January 2011

Advocating Brand India

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Advocating Brand India

By listening and by engaging, public diplomacy voices stand better chances of being heard and social media can help much

Nirupama Rao
Foreign Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Govt of India

Public diplomacy relies as much on the spoken word as the written word, and therefore it very much depends on the clarity of presentation, and the ability to persuade, influence and mould opinions in a manner that is not propaganda but rather presents the case for any given aspect of foreign policy in a clear, cogent, factual and communicative manner.

We live in a communications environment and if our policies are to be well understood, we will have to interact in a real time and virtually on a constant basis with the media and audiences, both at home and abroad. Public diplomacy is also a process of reinvention for many of us as bureaucrats, because of the value it places on communication skills. The need to feel the popular pulse and the requirements of innovation, using the latest information and communication technologies, of moving beyond precedent-driven approaches, requires us to think out-of-the-box, be alert to countering negative information and stereotypes, and also to be ever-vigilant of information vacuums that will be filled by our adversaries.

Domestication of foreign policy is vital for creating a more informed discourse on foreign policy issues within our own country

Getting heard is not easy

It goes without saying that the contours of public diplomacy are being constantly expanded. As our foreign policy interests and strategic perspectives become more sharply honed, as our global presence becomes much more visible, as India’s re-emergence grasps the world’s attention, and as our economy becomes one of the international frontrunners in terms of its accelerated growth rate, India’s voice must be heard in multiple situations and before diverse audiences. The task to fulfil this will be that of its diplomats who must be ever active in the tasks of advocating and explaining the Indian ‘brand’ as it were, because this is a compelling narrative surrounding the world’s largest democracy that must be heard.

Of course, the challenge we face today is because there is a plethora of voices outside the government that speak on foreign policy. It necessarily follows that we are not heard so easily. Our message may just not get through. The way to address this is to provide higher definition to the debate by presenting the government’s case as clearly and factually as possible, being quick to correct misrepresentation, bridging gaps in information, and by understanding that by hesitating to speak we only compound the lack of understanding of a particular policy in the public domain. It is important to pay attention to feedback, and to engage with a broad spectrum of audiences. By listening and by engaging, we stand a better chance of being heard.

Domestication of foreign policy is vital for creating a more informed discourse on foreign policy issues within our own country

Public diplomacy, we all know, is no abstract term—it is a real world  phenomenon, and, it overlaps with our cultural diplomacy, our outreach to  academic institutions, the promotional work that our chambers of business and  industry engage in to promote Brand India, and the works of the ministries of  Information and Broadcasting, Culture, and Tourism. The projection of India’s  soft power is very much a part of the processes of public diplomacy, and so is  the use of social media including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This is  because we also need to understand the demographics of the audiences we  address—the idiom must be tailored to cater also to the language that the younger sections of our population speak.

World should know how India contributes

The promotion and projection of India is furthered by our Public Diplomacy Division through our publications, documentary films and  selections of popular and classical music that can be used by our diplomatic  missions to project India. We are also increasingly aware of the need to  emphasise our image as a country that embraces diversity, with its secular ethos, and vibrant democracy, as also our determination to resist terrorism  and militancy, and the forces that threaten our sovereignty and territorial  integrity. In this connection, our public diplomacy efforts must focus on the  composite nature of our culture, our inter-religious harmony, and our  emphasis on inclusive, integrative growth, especially when it comes to  outreach in our neighbourhood, in Southeast Asia, in the Gulf countries and in Africa.

We see the need for audiences abroad particularly to be made more aware of our technical and economic cooperation programmes and our grant assistance and concessional lines of credit (LoCs) to a number of countries. The revival of  an irrigation project that has doubled Senegal’s rice output and made the  country self sufficient in rice for the first time in a generation; a power  transmission project that is helping take surplus electricity from Cote d’Ivoire  to Mali; a regional centre for excellence in IT that Ghana has established, and an  entire IT park that Mauritius has….and dozens of other similar examples speak of our partnerships in development cooperation. We currently extend  LoCs of over USD 10 billion to countries in Africa and elsewhere but they hardly  ind a mention in either the Indian or the international media. Similarly,  the excellent development work that we have done for the people of  Afghanistan under constant threat from terrorist forces needs to be explained  to the world.

We have traditionally tended to adopt a fairly conservative approach towards  publicising our own work and this, almost by default, leaves the field open for  negative stories of which there is never a dearth. From a public diplomacy standpoint, I think it is vital that we start building credible and engaging narratives about the positive work that we do. These would not only provide global audiences with a perspective of the geographical spread and impact of  our development partnerships but also bring from our own public and  Parliament an appreciation of our activities.

Yet another aspect on which public diplomacy needs to focus is crisis management in extraordinary situations— getting the government’s message out and addressing public opinion directly with the purpose of informing, reassuring and enabling sober and wellreasoned responses that are bereft of rumour and speculation.

With Facebook or Twitter, idioms must be tailored to cater also to the language  that the younger sections of our population speak

I also wish to focus on what I call the domestication of foreign policy and this is  where public diplomacy, public affairs and public relations cross-fertilise each other. One of the key initiatives that we have taken in recent months focuses on creating a more informed discourse on foreign policy issues within our own country. We recognise that many of these issues are increasingly intertwined with domestic agendas, and as a democracy, we cannot avoid the responsibility of communicating our position more effectively to key segments of public opinion. Since its start in February, our MEA Distinguished Lecture Series on India’s Foreign Policy has touched 24 different university campuses, virtually all of them outside Delhi. The topics for the lectures are selected by the  universities and the lectures are delivered by retired ambassadors with domain knowledge of the particular topic. The lively interactive sessions that  accompany these lectures, the presence of local media and the participation of civil society have made this program an important component of our public diplomacy efforts.

Multimodal communication is needed

A related program that has a strong domestic focus pertains to the seminars, conferences and workshops on foreign policy themes that we support and  organise. Our conferences on Indo-Nepal relations in Patna and Varanasi and  on India’s Look East policy in Shillong and Guwahati are examples of our  conscious endeavour to take foreign policy discussions to places where they  also resonate as issues that concern local populations and opinion makers.

The success of these initiatives clearly depends on the active participation and support of a range of other organisations that often have a better understanding  of specific sectors and issues. We are fortunate in having  partnerships with business chambers, think tanks, academic institutions, cultural organisations, members of the Indian diaspora and others with whom  we collaborate in pursuit of our public diplomacy objectives.

I would be the first to acknowledge that these are no more than initial steps in a  process that is bound to get increasingly complex as new media and  communications technologies take us into uncharted territories. There is much  that we must do to put in place a framework for strategic communications and  for developing a lucid, encompassing vision of Brand India that goes even  beyond the brilliantly successful Incredible India campaign.

That is why soft power, 24/7 media, Web 2.0 tools and the role of corporates in  public diplomacy are so useful and relevant.

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