Disclaimer: This article is excerpted and adapted from a longer thesis paper completed during the author’s participation in the 2019-2020 Kathryn Davis PD Fellowship. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author only and do not represent the views or policies of the U.S. government.
As this paper went to press, Americans were in their fourth agonizing day of waiting for the final results of the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. No matter who the victor turns out to be, restoring America’s tarnished image abroad should be a central task for the next U.S. President. Public diplomacy (PD) will no doubt be a big part of any such effort, and a number of prominent U.S. foreign policy experts have already called for increased funding and resources for our State Department’s PD programs. As a Foreign Service Officer and PD practitioner for over a decade, I certainly echo these calls.
The truth is, all diplomacy is about relationship building, and PD activities are best understood as delivery mechanisms for relationships. The main reason this obvious truth is not more widely accepted is because PD has historically struggled to connect the dots between its programs, the long-term relationships the programs create, and the impact those relationships have on the achievement of foreign policy goals.
Thus, the task of rethinking public diplomacy begins with creating a framework to contextualize relationships over time. One way to do this is to situate all activities within the concept of the “ladder of engagement.” The ladder model shows how relationship-building activities complement and build on each other over the course of years or even decades in order to bring targeted foreign audiences closer to the U.S. orbit. The ladder is widest at its base, enabling the maximum number of people to climb on. As the engagement deepens, the ladder narrows. At the top, engagement is most profound with a relatively small number of the most influential audience members.
Understanding who our audiences are by using polling, analytics, data visualization and improved contact management software to identify important audience groups
Getting people onto the ladder by providing entry points such as revitalized American Centers, mobile American Spaces, English-teaching programs, and more dynamic cultural activities
Maintaining engagement by harnessing technology to track and evaluate relationships over time, while boosting alumni networks and giving PD practitioners additional resources to coordinate alumni activities
The bottom line is this: We are living in an era of unprecedented change, as traditional authorities are ceding more and more power to non-state actors, publics, and individuals. To achieve our foreign policy goals, we need strong relationships with diverse groups at every end of the political and economic spectrum. Public diplomacy provides the tools to engage with these groups, especially through its education, culture and person-to-person exchange programs. Congress and the State Department should prioritize these programs. And they should evaluate them on how well they build durable, influential relationships over time, not by unrealistic expectations of what the programs can immediately achieve.
MIKE PRYOR is one of two 2019-2020 Kathryn Davis Public Diplomacy Fellows selected by the Council of American Ambassadors. He currently serves as the Press Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. During his decade in the Foreign Service, he has served as the Public Affairs Officer in Lome, Togo; the Deputy Public Affairs Officer in Vientiane, Laos; and the American Citizen Services Chief in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he spent six years as a Public Affairs Specialist in the U.S. Army. He deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan as a military reporter, and in 2008 he received the Paul Savanuck Award, the Army’s highest award for journalistic excellence. From 2000 to 2001, Mike was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia. He has a BA in history from Boston College.