Colombo Telegraph

Public Diplomacy – New Foreign Ministry Initiative

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Rajeewa Jayaweera

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Press Institute, recently conducted a two-week intensive training course in Public Diplomacy and Media Relations for the 2018 intake of Foreign Service officers (SLOS) and some others who had joined in recent years. The program included interactive sessions with both local and foreign media experts and covered key areas in Public Diplomacy of writing news releases, conducting press conferences, giving public interviews and the effective use of social media. 

Not since the days of Lakshman Kadirgamar, undoubtedly the best Foreign Minister Sri Lanka ever had, has such a progressive initiative been undertaken. He, together with a few able and competent officials engaged foreign media expertly. LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran during an address on Maaveerar Remembrance Day in the late 1990s complained of GoSL undertaking a vicious media campaign against the LTTE, a clear indication, the Foreign Office was hitting where it hurt. The present Foreign SecretaryRavinatha Aryasinha was the Director-General in charge of Publicity at the time.  

This writer’s father, a 1954 batch Foreign Service Officer served as Ambassador to West Germany from 1985 to 1988. Deutsche Welle, one of the two leading German public broadcasters invited him to a public discussion with the then LTTE leader in the county and a former German Ambassador to Sri Lanka. The one-hour program was moderated by a leading German news anchor, was conducted in English, broadcast live, and simultaneously translated into the German language. The LTTE Rep. in his preamble claimed he represented 18% of 14.8 million Sri Lankans (1981 census). My father countered by stating, he as Ambassador represented 14.8 million Sri Lankans whereas the LTTE Rep., with no electoral mandate and representation in parliament represented no one other than a few thousand-armed men and women. He stated, the Sri Lankan Tamil community amounted to 12% and not 18% of the population and were not connected to the 6% Tamil community of Indian origin. He further pointed out, over 50% of the Sri Lankan Tamil population lived outside the LTTE controlled area and freely exercised their franchise during elections, a right denied by the LTTE to those living in the North. These assertions were not disputed. It was an excellent opportunity to communicate GoSL’s standpoint direct to the German public who had never heard of these details previously. Such opportunities had to be utilized to maximum effect without being squandered.       

Professor Alan K. Henrikson, Director of Diplomatic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA, defined public diplomacy as the conduct of international relations by governments through public communications, media and through dealings with a wide range of nongovernmental entities (political parties, corporations, trade associations, labor unions, educational institutions, religious organizations, ethnic groups, and so on including influential individuals) for the purpose of influencing the politics and actions of other governments.

In the 20th century, nations and their overseas representatives (embassies) depended on more traditional methods such as personal contacts, skillfully drafted media (press) releases, newsletters and the use of carefully cultivated media contacts for the publication of opinion pieces with a view towards influencing public opinion. 

Former US President John F Kennedy was perhaps one of the pioneers of public diplomacy. With Executive Order 10924 and Congressional approval, he established the Peace Corps in 1961 consisting of American volunteers. They were typically college graduates. The act declared the program’s purpose as; ‘To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.’

With the dawn of the 21st century and the advent of the internet, the information highway, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, the dissemination of news and information has increased exponentially, almost at lightning speed. It has also enabled intelligent users of social media besides foreign governments, embassies, and NGOs to penetrate deep into societies with their respective narratives. Social media is an excellent tool to influence public opinion, especially the internet savvy younger generations. They are often the swing vote in elections, and their voting could be influenced and manipulated through concerted social media campaigns. 

Sri Lanka has been notoriously laid back in its dissemination of information abroad. It failed miserably in countering the sophisticated LTTE propaganda machine. The reasons are many. Outside the Kadirgamar years, little or no efforts were made in the conduct of public diplomacy.   

In this backdrop, the revamping and rebranding of the outdated Publicity Division into the Public Diplomacy Division headed by a Director General is a step in the right direction.  While commending the Foreign Ministry for its new initiative, let us wish the new division, it’s Director General and newly trained officers all success in their endeavors.

The recently trained young career officers, assuming they possess the requisite communication skills besides aptitude for public speaking, would in the medium to long term develop into meaningful spokespersons for the country and eventually as its Ambassadors if so appointed. They need to understand; their training has but has just begun. They have been equipped but with the basics. Regular refresher programs and training in sophisticated communication equipment are a must. They also need to acquire the necessary etiquettes and social graces of the diplomatic world as they go along. Despite the fact some consider such niceties unnecessary, Sri Lanka is a small country, and its diplomats must use every opportunity and avenue to stand out and to be taken notice. Such nuances are an added advantage. Once posted, they need to be adequately resourced and empowered to put their training into practice. Maneuvering through jealous superiors and not forgetting clueless political appointees will bring its own challenges.

However, there exists the issue of the conduct of Public diplomacy in short to medium term. The way our missions are currently manned does not give much hope. 

As this writer recollects, the Yahapalana government, at its inception, announced its intention of a 60% to 40% mix of career and political Ambassadors. Four years on, a quick survey revealed less than 40% of missions are headed by career SLFS officers. Furthermore, many embassies are staffed by diplomatic officers from outside the foreign service.

To name a few, the mission in London has 3 SLFS officers out of 9 diplomatic staff. Berlin 2 out of 4, Paris 2 out of 8, Washington 5 out of 7, Tokyo 1 out of 4, Moscow 1 out of 6, Beijing 2 out of 7 and Delhi 4 out of 6. The Trade and Defense positions in missions are handled by staff from the Commerce Dept. and armed forces. They are not political appointees. 

Whereas the Head of Mission in London is a career diplomat, missions in Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Beijing, and Delhi are headed by political appointees. The Ambassador’s post in Washington has been vacant since August 2017. The SLFS Ambassador nominated almost six months ago is still languishing in the Foreign Ministry without being given the green light to proceed.

Political appointees are relatives of politicians or those who have rendered varying types of services to politicians. The political Heads of Mission face no difficulty in receiving approval from the Committee on High Posts as its members too are politicians and need to keep options open for their own nominees at a future date.

The Public Diplomacy Division in Colombo will no doubt set the agenda and prepare the necessary information for dissemination by overseas missions. However, it is those based overseas in Sri Lankan missions that need to develop databases of contacts among government officials, industry leaders, NGOs, political parties, media groups, other interest groups besides important members of the general public in their respective territories. When our diplomats engage with members of the public through social media, they must follow the guidelines set out by the Foreign Ministry. Any other way will lead to chaos. It would require trained personnel.

Regrettably, the focus of most of our embassies, especially those headed by political appointees is the Sri Lankan diaspora, a culture which began with the Rajapaksa administration in 2005 and accelerated after 2010.                         

It would be pertinent to ask, how does the Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary propose to address the issue of the conduct of Public Diplomacy in short to medium term, given the large number of untrained political appointees, currently manning Sri Lankan missions abroad?

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