Five (or Six) Versions of the Relational Turn

June 1, 2010
    In public diplomacy studies there is a growing interest in conceptualizing the field in terms of relations (or networks) rather than messages.  This stems from a critique of  ‘messaging’  models of strategic communications and/or of ‘the Cold War Model’  (from now on CWM) of public diplomacy.  As I’m working through my pile of PD reading I’m being struck by the fact that although the messaging/C WM critique is widely shared there are different versions of what the relational/network/dialogical alternative is.

    Let’s assume that we’ve agreed that messaging is out and the CWM is obsolete what alternatives are on offer?

  1. Relational  PR and marketing:  The argument in these fields is  that it is better to focus on building and maintaining an ongoing relationship than on individual transactions or the impact of an individual communication initiative.
  2. Mediated Networks (or the technological transformation) argument.  In a digital environment the ability to master the rules of the game are essential to successful PD.  This is often rooted in understandings of how people use communication technology.
  3. New Organizational Forms: This is often related to the technology argument but essentially says that networks dominate hierarchies and as a result if governments are going to make an impact they have to become more flexible and less hierarchical.
  4. Collaborative/Coalitional PD:  PD is about building alliances to work on common projects.  This often goes together with 3. and 2.
  5. Dialogue over Monologue: This sometimes represents the pure communications version of the turn from messaging to something new.  Ideas of dialogue exist in a weaker sense of talking to other people and listening and in a stronger sense of aspiring to transformation.
  6. These five versions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive but they are different and their implications need to be explored.

    My own argument is that a we need a broader social network approach to contextualize these five perspectives.  The prospects for relational initiatives depend very much on the context in which they occur and looking at the initiative in isolation is a recipe for failure and random success – that is you sometimes succeed but you don’t really know why.


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