diplomacy," FPIF Strategic Dialogue, December 13, 2006, Anti-Americanism and the Rise of Civic Diplomacy

Triplett, William, “U.S. needs image tuck,” Variety. December 21, 2007.

Walker, Edward S., “The Importance of Diplomacy in US Foreign Policy,” Air Force Association Air and Space Conference, September 12-14, 2005, < /transcript/importance-diplomacy-us-foreign-policy>

Zaharna, R.S., “The U.S. Credibility Deficit,” Foreign Policy In Focus, December 13, 2006,