Media as Global Diplomat

June 1, 2009
Sheldon Himelfarb, Tamara Gould, Eric Martin and Tara Sonenshine

 It would be tempting to pronounce American public diplomacy dead in the 21st century. Where government once served as a powerful middleman for information and access, shaping prevailing messages about the United States, now the Internet connects two billion people directly. The result is a brave new world for multilateral international communication, with unprecedented power to connect and divide, spread truth and rumor, and organize dispersed individuals for good, evil, and everything in between.


  •  Over the last decade, America's image abroad has declined, and public diplomacy is often cited as the reason for that decline. According to the BBC World Service Poll in 2008 and the University of Maryland's Program for International Policy Attitudes, publics in twenty-three countries view America's influence in the world more negatively than the influence of North Korea. Citizens in a NATO ally, Turkey, view the United States (64 percent) as the greatest threat to their country in the future.
  •  Digital media have fundamentally changed the way Americans learn about life overseas and how foreign audiences learn about America. According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, in 2008 the Web became a regular and even primary destination for most Americans. The number of Americans who said they got most of their national and international news online grew 67 percent in the last two years.
  • As citizens talk to each other throughout the world, public diplomacy needs to adapt to a multidirectional media model in which there is an exchange of views between Americans and overseas audiences that promotes a democratic, global conversation.
  •  A new U.S. administration that understands information technologies and the power of the Internet creates new opportunities to leverage that technology to improve America's image abroad. The United States must catalyze public-private partnerships that invite foreign perspectives through interactive and social networking media.
  • Public diplomacy in today's media climate favors a decentralized approach that reflects the fragmentation of information and builds on local partnerships that go beyond U.S. governmental broadcasting to foreign audiences. Media companies, NGOs, and third-party news outlets can reach certain communities that the U.S. government media cannot.
  • Citizen-to-citizen exchanges and citizen journalism allow for more access and participation in the "grand conversation" that takes place outside government channels. The United States needs to tap the potential of citizen media and citizen networks to enhance U.S. understanding of foreign cultures and overseas understanding of America.

  About the Report

Credit: USIP/Bill Fitz-Patrick
More than 250 influential media professionals, diplomats, policymakers, scholars, and NGO leaders gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 2009, for the Ted Koppel–moderated "Media as Global Diplomat Leadership Summit" sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding and the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Recognizing the current disruptive period in media, the summit asked public and private sector leaders how the United States can best use media to reinvigorate its public diplomacy strategy and international influence in order to strengthen efforts to build a more peaceful world. Streamed live on the Internet, the summit approached the topic in a global dialogue through interactive panels, videoconferencing, a documentary screening, and the participation of bloggers from around the world. This report summarizes the findings and recommendations of the summit for a new administration to reengage the world with a public diplomacy strategy adapted to the digital age.

This is a joint publication of USIP and ITVS ( Support for ITVS Global Perspectives Project provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

* With contributions by Christopher Neu

June 1, 2009