When the British Council Did Public Diplomacy

December 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.

Rose, M., and N. Wadham-Smith (2004) Mutuality, Trust and Cultural Relations. London: Counterpoint.






  1. Readers of your most informative blog, regarding the last sentence in your above entry (“This kind of interorganizational tension seems to be a standard part of PD in many countries”) might be interested in “The Purposes and Cross-Purposes of American Public Diplomacy,” American Diplomacy (August 15, 2002). http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/archives_roll/2002_07-09/brown_pubdipl/brown_pubdipl.html

    • Thanks John. I’ve just finished reading Nikolas Glover’s National Relations: Public Diplomacy, National Identity and the Swedish Institute 1945-1970 and I was really struck by the fact that even in a much smaller country you see similar tensions. In the Swedish case the cultural relations organization was manoeuvring for independence between the foreign ministry, and the tourism and export promotion organizations.

  2. May also have something to do with HMG’s shifting PD priorities. It’s all about trade and prosperity right now. BC fits in there with attracting (paying) English-language students, but all other PD activities seem to have gone quiet.

    • Hi Ren – that’s a good point. A coordinated PD strategy with an economic focus would probably look different from a more politically oriented one. Having said that I get the impression that the current government has more interest in soft power and strategic communication as concepts than it has in PD.


  3. Dear Robin,
    There is indeed a fundamental difference between PD and CR/Cultural diplomacy. I’ve recently retired as the network director of the network of European National Institutes of Culture (BC, Goethe, Cervantes etc etc.. 29 members from 25 member states). http://www.eunic-online.eu
    Although the governance structure of each varies, some within Foreign Ministries, some arms length, the PD/CR difference is clear. All would subscribe to the BC difference highlighted. Most emerging countries are now following the various European examples.
    Governments provide strategic input: where to work, money but operational decisions are with the institutes. PD with its strong USA influence is too associated with propaganda and PR to be effective.
    BC does of course support Uk Govt trade agenda: was a member of Camerons recent trade missions to China and India, promoting educational trade links.
    I have a paper being published in a book by Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid, in Spanish, on new directions in cultural diplomacy. A version is available on http://www.ulibajo.wordpress.com

    • Thanks Steve – I’m aware of EUNIC although I haven’t looked at it in any detail and thanks for the link.

      Regards, Robin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: