What is Public Diplomacy?

While "public diplomacy" has been in use for almost half a century, practitioners and scholars continue to debate the precise definition of the term. What does it mean to practice "public diplomacy?" What delineates public diplomacy from traditional state-to-state diplomacy? Is public diplomacy merely a kinder gentler word for propaganda?

This page provides a brief history of the term "public diplomacy" and highlights some of the major debates and definitional disagreements that continue to plague this emerging field.a

History of the Term

Most scholars date the first usage of "public diplomacy" to 1965 when Edmund Guillion, a career diplomat used the term in connection with the foundation of the Edward R. Murrow Center at Tuft’s University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The first Murrow Center pamphlet described the practice of public diplomacy as:

"the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy . . . [including] the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another . . . (and) the transnational flow of information and ideas"[Cited: http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/1.htm].

In some respects, the story of modern American public diplomacy began during World War I, when the U.S. government created the Committee on Public Information (the Creel Committee) which was designed to build public support for America's entry into that war, and to inform and influence foreign audiences about U.S. war efforts in support of democratic ends. The advent of modern public diplomacy in America coincided with the rise of such contemporary mass media as film, radio, and (later) television, and reached its apex during World War II and the Cold War, when public diplomacy played a central role in the battles against fascism and communism; indeed, some consider it to have been of seminal importance during those years in the triumph of democracy. Some central parts of the academic field of communication study grew out of important studies of the media and public opinion during that time. For the U.S. government, the primary efforts in those years were led, respectively, by the Office of War Information, the United States Information Agency and, since 1999, by the State Department’s Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. While there were those who treated it as a relic of history in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, public diplomacy has gained a new urgency in the two years since 9/11 and there is now widespread agreement that it is an area of enormous importance. Moreover, there is a growing understanding that it is a field with deep implications for all societies and institutions; that it includes private as well as public actors; that it must be better informed about the implications of changes in technology, society and world political realities; and that it requires new thinking, new paradigms and possibly even new institutions.

The term "public diplomacy" has not received universal acceptance among practitioners. It gained currency when USIA needed to create an overriding institutional ideology to justify its forced 1978 merger with State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs into what was named the International Communications Agency (which was subsequently dropped by the PR-focused Reagan administration and returned to the old name, USIA). Until 1978, the USIA had functioned as the U.S. Government's public affairs (re: media relations) agency overseas, though cultural attaches – who reported to State, not USIA -- were attached to the old USIS offices in the field as a practical bureaucratic arrangement. A clear demarcation between PA and culture existed; after the 1978 merger, practitioners often specialized in one or the other, though promotions were fixed to reward service in both.

“PD means little to these critics except to serve as a convenient catch-all for activities that don’t fit traditional, government-to-government diplomacy and happen to be thrown together in the R bureau at the State Department. In other words, form determines function. Tourism promotion, for example (see www.publicdiplomacywatch.com) should be every much part and parcel of public diplomacy as academic exchanges, but by being in a separate agency, it is usually left out of the PD debate. Why not switch that to State's R bureau? Is U.S. Government international radio broadcasting PD or not? What about DOD’s own propaganda units?

The preferred labels of this school for the activities now consigned to the R bureau are public affairs and cultural diplomacy; the preferred course is to follow the pre-1978 model of separation between the short-term (PA) and long-term cultural activities, which would alleviate politicized pressure on the latter. This is also the model followed successfully by other developed countries. In the late 1980s, Senator Claiborne Pell and his chief staffer, Peter Galbraith, pushed for a reorganization that would abolish USIA by housing cultural programs in a separate or new agency, while placing PA in State and making the Voice of America independent. The conceptual basis of this plan rested on the perceived need for a firewall between the heavily politicized PA function, on the one hand, and culture and broadcasting, on the other hand. In the end, however, the prevailing USIA ideology of "public diplomacy" based on linked cultural and PA activities (though without direct authority over radio) prevailed, probably because wholesale merger of a VOA-less USIA into State was easier than the alternative for a Senator Jesse Helms and a Secretary of State Madeleine Albright determined to strike a deal.

Center on Public Diplomacy Definition

Public diplomacy includes the government-sponsored cultural, educational and informational programs, citizen exchanges and broadcasts used to promote the national interest of a country through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign audiences. But our view of the field – and our aspiration for the Center – is much broader than that. In addition to government-sponsored programs, the Center is equally concerned with other aspects of what Joseph Nye, University Distinguished Professor and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has labeled “soft power.‿ It studies the impact of private activities – from popular culture to fashion to sports to news to the Internet – that inevitably, if not purposefully, have an impact on foreign policy and national security as well as on trade, tourism and other national interests. Moreover, the work of the Center is not confined to the government or to the United States; in an effort to understand and contribute to one of the major issues of our time, the Center studies public diplomacy as it pertains to a wide range of institutions and governments around the globe.

Unlike standard diplomacy, which might be described as the ways in which government leaders communicate with each other at the highest levels, public diplomacy focuses on the ways in which a country (or multi-lateral organization such as the United Nations), acting deliberately or inadvertently, through both official and private individuals and institutions, communicates with citizens in other societies. But like standard diplomacy, it starts from the premise that dialogue, rather than a sales pitch, is often central to achieving the goals of foreign policy.

To be effective, public diplomacy must be seen as a two-way street. It involves not only shaping the message(s) that a country wishes to present abroad, but also analyzing and understanding the ways that the message is interpreted by diverse societies and developing the tools of listening and conversation as well as the tools of persuasion. Some American corporations understand this concept well: while not always successful, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Ford, Disney and others spare no expense gauging and shaping the impressions they make on their myriad world audiences. Yet U.S. government agencies spend a mere $5 million annually on research designed to understand how we are perceived by others – and why.

Other definitions

Below are some examples of definitions used by practitioners and academics, and in government reports.

  • Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (April 2001) Those overt international public information activities of the United States Government designed to promote United States foreign policy objectives by seeking to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences and opinion makers, and by broadening the dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad. (JP 3-53) http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf
  • US Congressman, Henry Hyde (R-IL) (November 2001) “The role that I would set for our public diplomacy [is] to enlist the populations of the world into a common cause and to convince them that the goals that they seek for themselves – freedom, security, and prosperity – are the same as the those the United States seeks.‿ http://commdocs.house.gov/committees/intlrel/hfa76189.000/hfa76189_0.HTM
  • Djerejian Report 2003 - "Public Diplomacy is the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging, and influencing people around the world. Public diplomacy helped win the Cold War, and it has the potential to help win the war on terror." Report of the US Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World (October 1, 2003) "Changing Minds Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab & Muslim World," p. 13.
  • GAO Report 2003 - "To inform, engage, and influence global audiences. . . to reach out beyond foreign governments to promote better appreciation of the United States abroad, greater receptivity to U.S. policies among foreign publics and sustained access and influence in important sectors of foreign societies. Public diplomacy is carried out through a wide range of programs that employ person-to-person contacts; print, broadcast, and electronic media, and other means." United States General Accounting Office (September 2003) "U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Expands Efforts but Faces Significant Challenges." Report to the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives.
  • The German Perspective - "When one speaks of public diplomacy this side of the Atlantic, as a rule one is not solely referring to the general public and to the pragmatic issue of how one can win their support and sympathy. . . Diplomats are thus called upon to view their function less as exclusively targeting political functionaries and elected members, bigwigs and multiplicators, but also proclaiming the policies of their home countries to the general public abroad and presenting them in a favourable light." "Public Diplomacy - the German View" - Speech by Dr Albert Spiegel, Head of the Federal Foreign Office Directorate-General for Cultural Relations and Education Policy, at the British Council Staff Conference on March 18th and 19th, 2002.
  • The Norwegian Perspective – “The media, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations as well as business interests have become much more active in defining public opinion. For foreign ministries this requires more attention be given to what has become known as public diplomacy. In short, public diplomacy means engaging in dialogue with wider audiences on a wider range of issues than those of day-to-day politics.‿ State Secretary Thorhil Widvey “Public Diplomacy‿ Speech before the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, Ottawa 7 Nov 2003.
  • "A key element of public diplomacy is the building of personal and institutional relationships and dialogue with foreign audiences by focusing on values, which sets the activity apart from classical diplomacy, which primarily deals with issues." Peter Van Ham (2003) "War, Lies, and Videotape: Public Diplomacy and the USA’s War on Terrorism." Security Dialogue 34(4): 427 – 444.
  • "Engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences." Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in U.S. Department of State.
  • "What are we doing? We’re selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy.‿ Collin Powell (quoted in “Brand U.S.A." (Nov – Dec. 2001) Foreign Policy: 19.

David, you might be able to use it for that purpose, but other Veterans will befinet in that way. My take is this: everyone in the world can now see how individual VA facilities perform. No one wants to see in plain text that they're not as good as someone else. It could motivate entire facilities to compete with others in the area. Veterans will be better off if that idea takes flight. David, you might be able to use it for that purpose, but other Veterans will befinet in that way. My take is this: everyone in the world can now see how individual VA facilities perform. No one wants to see in plain text that they're not as good as someone else. It could motivate entire facilities to compete with others in the area. Veterans will be better off if that idea takes flight.


  • Country case studies - follow this link for pages detailing how different countries around the world engage in public diplomacy. This page includes information about the United States.
  • Current events - follow this link for pages discussing the public diplomacy dimensions of current issues and events.
  • Profiles - follow this link for an alphabetical list of profiles of major public diplomacy practitioners, academics, and theorists.
  • Educational Resources - follow this link for a list of educational tools, resources, and recommendations from educators.

Topic areas

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.