The ABCs of Marketing That Can Help Public Diplomacy

As U.S. diplomats try to explain the storming of Capitol Hill, they will face questions on the state of American democracy. One-size-fits-all answers won’t work.


Richard Mills, then-ambassador to Armenia, held a press conference on Election Day in 2016 at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan. Photo by Department of State.

Before Burger King added the plant-based Impossible Whopper to its menu in 2019, it carefully considered the potential market for the new item. To many, vegetarians were the obvious target audience for a launch advertising campaign. Research showed, however, that meat-eaters often looked for meat alternatives. So the company focused on that market segment. The new burger exceeded expectations, and although sales have leveled, the chain expanded its Impossible offerings to its breakfast menu.

The idea of branding and selling U.S. foreign policy often elicits scorn, and for good reason. The country is not a product, and building relationships and trust doesn’t happen with a slogan or jingle. Yet certain marketing principles could help diplomats in presenting, articulating and explaining U.S. policies and programs to foreign audiences to secure their support, participate in partnerships or purchase American products.

With an expected revival of diplomacy by the incoming Biden administration and new political appointees poised to assume senior State Department posts, it’s important to understand key marketing ABCs. Department employees who took a previously offered Foreign Service Institute (FSI) course informally known as the “Marketing College” are familiar with “Crafting Persuasion,” a book by three of the course’s instructors, Kip Knight, Ed Tazzia and Bob Pearson. Their ABCs have helped many of us but are not widely familiar to diplomats.

A is for audience

Know who you want to hear your message and act on it. Government officials frequently think about a program or a message without consideration for the audience they hope to reach. Foreign Service officers often ask an embassy’s public diplomacy (PD) section to post something on social media or arrange a talk on a topic important to Washington in the host-country. When asked about their specific target audience, they rarely get more specific than “youth” or “officials.” A successful outreach campaign needs concrete information and research, starting with who you want to influence. Do you hope to reach female university STEM students in public schools, parents of at-risk youth or regional tourism coordinators? Developing any message or program without clearly knowing your audiences – or where and how they receive and digest information – is akin to giving someone a ball and telling them they win a prize if they hit the target with it. But you neglect to tell them what the target is. In that case, no one wins.

B is for behavior

Know what you want the person to do, both in the short and long term. When diplomats distribute information to the public, they sometimes falter in defining clearly what they want the audience to do. Getting a crowd at a trade fair is good, but if no one places an order for American products or no partnerships are struck, the crowd size doesn’t matter. Diplomats must know what they want from an audience and have tools at hand to make it happen.

C is for content

What’s in the deal for the audience, and why should it believe the embassy? In some countries, trust of the embassy is high; in others not so much. Assuming the United States will be heard and believed based solely on reputation is no longer a given. Here diplomats may have to figuratively sell both the tangible and intangible benefits of what the United States offers: the skill-building that comes from volunteering; the value in tuition paid to a U.S. university; the benefits gleaned from a free trade agreement. Diplomats need to know what the audience needs and wants, and show how the United States can assist with those goals.

D is for delivery

Now we can discuss the message, what we want it to convey and how best to reach the audience. For female university students, a YouTube video might garner the most interest. For parents of at-risk youth, their religious leaders or child’s teacher may be the most effective conduit. For the tourism coordinators, one-on-one meetings with embassy economic officers could be best. One social-media post doesn’t fit all – even if, due to lack of human and financial resources or pressure from Washington, embassy employees sometimes feel that is their only option.

E is for evaluation

Make sure you have a way to measure the success of your efforts. This isn’t easy, especially with long-term relationship and trust-building, years-long negotiations or investments in education or civic engagement. Yet new data sources, the use of surveys and polling, and outreach to program alumni allow diplomats to capture results even from efforts that may be hard to evaluate.  

Although following this model may seem logical, the journey is not always easy. Frequently missing are the letters F, I and T – funding, instruction and time. Embassies, especially smaller ones, often lack the staff and budget to learn and follow the ABCs well. Researching which audiences are the best to target, how and where they receive information, and what they believe in and want from the embassy are skills that require training to be honed and time to be applied. Devising effective evaluation tools, analyzing the results and changing or tweaking methods in response to the results is time-intensive.

Senior State Department officials in the public diplomacy specialty have worked for years to teach the ABCs, with mixed success. An effort that began more than five years ago to reclassify local embassy employees’ job duties to align with audience awareness and factor in greater evaluation methods is still a work in progress. Full implementation has faltered due to budgets, missteps and, since 2020, Covid-19. It has faced some resistance, doesn’t have all the answers and makes a few miscalculations, but it does address the need to see programs, meetings and social-media posts as tools of diplomatic efforts, rather than the results. To be successful, local employees must learn, understand and apply the ABCs behind the change to their position descriptions.

Public diplomacy leadership began a push for greater program evaluation years ago. Today, embassy section chiefs must include success metrics in their annual strategic plans. FSI integrated more strategic planning and evaluation and research techniques into its public diplomacy courses. Still, many embassies find measurement difficult, especially with long-term or more attitude-based goals. The number of student visas issued can easily be measured, while the contribution of a program toward changing discriminatory views of women is more difficult to quantify. More broadly, the State Department expanded its use of data and evaluation methods to formulate, implement and evaluate policy and its progress. 

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All diplomats must learn the marketing alphabet, regardless of specialty. I’ve had colleagues and supervisors in sections other than public diplomacy, who suggested arranging a concert to “raise the embassy’s profile” but gave no reason why we needed to raise it and with whom – or making donations to an orphanage and holding media events there, with no explanation of how this would accomplish embassy goals. Neither of these ideas was bad, but the requesters began with D before considering A, B, and C, which lessens or negates an event’s impact.

Supervisors must give staff the training and time they need to master marketing skills through formal instruction, group meetings and mentoring. That means that these employees won’t be available to work on exchange programs, writing cables or maintaining a social-media presence during that time. But trade-offs are necessary in any government agency with limited resources.

For decades, many politically appointed senior State Department officials – and some career officers – have sent instructions to U.S. embassies with the same message to be delivered to audiences in different countries, resisting some posts’ attempts to tailor the content or dissemination strategy to local conditions and specificities. If someone still doubts that one size really doesn’t fit all, the coming months and years will be a sobering experience. As American diplomats try to explain to governments and people around the world the January 6 storming of Capitol Hill by a mob bent on overturning the results of a free election, they will be questioned about the fragility of U.S. democracy, as well as the credibility of the United States in lecturing other countries on democratic principles and governance.

Unless the diplomats’ messages are designed with the type of audience and the host-country’s history and culture in mind, they are likely to fall flat, making an already daunting task almost insurmountable.