Corporate Responsibility as Public Diplomacy

posted by Boyd Neil

By Manuel Pauser, account executive in H&K’s Washington office.

As a 17-year-old I decided to live in Malaysia for a year, to immerse myself in another culture, learn the language, live with a local family and attend a local high school. At that time, I saw the year mainly as a benefit for me, for my family at home, and for my host family and friends in Malaysia. It had never crossed my mind that this cultural exchange could be a tool of foreign policy and diplomacy—to share and advocate German ideals abroad while bringing Malaysian values back to Germany.

Only a few years later, as a student of political science and international relations, I realized how crucial such programs are to foreign policy. Whereas traditional diplomacy—the art and practice of direct communication between political representatives of different countries—remains an integral part of foreign policy, public diplomacy has become increasingly important to the foreign policy efforts of the U.S. Department of State and other foreign ministries around the world.

Instead of reaching out to officials, public diplomacy programs seek to engage a wider audience in a non-political fashion. These programs provide a country with a human face abroad—something that is tangible for the public. Prominent examples include the Fulbright academic exchange program and the recent concert of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in North Korea.

Increasingly however, governments have realized that corporations and their corporate responsibility efforts can be part of public diplomacy strategies as well. Only a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of State inaugurated its Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy. The award recognizes the achievements of Americans who actively contribute to advancing America’s ideals through public diplomacy. In the category of corporations, Johnson & Johnson won the award for its Safe Kids Worldwide campaign, one that aims to educate the public and advocate for children’s safety at home and in school.

On another occasion, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced that the German Federal Foreign Office, together with the Bertelsmann Foundation, planned to set up an internet platform to highlight best practices in corporate responsibility among German companies at home and abroad. Embassies will provide background information on countries and confer on-the-ground insights regarding companies’ cooperation with the local public.

In both cases, corporate responsibility as public diplomacy is viewed as a new way to create understanding and appreciation for other cultures, while establishing a dialogue between people of different nationalities. Subsidiaries of companies in other countries tend to resemble the culture of that parent company, the quality of products and production processes, the relationship between management and workforce, and the relationship with local communities.

Each case also indicates that diplomacy not only serves businesses, but businesses can serve diplomacy as well. For the past decades, it has been common practice for country officials to travel on official diplomatic visits accompanied by representatives from the business community. Such trips help to build and strengthen economic ties with other countries and serve businesses.

Businesses, in turn, can provide grounds for closer diplomatic relations and increased collaboration. With strong corporate responsibility engagements abroad, businesses can help build and expand powerful ties among the publics and people, while at the same time, enhancing the image of their home countries.

Corporate responsibility is part of public diplomacy. And public diplomacy becomes an integral part of corporate responsibility strategies. Even though we are still miles away from a fully integrated relationship between public diplomacy and corporate responsibility, I am glad to observe that governments around the world are beginning to recognize that corporations can assist diplomacy efforts by conveying the ideals and values of their home countries abroad.

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To meet new challenges, the Swedish Institute, at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched a special Management Program under the name Successful Business through Corporate Social Responsibility.

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