Archive for August, 2011


Quote of the Day

August 26, 2011

I’m reading Leo Bogart’s, Premises for Propaganda: The United States Information Agency’s Operating Assumptions in the Cold War (New York: Free Press, 1976), this is based on a report that he compiled for the agency in 1953-54. From page 55 an anonymous USIA official commenting on the targets for public diplomacy:

‘Any given area, country, or city can be divided into 5 percent operators, 10 percent stooges,  and  85% slobs’




Three’s a Crowd: Dyads, Triads and Networks, Part 2.

August 25, 2011

In the first part of this post I made the point that PD is difficult because it’s not simply about the relationship between two countries;  the content and prospects for PD activities are often about third countries.  The need for messages to balance the requirements of different relationships makes them less persuasive from the point of view of any particular audience.

A corollary of this is that the diplomat  doesn’t control the relationship.  However nice and cooperative  Country A’s  diplomats are towards  Country B  the quality and strength of the relationship depends on Country B and its other relationships.

Again Vaughan’s book provides plenty of examples.  As Britain gave up colonial relationships in the Middle East  it sought to create new relationships based on equality.  The problem with promoting this as a public diplomacy message was that

1) in many respects the UK sought to maintain a privileged position which undermined the message.

2) Middle Eastern countries failed to accept the British definition of what an equal relationship would look like.

3)The emergence of new players in the politics of the region, the US and the Soviet Bloc, offered new options to Middle Eastern governments.  If Egypt could buy arms from Czechoslovakia it reduced the importance of the relationship with the US and UK.  As in any field competition has a  profound effect.  From the point of view of governments and everyone else  in the region they could afford to take a harder look at what Britain could offer them.

What are the broader implications of this discussion? At a theoretical level in analysing public diplomacy looking at ‘policy’ and ‘communication’ is not enough.  It is essential to look at the structural context provided by the overall set of relationships of the communicating and target country.  The prospects for PD are not simply about the bilateral relationship.   Neither are they purely about the skill with which a message is communicated.

I think that there are two more policy relevant implications.   Firstly,  the prospects for unilateral ‘resets’ in relationships have to be evaluated against the structural context.  One of the staples of foreign policy is the proposal to ‘put the past behind us’ or  ‘turn over a new page’ but the credibility of such messages depends on the policy situation and the structural context.   However good such proposals might make you look in the short term their ‘real’ impact will be limited unless structure and policy align.

Secondly, the emergence of new players in the public diplomacy environment (China anyone?) has a huge impact on the prospects of existing players.  Competition makes life much harder.


Three’s a Crowd: Dyads, Triads and Networks, Part 1.

August 22, 2011

Back from my holiday and back to the blog…

From my point of view the key insight from network sociology is that your relationships affect each other.  Country A’s relationship with Country C affects its relationship with Country B.  It’s noticeable that conceptual discussions of public diplomacy tend to assume a relationship between two countries,  but the history of PD suggests that for major powers at least,  it’s about the relationship between my country, your country and my enemy or  my country, your country and my ally.   As soon as you move away from the dyad the diplomatic and public diplomatic task becomes much harder.

I’ve been reading James Vaughan’s book about British and American propaganda in the Middle East in the 1950s so lets take some examples from there (anyone who is tempted to write about recent, current or future public diplomacy in the region needs to read this book).  Western PD efforts were about  other things than improving relations between two countries.  Attempting to mobilize resistance to  Communism was an obvious issue.  Essentially our PD is not about our relationship with you but in persuading you to see a third country as a threat.  In the middle of the decade both Britain and America were trying to build up Iraq as a regional counter to Nasser’s Egypt.  At the same time the US and UK were periodically conscious of the fact that their relationship with each other was damaging their own position in the region – for instance the British record of colonialism and US support for Israel – but sought to moderate their criticisms of each other to avoid placing an undue strain on their own relationship.

We often hear complaints about the lack of alignment between policy and communication but part of the difficulty with policy is that it’s trying to balance different relationships.  If PD was simply about improving relations with one other country it would be pretty straightforward.

Vaughan, J. (2005) The failure of American and British propaganda in the Arab Middle East, 1945-57 : unconquerable minds. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan.


From the Vaults: Robert Marett, Through the Back Door: An Inside View of Britain’s Overseas Information Services

August 3, 2011

Librarians are usually short of shelf space so they’re happy to sell off those really boring tomes that nobody wants to borrow.  On the other hand it’s good for me because I can get my hands on those fascinating frequently forgotten public diplomacy books .  A prime example is Robert Marett’s Through the Back Door.

During the 1930s Marett combined working for the  Shell oil company’s  Mexican subsidiary with being a part time correspondent for The Times.  With the approach of the Second World War he was recruited into the organization that was to become the Ministry of Information.  This was the beginning of a thirty year career in ‘information work’ that saw him rise to head the Foreign Office’s information departments before retiring as Ambassador to Peru.  Through the Back Door is part memoir and part history of the information activity of the period.  It’s an incredibly valuable resource for understanding the evolution of British public diplomacy not least because of Marett’s rotation between work in the field and work in London,  to summarize his career:

1939-1941 Special Agent in Mexico developing the British information organization there.  (Marett was clearly ahead of his time in that his work there makes extensive use of international public-private partnerships that is he’s working with the French government and private companies. )

1941-1942 Regional Information Officer covering Central America and the Caribbean.

1942-1943 British Information Services in Washington DC and New York

1943-1944 Deputy Director, Overseas General Division, Ministry of Information

1944-1945 Director UK Information Office, Ottawa (including a period as a Public Relations Officer at the San Francisco Conference that established the UN)

1946-1948 Deputy Director, British Information Services, New York

1948-1951 Embassy, Lima

1952-1955 Deputy and the Head, Information Policy Department, Foreign Office (during this period he also including served as the secretary to the Drogheda Committee on Overseas Information Services)

1955-1958 Consul-General, Boston

1958-1962 Under Secretary of State for Information Departments

There’s a lot of interesting stuff for the student of public diplomacy

Marett brings out some of the thinking behind the report of the Drogheda Committee – ‘the bible of overseas information work’.   Essentially this saw the UK as having three basic tools; the official information services – that is the Foreign Office’s’ information work’, the British Council and BBC’s external broadcasting.  Information work was the priority in developed countries with sophisticated media systems.  Even in the 1950s the Foreign Office saw that the development of reliable domestic media systems including television as undermining the reach of external broadcasting hence the priority given to working with the media in foreign countries.  Information work was also seen to be important in garnering support for British exports – although the book doesn’t say that much about commercial work it is clear that it was consistently an important part of British PD activity.

By the end of the 1950s there was a a growing appreciation of the opportunities for external broadcasting offered by the diffusion of transistor radios across the developing world.  Broadcasting was the weapon of choice for reaching the communist countries.  It is clear that there was a degree of tension with the BBC because of the FO view was that external broadcasting was useful for some countries but much less for others.  It’s also interesting that one preference for information work was that it was easier to see its effects in printed stories or changes in a newspaper’s editorial line.

One of the most striking chapters is the discussion of the British media operation at the 1945 San Francisco Conference that created the United Nations.  An information team of over a dozen provided a press office with two sub offices, twice daily briefings with the chief spokesman, press conferences with the leaders of the British delegation, occasional dinners which brought together selected journalists and statesmen, a daily summary circulated to all of the 2000 journalists covering the conference and to other North American media, plus additional commentary and press summaries for the British press corps.  Marett cites an article by the editor of the Christian Science Monitor praising the work of the British information officers.  The importance attached to media coverage of foreign policy and the effort devoted to influencing it isn’t something that has appeared in the past 20 years.

One relatively minor point that is worth mentioning is that use of non-attributable briefing papers is normally seen as a characteristic of the Information Research Department and British Cold War activities but Marett was using a similar method during his time in Canada.  It’s also worth noting that the IRD gets only one mention in the book even though this was the peak of its activities.

Three general points about the nature of PD work are worth repeating.

  1. The importance of organization and resources: ‘Anyone of average intelligence can think up a propaganda line to suit a particular situation.  But the line will be of no value unless there exist the men and machinery to put it across.’
  2. The strategic alignment of context, policy and communications: In looking at the challenges facing British propagandists during the Second World War he makes the point that life was much easier in Europe than it was further east where British imperial interests were opposed to those demanding independence.
  3. The operational alignment of policy and communications.  Marett makes the point that in the 1950s those staffing policy desks in the Foreign Office were not ‘publicity minded’ and that at times the Information Policy Department had to ‘push our way in uninvited whenever we saw some situation developing which in our judgement might require publicity treatment’.

A final question: who would want to get rid of an interesting book like this? Clearly somebody with no interest in these issues.  My copy is stamped ‘Foreign Office Printed Library’.

Marett, R. (1968) Through the Back Door: An Inside View of Britain’s Overseas Information Services. Oxford: Pergamon.