By Robert Grupp

The founders of the International Public Relations Association had the highest ideals, and with good reason. They wanted to use their professional communications skills to help the world reunite after World War II: geographically, culturally and economically. And our early leaders did contribute mightily to that objective. Their mission was to remind diverse populations of their common interests and values. And that serves business by preventing or addressing misconceptions and helping business function smoothly in diverse markets.

When I suggest that IPRA’s founders were “more than public relations people,” I mean this: in their interactions and communications with their customers, members, publics, investors, government agencies, these IPRA founders were public diplomats. By their actions, they used communications and their relationship skills to build respect for their own—and for other countries’ cultures and contributions—in a dramatically changed world.

That’s exactly what we public relations professionals are called to do in our world, our time: to be public diplomats. Not official ones, in the context of state-to-state diplomacy, but instead, “everyday diplomats,” on the job, in business, with a public purpose. We have an enormous opportunity for greater impact; indeed, I believe we have a professional obligation to engage in public diplomacy and articulate solutions for better global understanding and respect.

My First question: What Time Is It?

I don’t mean the hour. I’m asking us to think about our time in history. And to realize that it is unlike any other. It’s a time of unprecedented connection among nations, businesses, organizations, and cultures.

Several developments came together to create this world: massive investment in technology; the digital revolution, the free flow of information; cheaper computers. Some of the forces that changed the globe are political. Others are economic, like the shift to free-markets. Some are financial, such as the liberalized capital markets and the flow of investment across borders. They’ve made us global partners in one another’s lives. Now we’re increasingly visible and accessible to one another all the time.

Put all these developments together, and you know what time it is. It’s the time of economic globalization. Now, for businesses, geography is no constraint. Call centers in Bangalore provide product support to computer users in the United States. Goods can be produced at the most advantageous locations on the globe.

Just a few months ago Boeing, the giant aerospace company, announced that its 787 Dreamliner will make its first flight this year. How many countries does it take to make that Dreamliner? Well, Boeing manufactures the tail fin in the United States; the flaps in Australia; the fairings in Canada. The wings are made by Japanese companies; the horizontal stabilizers by an Italian company; the passenger doors and landing gear by a French company; the cargo doors by Saab in Sweden. Assembly is in the U.S.

Then there’s the iPod. Want to guess how many countries go into the Apple iPod? Trace the supply chain geography, and you see that the hard drive is manufactured by Toshiba of Japan. But Toshiba makes most of its hard drives in the Philippines and China. Assembly is in China. But some of the chips are supplied by American companies, and some by Taiwan.

As Tom Friedman wrote in “The World is Flat,” globalization has “accidentally made Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda next-door neighbors.” Inside this virtual neighborhood, we Americans sometimes see a threatening environment, but I agree with the CEO of Boeing, Jim McNerney, who believes that as global partners we have gained far more opportunities.

So, what does this mean for those of us who are public relations professionals?

It means successful businesses in today’s global economy require public diplomacy. We thrive when economies are open and inclusive. Think of the savvy public diplomacy it took to negotiate the number of vendors and participants involved in the Dreamliner and the iPod. To make that Dreamliner fly, to put that iPod in the hands of users across the globe, it took an astute understanding of cultural, business and social differences across nations.

At the same time, every business, every person for that matter today, has to work with another new reality, beyond economics, in this interdependent world. The presence of terror introduces a precarious background into our lives that we’ve never known before. We share not only opportunity; we share risk and uncertainty, resulting in an uneasy mix of optimism and apprehension.

What better time for public relations people to step up?

What does this historical moment ask of public relations professionals?

It asks that we be not just public relations people, but also public diplomats.

It is generally accepted that the modern (American) meaning for the term public diplomacy was coined in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, dean of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, when the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy was established. But that concept of public diplomacy was limited to explain and promote foreign policy and issues.

Now there’s no question that your government—and mine—communicates to inform or influence public opinion at home and in other countries. We don’t need to debate that.

What I am suggesting is that our interconnectedness and our interdependence in this global economy present an entirely new and compelling opportunity for international dialogue and collaboration: people-to-people. It is not foreign policy we public relations practitioners seek to explain and promote.
What our companies and clients require today is a “collaborative diplomacy” that facilitates connections among partners and potential partners who don’t know one another as well as they need to.

This collaborative diplomacy isn’t just good public relations; it’s good business. Although technology enables communications, we can’t rely on instant messages or You Tube images, no matter how appealing. We have to provide context and explain our motives and goals and describe the many attributes that shape our industries, nationalities and cultures.

In my industry, pharmaceuticals, the focus is rapidly shifting to Asia. This is true of the markets themselves and of the point of origin for expanding research into new medicines. But far too many companies act naively when deciding whether to partner in new markets, whom to partner with and how to manage the relationships.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently on an example of this, in China and India. There is significant diversity in incomes, geographic climates, cultural habits, and even language and religious beliefs within these two countries. Business success is rarely possible without understanding and finely segmenting the markets.

The Haier Group, China’s largest appliance manufacturer, makes different lines of washing machines. One is for rural peasants. It can clean not only clothes, but also sweet potatoes and peanuts. It also sells a tiny washing machine designed to clean a single change of clothes that’s a big hit with busy, urban customers in Shanghai.

Going into Russia and China, the American company Campbell Soup tried to sell its wet soup there in cans or boxes. It gave up in the 1990s with little success. Now it’s doing it differently. Campbell has employed cultural anthropologists to visit the homes of Russian and Chinese consumers to watch how they prepare and eat soup, and ask about where soup making fits in their lives. What the company has learned is that soup-making is a source of pride in these countries, and people are more likely to use it as a convenient base for other cooking. So Campbell will re-enter those markets this fall with “starter soups” to help consumers save time while making soup with their own touches.

Cultural understanding is critical to business success, and it’s a major component of public diplomacy.

But even beyond commercial success, public diplomacy by business can also be a powerful force for global change— and address national concerns.

After the South Asian tsunami of 2005, American companies were among those that responded immediately with great generosity in Indonesia. A week later, surveys showed that favorable opinion for the United States went down practically everywhere. One of the few exceptions was Indonesia. There it held steady.

We can’t discount how important public perception is. The Pew Foundation in the U.S. recently conducted a survey of 32 countries. It showed that people who have friends or relatives in the U.S. or who have visited the country are more likely to have a favorable opinion of the country. Every nation, every business and every people can break through prejudice, stereotyping, suspicion and distrust if we can have a real life experience with those “other” people.

All of this adds up to one thing: public relations done right is public diplomacy.

How can we be public diplomats every day?

We do it by practicing “diplomacy of deeds” and by being people of action.

Citigroup has made $100 million in loans to 132 microfinance institutions in 39 countries. The global investment bank is following the example of. Dr. Muhammad Yunus , the Bangladeshi banker and economist famous for extending small loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. Not incidentally, Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Good business is successful at improving people’s lives. And as public diplomats, we can support that.

Our companies and our clients hire us to help them connect, convince and make money, responsibly and ethically. Relationships are determined primarily by behaviors and actions, not words. The job of public relations is to perform, not to preach.

I’d like to conclude by suggesting some actions we can take to become better public diplomats.

First, we need to help define new possibilities for our organizations and our CEOs. A recent CEO study, conducted by the U.S.-based Arthur Page Society, showed that chief executives see senior public relations leaders as being more influential today than ever before. The trend is toward greater integration of PR into the formation of strategy. Most of the CEOs surveyed expect their senior communications leaders to also possess strong business expertise.

By being strategic partners with our CEOs, we can help them realize the potential of not just communications, but of reputation, of public diplomacy.

Second, we can expand our company’s network of alliances.

The Page Society task force that conducted the CEO survey observed, correctly I believe, that public relations professionals must not only speak to, but learn from, all of the company’s populations in new and different ways. We must nurture common interests and values between peoples of different countries, cultures and faiths across the world.

The future of our profession—and the challenge that will define the emerging role in the 21st century public relations officer—is to guide not only our organizations behaviors, but influence the self-conceptions and actions of our external stakeholders, including relationships that don’t necessarily directly involve our own company or clients.

Ignoring the elements of public diplomacy that go into building relationships and reputations can have serious consequences.

Take Wal-Mart in Japan. That giant retailer spent more than a billion dollars a couple of years ago for a majority stake in Seiyu, the Japanese retail chain. But so far, Wal-Mart is struggling to survive in Japan. Analysts have criticized Wal-Mart for not adequately preparing its management team—largely foreign—with an understanding of what Japanese consumers want, how they buy, and the local style of operation.

Wal-Mart has the technological and financial means to succeed. The question is, can Wal-Mart adapt culturally to fit with employees and customers? It’s a learning process, Wal-Mart keeps saying.  That learning process is where public diplomacy comes into play.

A third action we can take is to meet people where they are.

This one is about information technology. We need to be masters of this game, and inventive in how we use it. The organizations we represent today are horizontal, networked and globally integrated. If our work is to build relationships with these consumers, constituents, members, voters, investors, we need to connect with them where they are. With the media and technologies they use.

A billion people in the world access the Internet. The world learns online. A billion have cell phones. And iPods and BlackBerry’s are everywhere. What that means is we need to speak the language of the times. That language is short. That content is visual. That user is mobile. And more than ever, that user is young. It’s important to connect with today’s major, highly influential demographic group: the digital-savvy global youth culture.

This requires companies to plug in. It will help us anticipate the impact of this demographic on our companies, our products, and employees. Learn to use these connections for cultural messages that are important to the business.

And not least, we can keep fact alive.

Make no mistake: it is factual information we’re talking about. With participatory websites, the world is full of watchers, fact checkers. But much of the dialogue is simply opinion and assertion. There’s a place for that. There are bloggers everywhere, and we no doubt are among them. But we need to be aware that much of the information floating out there is not verified. It’s simply not factual.

It’s our job in this climate to be accurate. We need to keep fact alive, to be informative, to be information based, to be fair-minded and ethical, and to let in diverging opinion in every circle we operate in. We need to be information experts in a world where the “wisdom” of the crowd often rules.

The diplomat Edward R. Murrow, in May 1963, as the director of USIA at the time, in testimony before a Congressional Committee, summed up this view best when he said:  “American traditions and the American ethic require us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”

How we react to this moment could well determine the future of our profession. More importantly, our actions could have a material impact on our companies’ ability to adapt to and thrive in this radically new economic and social environment. Capitalism and commerce and contact have proved far more reliable agendas of change than lectures about evil.

We should have the courage to start talking to each other, even those with whom we disagree, not necessarily as a sign of approval, but as a way of influencing and shaping opinions and their environments and behaviors.

To do this we need to re-tool our profession to match the needs of our time, which asks that we be not just public relations people, but public diplomats—encouraging a culture of collaboration globally—and not being afraid to admit that we face many challenges and sometimes struggle to live up to our own professional ideals.

Our association, IPRA, came into being a good half century ago to help companies, organizations and clients succeed in a more integrated economic and professional world. Is it any different today? Different world? Yes. Different mission? No, that’s the same. There still is far more that unites us than divides us.

We have the opportunity to take on a larger role. If we choose this path, we can transform our profession, open up new and meaningful kinds of opportunity and learning, and create exciting new career paths in public relations.

Robert Grupp is vice president of communications and corporate culture at Cephalon and is president-elect of the International Public Relations Association. This article is extracted from his remarks at the IPRA regional conference held in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this month.