When the British Council Did Public DiplomacyDecember 9, 2011
In my last post I commented that the UK’s effort to run a highly coordinated public diplomacy strategy seems to have lost priority. For comparison it’s instructive to look back to the early and middle part of the last decade.
A few weeks ago Rhonda Zaharna in commenting on the role of mutuality in public diplomacy referred to a British Council paper on Mutuality, Trust and Cultural Relations. I hadn’t seen it before so I got hold of a copy. I started reading and something leapt out at me
Our argument puts trust-building at the centre of [our]mission, and argues that the building of trust requires independence of government, a long-term perspective and an approach based on mutuality. This leads us to a clear distinction between two areas of work which the British Council (with equal appropriateness) undertakes: public diplomacy and cultural relations.
Public diplomacy is the work that we do as an agent of government, in close partnership with the FCO and other departments of state. Cultural relations is the work that is based upon the fact and the perception of our independence. Confusion between the two can have damaging results in terms of perceptions undermined and trust foregone…
Cultural relations is about building long-term trust-based relationships. This is the British Council’s ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ (USP), because no government department or agency can achieve the detachment necessary for mutuality. It is our unique contribution to the UK, and it is fragile because in our work cultural relations and public diplomacy are often inextricably mixed.
I’ve never seen the BC refer to its own work as Public Diplomacy (of course this may say something about my gaps in my own knowledge). The FCO refers to them as a public diplomacy partner but the BC says that it does cultural relations. This document is an internal BC document from 2004 that was prepared as part of the development of their Strategy 2010. I would read the report as an effort to re-establish a clear rationale for the autonomy of the British Council. After 9/11 the development of a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy not only led to a greater effort by the FCO to steer the BC’s direction. On top of this the Wilton and Carter reviews actually asked questions about the functions of the BC and whether they could be redistributed across other organizations , on top of this consideration was given to changing the governance structure of the organization for instance by allowing the Foreign Secretary to appoint all the members of the governing board.
This kind of interorganizational tension seems to be a standard part of PD in many countries.