Measuring Public Diplomacy in a Time of Global Information Competition

Nicole Bailey is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

The annual Burson-Marsteller Twiplomacy Study highlights the importance of Twitter to modern public diplomacy. It recognizes that influence is much more than the sheer number of a leader’s followers and tweets and admits that quantifying influence in the form of “reach” is a massive challenge. Quantifying reach, and thereby evaluating communication “success,” is one of the greatest foreign policy challenges of the digital age—one that is not exclusive to Twitter (or to social media), but rather applies to all communication platforms.

Crocker Snow, Jr. defined public diplomacy as something that “traditionally represents actions of governments to influence overseas publics within the foreign policy process [but] has expanded today—by accident and design—beyond the realm of governments to include the media, multinational corporations, NGO’s, and faith-based organizations as active participants in the field (Snow, Jr., Crocker, 2005).” For the purpose of this piece, I will focus on public diplomacy as practiced by governments to influence multiple audiences overseas. As a result of new communication and media technologies, conflicting accounts are easier than ever to produce and consume. Therefore, one of the continuing themes of the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar was the challenge of successful strategic messaging in a time of global information competition.

Before diving into the practicalities of public diplomacy implementation, we should ask ourselves whether public diplomacy is a worthy objective or a fundamentally manipulative one. Along this line of thinking, a recurring theme throughout the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar was how to differentiate between public diplomacy and propaganda and whether such a distinction is even possible. Many understand propaganda to be a form of public diplomacy that is intentionally misleading or biased towards a point of view; however, public diplomacy (and all communication) is by its very nature biased towards the interests of the communicator. Others argue that one’s own communication is always public diplomacy while the enemy’s is propaganda, a characterization that would be reversed from the opposing perspective.

Nevertheless, I offer my own interpretation of the difference. Public diplomacy benefits from free expression, an independent press, open access to the internet, and new communication technologies, whereas propaganda benefits from increased content control and limitations on free speech by private citizens and the media. It is for this reason that countries like the U.S. support training and exchange programs for foreign journalists, activists, teachers, and students as part of its public diplomacy outreach, efforts that might seem like a waste of resources to an observer who believes the singular purpose of public diplomacy is controlling foreign public opinion.

When states put forward narratives in a manner that usurps alternative interpretations and mete out harsh punishments to those who espouse opposing viewpoints, as Seminar panelists explored in case studies ranging from Turkey to China to Hungary, state attempts to influence public opinion cross over from true public diplomacy to propaganda. In contrast, authentic public diplomacy is more than a pragmatic foreign policy tactic; it inherently and necessarily promotes liberal values and is therefore undeserving of the negative connotations tied to the propaganda label.

Although public diplomacy should remain a priority, governments face many obstacles to its implementation. Two panels at the Milton Wolf Seminar, “Session 1: Asymmetries & Strategic Communication” and “Session 6: Non-Traditional Media in Foreign Policy Debates,” referenced the challenge of connecting foreign policy with public diplomacy. Too often, there is no clear connection between what governments are doing on the ground and what they are communicating to the outside world. This is despite the fact that a country’s policies are closely linked with how it is perceived internationally. As a result, governments lose credibility in a way that serves to undermine not only their present-day messages but also all future communications. The first step to rectifying the problem is to invest in only the most effective and agile strategic messaging initiatives, ones that demonstrably work and can rapidly adapt to changing realities on the ground. Many official spokespeople who work in foreign languages serve as model examples, as they are able to engage with foreign audiences via Twitter, regional news programs, and other media. In these ways, they can respond directly to questions, concerns, and comments from locals and build important relationships with elites.

It is not sufficient to say that measuring public diplomacy is impossible. Because resources are scarce, all governments need a means of selecting from and prioritizing the diverse array of strategic messaging tools that have proliferated in the digital age. Improving evaluation mechanisms and acting on the resulting insights will professionalize public diplomacy within the foreign policy sphere of government and contribute to the development of a more coherent strategy.

Even though some assert that public diplomacy evaluation’s costs outweigh the benefits, the disadvantages can be greatly mitigated. First, those who believe standardized measurements will stifle creativity and innovation fail to realize that the existing system incentivizes repetitions of the status quo. In the absence of formal evaluation, the most convenient programs, projects, and campaigns are those that pull templates from previous initiatives—regardless of the level of success of those previous attempts. Public diplomacy practitioners are rewarded for quantity over quality when the most prevalent means of evaluating their performance is the number of initiatives they launched, ensuring the preservation of the status quo. Even when an innovative strategy succeeds, others may be unwilling to replicate that strategy if it is too complex, long-term, or costly. On the other hand, if that innovative strategy’s success were demonstrated by objective measurements, then it would encourage and embolden others to apply the lessons learned from the innovative strategy to other campaigns. In a decentralized world, this is the same principle applied by other institutions, ranging from leading businesses (as their experiences with bold advertising campaigns inform their marketing strategy) to social service organizations (that wish to replicate education or prison or other reform successes in one city in another comparable city).

In addition, there are legitimate concerns that measurement protocols would unnecessarily inflate an already-oversized administrative burden for a short-staffed and overworked bureaucracy. Nevertheless, centralizing administrative processes in secure, digital systems will reduce paperwork in the long-term. Cutting back on ineffective public diplomacy efforts will free budgets that can offset the costs of hiring archivists to manage the conversion of analog administrative tasks to digital information systems and data analysts to undertake measuring public diplomacy and provide actionable recommendations to policymakers. Therefore, the implementation of a formalized system of measuring public diplomacy success is justified. Efforts to this end are already underway in the United States and the United Kingdom and should be lauded.

There are two main categories of public diplomacy evaluation that should correspond to the intended audience of the specific project, campaign, or program. The first category, grassroots public diplomacy, refers to efforts to win the hearts and minds of a foreign public en masse. The second category, elite public diplomacy, targets a specific cross-section of a foreign public that has been identified as particularly influential. Evaluation mechanisms for each of these categories must be examined in turn.

Of the two categories, grassroots public diplomacy has better developed mechanisms of measurement. Polling of foreign publics to identify changes in public opinion is one proven method, but policymakers should take care to establish clear goals for each project and identify appropriate corresponding evaluations. A Milton Wolf Seminar panelist noted that one U.S. government program, for example, was partially evaluated based on responses to a question similar to the following: “Did you learn something about the United States?” The panelist went on to point out that the answer could be affirmative despite the program’s failure; it was possible that the respondent learned something that made him or her hate the U.S. Instead, relevant public opinion research should include general sentiment analysis and the perceived credibility of that government as a source of information.

Despite the fact that public diplomacy targeting elites is growing in prominence, measurement mechanism development has lagged behind. Public diplomacy practitioners have long targeted journalists employed by local media outlets. However, what constitutes a journalist is continually changing and complicating this process. The rise of blogs, activism, and citizen journalism on the internet has blurred the boundaries of the journalist elite. The sixth session of the Milton Wolf Seminar focused on the influence of non-traditional uses of media and how the evolving definition of journalism as an activity rather than a profession, has influenced foreign policy debates, a phenomenon given special attention by ARTICLE 19. Especially with regard to countering violent religious extremism, Muslim clerics and major social media influencers communicating in local languages have also become vital players in the strategic messaging efforts of major geopolitical players like the United States and Russia.

A problem where elite-level public diplomacy should play a decisive role is fighting the spread of disinformation. In Session 1: “Asymmetries and Strategic Communication– New Mechanisms, New Players, New Strategies,” many Milton Wolf Seminar participants agreed that the amount of disinformation today is unprecedented. The rise of communication technologies, which are more accessible to groups previously marginalized by a lack of resources, has helped facilitate the proliferation of conflicting messages online in particular. Public opinion research should be used to identify misconceptions and their sources, form quantifiable goals for myth-busting public diplomacy campaigns, and evaluate the success of ongoing campaigns among intellectual elites. It is those elites who are most likely to persuade the public with whom they have already built a relationship of trust and reliability.

Collaborative public diplomacy efforts between states and local elites like religious clerics or social media influencers are more than intuitive. They are part of an approach grounded in social network theory, which holds that because individuals will filter all incoming information through their own subjective perceptions, strategic messaging should be tailored to fit the relevant communities and identities of the audience. An improved understanding of communication theory could drastically improve counterterrorism efforts in particular. The outdated and ineffective hypodermic needle model of communication, “assumes that the public is passive and that different members of an audience tend to change attitudes and behaviour in a similar way upon reception of the same media message” (Archetti, 2015). This model is still evident in public diplomacy policies today that aim to simply remove extremist content from the internet or broadcast messages to terrorist sympathizers. Trusted elites are in a unique position to leverage their leadership in, credibility with, and understanding of foreign publics. Over time, building strong relationships with those elites will not only support an outside government’s foreign policy goals but also create greater mutual understanding in the long-term.

Many Milton Wolf Seminar participants were able to identify highly effective initiatives, such as the level of engagement achieved by the Israel Defense Forces’ Arabic Language Spokesperson’s Twitter account, and highly ineffective efforts, such as the hijacking of the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit’s messaging by domestic panic over the Ebola virus. Nevertheless, it remained unclear how practitioners, academics, and others could objectively evaluate public diplomacy efforts in a way that would facilitate reliable comparative analysis. In the future, prioritizing public diplomacy measurement will professionalize strategic messaging analysis and bring governments (i.e., traditional actors) into the new era, where advanced communication technologies will continue to shape an environment of global information competition.



Archetti, Cristina. “Terrorism, Communication and New Media: Explaining Radicalization in the Digital Age.” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 9, Issue 1. February 2015, 49-59.

Snow, Jr., Crocker. “Definitions of Public Diplomacy.” The Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. May 2005.


Nicole Bailey is a Master’s student in Global Communication at George Washington University, concentrating in Information Technology and Middle East Studies. She completed her Bachelor’s studies in Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law at the University of Virginia. She is currently a Staff Writer at the International Affairs Review at George Washington University and a Blind Reviewer for New Middle Eastern Studies, a publication of the British Society of Middle Eastern Studies. Her research interests lie at the intersections of cross-cultural understanding, cyberspace regulation, and information policy. She has lived and worked in Oman and France. Website:; Email: nsunebailey[AT]; Twitter: @nsunebailey


Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by j0e_m

Leave a Reply