Creative Destruction at the FCO’s Communication Directorate: British Public Diplomacy & the Economic Crisis

TitleCreative Destruction at the FCO’s Communication Directorate: British Public Diplomacy & the Economic Crisis
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Pamment, J.
Affiliation (1st Author)Karlstad University
Section or WGPolitical Communication Research Section
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodePOLW2b
Slot Code (Keyword)POLW2b
Time of Session11:00-12:30
Session TitleChallenges for research on Public Diplomacy
Submission ID4484

The purpose of this article is to explore the impact of the current economic crisis on the ability of national institutions within the United Kingdom to exert soft power. The analysis focuses on the term public diplomacy (PD), which refers to the communication practices of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), British Council and BBC World Service. In particular, it covers communication between these institutions and nongovernmental, boundary-spanning actors within areas of importance to the UK’s foreign policy. Despite unequivocally recognising the importance of these activities to current international power relations, British PD has experienced substantial cutbacks in recent years, with the most recent round of restructuring involving a reduction of central communication staff by 30%. Yet in a creative twist, the FCO has seized the opportunity to further integrate PD within traditional policy formation processes by relocating many communicative functions within other directorates. This article therefore explores the conference theme of “Crises, ‘Creative Destruction’ and the Global Power and Communication Order” to the extent that it explores on the one hand the interaction between crises and innovation, and on the other hand the vital and evolving role of political communication within international power relations. The article begins with a historical overview of PD in the UK which demonstrates the economic and political basis for the development of a soft power apparatus over the longue durée. It then discusses the successive redefinitions and reorganisations of PD under New Labour, and in particular the rationalising and centralising pressures which accompanied increased interest and accountability in the field. Following this, the paper explains the very latest changes in PD policy as well as major campaigns such as the Olympics in 2012 and GREAT. Using data hitherto unavailable to researchers, the discussion provides insight into the frequency, cost and objectives of the UK’s recent PD campaigns around the world. It explores the decentralised nature of the current PD structure, and the potential consequences of the ‘creative destruction’ of Communication Directorate for the FCO’s capacity to engage in public debate. Of particular note is the way in which the goal of ‘influence’, a staple of so many PD definitions from the UK and elsewhere over decades, has now been dropped. The focus on managerialism, objective-setting and proof of value under an economic crisis has led to a paradigm shift in conceptualisations of PD in which influence is dismissed as indemonstrable and therefore cannot perform a pivotal role in definitions of PD. This may have reverberations around the wider field over the coming months and years. As a whole, these developments are of interest for understanding the interaction between political, economic and symbolic aspects of communication between nations and other international actors within global orders of power during a crisis.

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