Public diplomacy as a means to help cope with crises and pandemics

An online discussion hosted by Diplocat looks at the current health and refugee crises

In lockstep with the Diplocat Digital Talks - The world after COVID-19, Diplocat hosted a global online conversation on Thursday, 2 July about how public diplomacy should be tailored to exceptional situations such as the one we are experiencing at present and which tools should be used to conduct it. The discussion also dealt with the more social role which public diplomacy can play with more vulnerable sectors of the population such as refugees and asylum seekers. Two leading international experts in public diplomacy and the UNHCR commissioner for Central Europe took part in the debate.

Laura Foraster i Lloret, Secretary General of Diplocat, kicked off the event. She noted that public diplomacy has always been shaped by human contact and face-to-face interaction and that the challenge now is to see how it can continue to be pursued at a time when travel and human contact are severely restricted.

The first speaker was Neil Simon, Vice President of Bighorn Communications (Portland, USA) and an adviser on public diplomacy. He argued that this subject is crucial for states, and like any relationship could not be neglected during the pandemic as the key to public diplomacy is to look beyond the data and showcase stories and individuals. Simon pointed out that digital tools are more useful for public diplomacy than they are for traditional diplomacy, which is even more reliant on direct contact and privacy. Furthermore, digital tools additionally enable us to reach more people.

Simon stressed the importance of sharing good practices in cases where the measures that have been put in place have been successful, such as the handling of COVID-19 in New Zealand. However, he also noted the significance of publicly admitting mistakes so that other countries can learn from them. Finally, Simon cited a number of examples of virtual public diplomacy actions such as speed networking between members of bilateral chambers of commerce, the celebration of Europe Day by the European Union Delegation to the United States and cultural promotion actions.

Liz Galvez, who teaches public diplomacy at the DiploFoundation, said that reputation is very important to states and this is why they invest so much money in public diplomacy since it is in their interest to present an image of confidence and security to their own nationals and also abroad. Galvez contended that the most successful countries in tackling COVID-19 have been the ones which have been empathetic and honest with their citizens and made them feel part of the struggle. She also warned how the crisis has heightened racism in some countries with governments doing little to curb it, while others have leveraged the situation to implement policies which run counter to human rights.

European countries and especially the European Union are very keen to maintain a good reputation, and Galvez argued that now is the time when they most need to prove that they are countries which are supportive, democratic and acting in accordance with the law. By contrast, there are other countries whose reputation is not so important to them and they operate with a domestic rather than international agenda in mind. Finally, she said that in her view the three main areas of interest for public diplomacy today are relations between elites, scientific exchanges and cultural diplomacy.

Montserrat Feixas, the UNHCR's Regional Representative in Central Europe and a member of Diplocat's Advisory Council, addressed the issue of social public diplomacy. She pointed out that the UNHCR engages in public diplomacy to display the stories behind the figures, build empathy on the part of the public in host nations and encourage action by governments when it comes to mapping out new policies and upholding international law. Feixas outlined how new networks and ties have been forged during the pandemic through virtual programmes and how this has helped to put many refugees with medical skills on the front line of healthcare to debunk some of the narratives with which they are identified. She also noted the importance of the fact that COVID-19 does not discriminate by group and that the measures taken to tackle it are the same for everyone, something which has brought people together. Finally, she argued that COVID-19 has shown that universal access to health is a fundamental right which we need to continue to uphold.

To wrap up the debate, a Q&A session was held in which the speakers talked about the task of public diplomacy in checking or curbing fake news. The role of local or regional governments in public diplomacy and the wide range of options for their engagement were also discussed as cities can drive actions when the rest of the country may not be ready to do so. Furthermore, cities are additionally the stakeholders with the authority to integrate migrants and also the power to present migration as an opportunity for social enrichment rather than as a threat.