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Advocacy and Public Diplomacy

Barry Tomalin of the Global Institute for Diplomacy says a successful diplomat needs to understand the principles and practices of both


Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat, famous for his contribution in negotiating the end of the Serbian/Bosnian war, considered that the role of international diplomacy was to clearly understand your country’s policy, but be open to the needs and requirements of those you are negotiating with in order to reach an agreement. This involves the skills of advocacy and emotional intelligence combined with diplomacy, defined by Webster’s 11 Riverside University Dictionary as, The art or practice of conducting international relations, as in negotiating alliances, treaties and agreements: tact and skill in dealing with people.’ Webster’s defines advocacy as, ‘to speak in favour of one who supports or defends a cause; one who pleads on another’s behalf.’  As author Kathie Snow stated in 2003, ‘the key to successful advocacy is to apply the lessons of diplomacy; “tact and skill in dealing with people.’”


In 1999, Sir Peter Marshall and Professor Nabil Ayad published their account of the changes in diplomacy under the title, ‘Are Diplomats Really Necessary?’ The contention of the symposium held at London’s University of Westminster was that globalisation, the internet, electronic communication and the exploding levels of communication between different levels of state government, international organisations and members of the general public and pressure groups, had made the role of the diplomat superfluous.

In fact, as the contributors to the symposium made clear, the role of the diplomat, far from becoming superfluous, had expanded dramatically as they became the essential negotiators between the state they represented and the state where they were posted, not just between governments, but between international organisations and government and with the general public, a job function emphasised by former Canadian diplomat, Daryl Copeland in his book Guerrilla Diplomacy, in 2009.

Another factor, also related to the vastly increased use of communication tools was the extensive development of public diplomacy, using media to establish, maintain and repair, where necessary, international relations. In the symposium, Sir John Coles, KCMG, Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (as it was then known) described how, in addition to its work supporting The British Council and the BBC World Service, the Foreign Office introduced its own media through British Satellite News and used the internet to update the world on British Government and FCO activity.

For a diplomat to do this successfully around the world means they must understand the culture that they are posted in. The ambassador or foreign service officer is frequently the go-between between the customs and expectations of the locals and visiting dignitaries from his/her country, warding off cultural gaffes such as then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reciting Rudyard Kipling’s poem from the colonial era, The Road to Mandalay while visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar in 2017. As The Guardian later reported, British Ambassador, Patrick Martin, accompanying Boris Johnson on his visit, had to remind his guest that they were on camera and that Johnson’s behaviour was “inappropriate.”

Finally, it is important to recognise the importance of advocacy in non-profit organisations. These may be charities or international organisations. In their book, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Non-profits, authors Heather Grant and Leslie Crutchfield make the point that non-profits cannot achieve systemic change just through excellent service delivery. They need to use policy advocacy to access government resources or challenge decision-making in order to achieve their aims. Advocacy helps non-profits achieve their aims.


From 31 October to 13 November 2021, over 100 world leaders, representatives of international organisations, interest groups and industry lobbyists converged on Glasgow for COP26, an event arranged by the UN and hosted by the British government. All the interests represented were concerned with one thing only: to advocate their position and seek acceptance from others. The conference represented public and private advocacy at its most intense.

COP26 brought advocacy and public diplomacy together. If public diplomacy is about building national image and building influence by winning the hearts and minds of others, advocacy is how you do it. Dismissed by some climate change activists like Greta Thunberg, as “Blah, Blah, Blah,” diplomatic advocacy both advanced the arguments for reducing emissions to net zero and negotiated the dates by when this might be achieved.

If not necessarily a triumph of unanimity, it was nevertheless a triumph of advocacy, as states warned of the dangers they faced (particularly small Pacific Ocean island states) and larger states advocated their policy on cutting down pollution even if they couldn’t all commit to net zero emissions by 2050.

Advocacy is the art of making your case. The key tools of advocacy are how you listen, how you talk, what you say and what you write.  Advocacy involves developing active listening skills, understanding and appreciating not just what people say and how they say it but recognising and appreciating how they feel. It involves speaking: what you say, when you say it and how you express your thoughts and ideas appropriately to convey what you mean. It involves writing: observing protocols of correspondence, the means you use, how you address people, and what you include in your argument. And lastly, it involves the skills of reading, understanding the message from your counterpart and how it is conveyed, reading between the lines and understanding the unsaid and its importance.

Also, it is important not to ignore how to construct your arguments to consider the needs and requirements and cultural identity of the person you are talking to, including concentration time and what they are looking for.

In her article The Art of Advocacy published in 2013 in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Sherry Lee Mueller referred to the National Council for International Visitors and identified eight best practices to adopt in successful advocacy:

  1. Build relationships, not just with leaders but also with staffers who may be able to provide information and also have the ear of their boss. Mueller says, “Becoming a source of reliable information for a staffer is a significant stride in advocacy efforts and results in a genuinely reciprocal relationship.”
  2. Focus on provincial and district offices. Do everything you can to demonstrate your organisation’s outreach and connect with everybody involved.
  3. Do your homework. Learn about the people you will be negotiating with, their background, and their preferred way of negotiating. If you can attend public events they may be involved with it will add to your credibility.
  4. Listening is the cardinal rule. Listening rather than talking and finding common ground is essential to building good relationships.
  5. Be aware of time. Remember that the most productive meetings are not necessarily the longest and they may take place in the coffee lounge of the hotel rather than formally in the office.
  6. Make your requirements clear. Have a one page ‘leave behind’ that clearly summarises your mission, what you want to achieve and how you think it can be done. Do your research beforehand to find out whether your interlocutor likes a good example story or prefers a more statistical approach or both and adapt the way you frame your ‘ask’ as needed.
  7. Provide audiences for your interlocutor. Invite your interlocutor to address your colleagues at the embassy or at an official gathering. It is always worth having a token gift, a signature gift that represents your country or your organisation and can be offered at the close of a meeting.
  8. Recognise excellence and give credit where due to reward behaviour which is encouraging. Focus on the gains, potential or achieved, not the losses. Don’t just congratulate and thank your interlocutor. Thank his/her team as well. Deliver a thank you letter promptly and also send copies to key staff. As Mueller writes, “The art of expressing appreciation and sharing credit is at the heart of effective advocacy.

In her article, Advocate or Diplomat? Revolutionary Common Sense, Kathie Snow emphasised the importance of tact and diplomatic skills and listed three other useful tips for use in diplomatic negotiations. Published on the Disability is Natural website, she identified three useful strategies for parents of disabled children in how to deal diplomatically with educators. Needless to say, her advice applies equally to diplomats.

  1. Make amends when you need to. She writes, “Get your ego out of the way”. Be prepared to admit difficulties and show you are prepared do what is necessary to build a good working relationship. Keep the door open.
  2. Go the extra mile to maintain positive relationships. To cite Snow again, “Don’t take things personally and don’t retaliate.”
  3. Be willing to negotiate. Practise a win/win mentality. As Snow writes, “There is no better way to turn an adversary into an ally.” This involves being aware of your interlocutor’s need to save face. If you can’t get everything you want accept what you can get but keep the door open. Rather than demand or argue try what some negotiators describe as the ‘Ju Jitsu’ tactic and ask your interlocutor, ‘What will it take to get the result I need?’


Over 20 years on from the 1999 symposium, the game seems to have changed. In an age of disagreement and conflict in China, Russia, the US, the EU and the Middle East and Central Asia, the issue is not Are Diplomats Really Necessary? but how diplomacy can be put to work to mediate successfully between parties in disagreement and, through mediation, achieve a successful result. The answer may lie in the successful deployment of advocacy. In his first major speech as Secretary of State in the Obama administration in 2013, John Kerry quoted Senator Fulbright: “Having people understand your thoughts is much greater security than another submarine.”

Global Institute for Diplomacy



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