The concept of diplomacy has evolved over time, encompassing new meanings as the international relations system changed. The term entered political vocabulary in the eighteenth century as the practice of states of negotiating and drawing up treaties, but its contemporary significance is much more complex. A useful definition is provided by Elmer Plischke, a former U.S. diplomat and author of numerous books about the practice of diplomacy. From his point of view, diplomacy is the political process through which political entities (usually states) establish and maintain formal, direct and indirect relations, in order to achieve their goals and interests. Diplomacy is dynamic, adaptable and it essentially involves but is not limited to the functions of representation, reporting, communication, negotiation and defense of the rights of its citizens living abroad. (Elmer Plischke 1975 in Harbey J. Langholtz, Chris E. Stout, The Psychology of Diplomacy, Praeger Publishers, Westport, 2004)

The innovations in information technology, communications, and transport within the last decades have revolutionized the way diplomacy is practiced. In addition, from the twentieth century, not only states and their officials are considered diplomatic actors, but also international institutions and organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and supranational organizations such as the EU, ASEAN, the African Union, NGOs such as the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Greenpeace, global companies, such as Microsoft, IBM, Gazprom, as well as international personalities such as Bono and Nelson Mandela. (Geoffrey Allen Pigman, Contemporary Diplomacy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010)

We also need to distinguish between diplomacy and one of its components, protocol, referring to diplomatic interaction rituals, the way in which heads of state, ministers and ambassadors addressed each other, behave and their dress codes for formal events.

Public diplomacy

Public diplomacy has been used by the U.S. government ever since World War I, but the term was coined only in 1965 by American diplomat Edmund Gullion, to describe the process by which international actors tried to achieve their foreign policy objectives by interacting with audiences in foreign countries. Today, public diplomacy is one of the most important concepts of political communication.

Political scientist Joseph Nye describes public diplomacy as a political expression of soft power, a concept which he introduced in the early ‘90s. In international politics, power is the ability of an actor to influence another to perform certain actions that would not otherwise be undertaken. Therefore,hard power is the ability of an actor to compel another to perform certain actions and its tactics include military intervention, coercive diplomacy and economic sanctions. In contrast, soft power is the ability to convince the actor to undertake those actions. The combination of the two is called smart power, a strategic approach using the most appropriate tactics of the two aforementioned dimensions of power.

Public diplomacy practices were placed by Nicholas J. Cull in five categories:

  • Listening – gathering information about public opinion abroad;
  • Advocacy – promotion of a special policy or idea through international communication;
  • Cultural diplomacy – the promotion of one’s culture abroad;
  • Exchanges – exchanges of students and professionals with other countries;
  • International broadcasting – engagement with foreign audiences through television, radio and

Some countries focus only on certain categories, but the ideal strategy would include all.

Short recommended bibliography:

  • Brian Rosen, Charles Wolf, Jr., Public Diplomacy. How to Think About and Improve It, Santa Monica, CA, Rand Corporation, 2004
  • Joseph Nye, Soft Power, New York, Public Affairs, 2004
  • Elmer Plischke 1975 in Harbey J. Langholtz, Chris E. Stout, The Psychology of Diplomacy, Praeger Publishers, Westport, 2004

Geoffrey Allen Pigman, Contemporary Diplomacy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010

Digital Diplomacy

Online communication, together with digital information resources, influence foreign policy not only by raising a new set of strategic issues, but also by changing the way in which relations between nations are built, maintained and evolving.

Traditional public diplomacy represents an asymmetric communication model, centered on informing the target audience, through the use of traditional media. With the advent of the new media and their widespread use in all spheres of social life, they began to be used including  for public diplomacy activities.

Before Facebook and Flickr (2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006)  and the first smart-phone (2007), any person wanting to transmit their ideas to the world was conditioned by an editor or a producer. Also the diplomat responsible for public diplomacy had to be appointed and trained on what he should disseminate.

Nowadays people are conditioned neither by a publisher, nor a fixed location to communicate with the world. Governments also have overcome the unidirectional communication model based only on informing their audiences, to performing a two-way communication with individuals, groups and organizations in foreign countries. Blogs, social networks like Facebook, My SpaceLinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life and other applications such as online games offer practitioners of public diplomacy unprecedented opportunities for direct interaction with external audiences, for obtaining feedback from them and changing in real-time their communication strategy based on these reactions.

The activities that are using new media in public diplomacy was initially called “new public diplomacy”, but they are now attributed to an independent subcategory of international broadcasting, known as “digital diplomacy”. Being such a new concept, practitioners still used many similar terms, such as “e-diplomacy”, “cyber diplomacy” or “21st-century-statecraft.”

Institutional communication in the online environment

The use of new media has become a necessity including in the communication of the public sector. Institutional communication is the activity of government bodies of informing citizens about decisions, policies, and events of general interest. This is done to increase transparency, and accountability to citizens. There are no clear rules on how public administration should communicate, but in order to reach as many people as possible, governments rely heavily on television, radio, magazines and newspapers.  Thus, these channels become filters and intermediaries of information for citizens.

New media offer governments and subordinated institutions the opportunity to undertake a direct dialogue with citizens directly, and access segments of the population who do not use traditional media to enhance their confidence in state institutions and challenge them to actively participate in the formulation of public policies. The potential of these new communication channels proves essential especially in crisis situations when accurate and real-time information can accelerate the population preparedness and response efforts, as well as dispel rumors. The U.S. Government with its Digital Government Strategy aims exactly that.

In the digital age, citizens expect government bodies to provide information and online services anytime, anywhere and on any device. The presence in social media of state institutions helps to improve the interactivity between them and the public, between other government entities, private sector, international community representatives and citizens living abroad.  For example, the British Government has developed a comprehensive digital communication strategy through which it aims to get closer to citizens and facilitate their access to essential information. You can also learn more about the Institute for Development and the Information Society from its User guide on how to master social networks in the public sector.