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What is public diplomacy?

Syracuse University views Public Diplomacy as a new professional field that has evolved far beyond the traditional focus on government funded and sponsored cultural/educational exchanges and broadcasts to promote the national interest of a nation state. From our perspective, it includes non-governmental communications that have an impact on government, as well as government communications that affect non-governmental sectors, including the private sector.

There are many ways to define public diplomacy. The US State Department defines it as “government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries” (1).  Edmund Gullion, a career diplomat and then Dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy first coined the term in 1965 as part of the founding of Fletcher’s Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy. In one of the Murrow Center’s earlier brochures, public diplomacy was defined as follows:

Public diplomacy . . . deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; communication between those whose job is communication, as between diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the processes of inter-cultural communications. Central to public diplomacy is the transnational flow of information and ideas (2). 

It is important to distinguish public diplomacy from traditional diplomacy.Traditional diplomacy occurs between governments, i.e., from a US embassy to the foreign ministry of another country.  Public diplomacy maintains a different and more transparent target audience, namely the wider international public.  Public diplomacy concerns itself not with the comportment or policies of foreign governments, but rather with attitudes and behaviors of publics.  “Public diplomacy activities often present many differing views as represented by private ... individuals and organizations in addition to official ... government views (3).”

This distinction helps differentiate public diplomacy from propaganda, something Ed Murrow, as Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA), eloquently spoke to during his May 1963 testimony before a Congressional Committee. "American traditions and the American ethic require us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that (4)."

The Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California offers extensive resources and provides an excellent starting point for learning more about this area of study.

For more resources of public diplomacy research and practice, please visit our Publications and Rsources pages.

(1) US Department of State, Dictionary of International Relations Terms, Washington, DC, 1987, p. 85.
(2) United States Information Agency Alumni Association, “What is Public Diplomacy?” Washington, DC, updated September 1, 2002.  Online at

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International Relations
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