Interview with Consul-General Chris De Cure, OAM

 

 

The Honorable Chris De Cure, OAM is the Consul-General of Australia in Los Angeles. A senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, he previously held a range of senior appointments in Canberra including Senior Media Spokesman and Assistant Secretary of the Parliamentary Media Branch (2001-02) and Assistant Secretary of the Images of Australia Branch (1999-2000). In the latter role, he had oversight of the Department’s international public affairs and cultural programs and its involvement in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

 

PD asked Consul General De Cure to describe the development of public diplomacy in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He sat down with Editor-in-Chief Anoush Rima Tatevossian in May 2009 for a discussion about the way Australia approaches public diplomacy.

 

 

Could you tell us about the Images of Australia Branch (IAB), and describe your involvement with it in its beginning years? 

 

Up until 1987, the Australian government’s Overseas Information Service operated as an international public affairs service with staff posted in Australian overseas missions around the world. It operated in parallel, rather than in concert, with the then Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1987, the government integrated the OIS into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as an International Information Branch sitting alongside a separate Cultural Relations Branch that was responsible for promoting Australian arts and culture internationally.  

Part of the reason for bringing the Overseas Information Service into the department was a sense on the part of the Australian government of the day that the two weren’t operating as a single voice of Australia. They weren’t necessarily conveying the same or coordinated messages. And in public affairs, it’s important that you are consistent and persistent in the way that you convey messages.

There was a recognition that diplomats engaged in policy advocacy need to reach out effectively, not just to governments, but also to the wider community, including through the media. Equally, public advocacy — including cultural advocacy — had to support the government’s policy objectives. This required a change in approach from everyone involved in diplomacy.

Various strategies were put into place by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to break down walls between practitioners of what you might call traditional diplomacy and those engaged in public diplomacy. One of the early steps was to out-place public affairs officers into other areas of the Department to work alongside staff working on policy issues.

In the Americas & Europe Division of the Department, for example, an out-placed public affairs officer would seek out opportunities to complement particular diplomacy initiatives being managed out of that division with a public diplomacy component. If the division was organizing a seminar to promote an Australian government policy position, the public affairs officer might work within the team to develop media messages, propose ways to engage the wider community, including civil society, or develop and implement a strategy to promote the outcomes of the seminar internationally. This was an important first step in integrating public diplomacy in broader diplomacy, but it only took us part of the way.

Another view at that time was that the Department was not always particularly effective at conducting strategic communication campaigns or public affairs strategies either to manage issues that were damaging Australia internationally or to take advantage of positive developments to promote Australian interests. If, for example, a negative story was running internationally about something that was happening in Australia, diplomats were often very effective and quick to provide the government’s perspective on these issues to foreign governments and the business sector, but we weren’t always that good at going out to the wider community or to the media and explaining the government’s position to them. 

So the challenge was to use the resources available to deliver more effective and better-coordinated public advocacy in support of the government’s international objectives. And that led to a plan to create the Images of Australia Branch (IAB), which was essentially bringing together the cultural affairs and international public affairs branches, including the department’s Web site management group, into a single unit with a more strategic focus.

I was given the job of heading this new branch — as somebody who had worked most of his career on foreign and trade policy issues, but who also had a bit of an understanding of the media and public affairs, having undertaken some discrete projects in this area from time to time. My task was to develop a more strategic approach to international public affairs, cultural promotion and media relations, and also to integrate this work more broadly with the policy work of the Department. 

It was important that I came to the job with a background in foreign and trade policy. While I lacked some of the professional public affairs and cultural relations skills and knowledge of some of my staff, I was able to act as a conduit between the public diplomacy practitioners and the foreign and trade policy staff. I think prior to that, such an approach from the International Public Affairs Branch might have been seen by some of my colleagues as a request to “help me do my job” rather than as a plea for collaboration in pursuit of a common objective.

A lot of our early work in IAB involved going out to other areas of the department and saying, “We can actually help you do what you’re trying to achieve through public communication and advocacy.” And often we were able to do this for them at no cost to their budget. Because we were given a reasonably sized budget to do our job, we could provide the resources to do the work, but we still needed to get the content from them.  Getting this acceptance was a challenge and it took time because our colleagues had competing demands on their time and resources. It didn’t help that, more often than not, when we saw the need or opportunity to develop a public diplomacy strategy for a policy area of the Department, it coincided with times when they were under the most pressure.  While we tried to take a long-term strategic view when setting our priorities, the reality is that, in public diplomacy, the greatest demand for services comes when things are not traveling well. 

 

So, in a way, not only was IAB encouraging positive projections of Australia internationally, but it was also introducing Australians and policymakers to the importance of engaging in public diplomacy.

That’s right. In those early days, a lot of IAB’s effort went into developing a broad understanding in the Department that international issues management in the public domain had to be much more an integral part of our international advocacy. We also needed to learn how to identify the opportunities and the tools for public diplomacy. 

We also spent some time working out what the most effective public diplomacy tools were. We looked very critically at all of the tools we were using and at the effectiveness of individual strategies, and then we made some adjustments. One change was to use the internet much more as a tool for promoting our messages and as a database of information about Australia — conscious that, particularly in those days, the internet was a relatively passive, albeit inexpensive, tool. As a result, we were able to cut down dramatically on the amount of hard copy publishing we did and redirect these resources to other public diplomacy activities.

For a long time, like other foreign ministries around the world, the Department also conducted sponsored visiting programs for foreign journalists with the expectation that they would use knowledge acquired during their visits to write about Australia. This can be a very effective tool of public diplomacy, particularly if you have a large budget. Our problem was that our budget for this sort of activity was much more limited than in many other countries, and Australia’s distance from many of the countries we were seeking to influence meant that the cost and time required for such visits was great. 

To maximize the benefits of the 20 to 30 media visits we could afford to host each year, we decided that the best way for us, at that time, to gain maximum influence was to focus our program on editorial writers, columnists, editors, TV show editors — in other words, the opinion makers within the media. Because what we found was that if you invite a journalist out and run the program for a week, then they go home and write two or three articles, but you never hear from them again. But if you get an editorial writer or columnist to visit, their writings are typically much more influential, and they also influence the writing of a much wider group within their media outlet.

The other thing we did was we began to organize more group media visits — often with media people from very different countries — around a theme. So you might have 10 people from 10 different countries on a visit. The advantage of this approach was that the journalists would get to know each other, and they shared ideas and information in casual conversation because they weren’t competing with each other. So they had a good lively conversation about Australia, and we could complement their program to respond to their needs. It also meant we and the people they met got value for our effort. By that I mean we could often get much more senior appointments with senior group media visits and individual journalist visits because these people could see a much greater return for their investment of time. If you want busy ministers and business executives to meet people or journalists, you have to convince them that it’s worthwhile. If you could say, “We’ve got 10 editors from 10 different countries in Asia who want to talk to you about X or Y,” they’ll probably think that’s something worth doing — it’s half an hour or an hour of my time, and there’s a fair bit of potential benefit. So we were able to put together very good, high-quality programs for these people because of the quality of the group.

 

Why were the Sydney Olympic Games, or other internationally showcased events, so important for Australia? Does Australia generally actively seek out the opportunity to host these types of large-scale events?

We certainly have sought out major events in the past — sporting events in particular. Australia tends to see them as something more than standalone events. Certainly, major international events are of great interest to Australians because our geographic remoteness means that we are not always on the route of world-class artists and sportspeople. Major events provide an opportunity to overcome the tyranny of distance. Tourism is also an important industry for Australia, and major events attract tourists, both to attend events and as a result of publicity that the event attracts around the world.

Another layer of opportunity comes from the international exposure that a major event attracts, not just from the global media but also from political, economic and social elites and opinion makers. The Sydney Olympics in 2000 brought to Sydney world leaders, senior business executives and celebrities, not to mention a broad range of global media who otherwise might never cover stories about Australia. While they may have come to the Sydney Olympics to watch sporting events, they also absorbed other things about our culture, our economy and our people.  

When the Olympic Games are on, it is the biggest story across the globe, so the media need to be able to devote a lot of space or time to the event and the things happening around it. They need not just sports stories, but color or filler pieces that present and analyze the country and the city where the event is being held. This provides the host with a unique opportunity to encourage and facilitate more comprehensive and nuanced views of the country.

So it’s not just about sports; an event like the Olympic Games provides invaluable prime time exposure — exposure that you cannot buy. It’s a massive opportunity. The challenge for the host is to take advantage of this by being strategic about the messages it wants to communicate and the people it wants to influence. This was something that Australia understood and looked to exploit in 2000. 

 

What were some of the key elements or strategies used at the Sydney Media Centre during the Olympics?

The Media Centre was established in the heart of Sydney and focused exclusively on supporting media representatives who were not accredited to the games or who were looking to report non-sports news. The center provided news and broadcast facilities, media briefings on a diverse range of issues, and consultancy and advisory services to visiting journalists seeking story ideas or interviews. It proved a huge success and generated a lot of media participation and output. Most importantly from our perspective, we were able to assist in ensuring that reporting on Australia at that time was more accurate and comprehensive than it might otherwise have been.

During the games we provided both free one-on-one media advisory and consultancy services as well as a comprehensive program of seminars, press conferences or briefing sessions on a range of issues. There were as many as 10 sessions held each day. We brought in a diverse group of people, including prominent scientists, successful business people, community leaders, etc. to talk about their achievements. We had people who had invented new technologies to explain their work, sessions on quirky things about Australia such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service, volunteer lifesavers or bushfire fighters to talk about the way they work — essentially things that provide a more complete picture of the country and that show the character of the country and how we deal with various issues. We even had the odd Olympic champion come in to conduct a press conference. 

Part of the strategy was to use that platform — the Olympics — as an opportunity to talk to the media about how Australia had gone about the preparation for and staging of the games, the expertise and the skills that we brought to the task, and how things had been improved from previous years. We highlighted Australian capability: technology, telecommunication, construction, complex event management and organization, and tourism infrastructure — the capacity of hotels, restaurants and so forth to handle large crowds. These were the sorts of things that would give comfort to a business considering establishing a presence in Australia or someone looking for providers of goods and services to assist them in hosting a major event. We were also looking to show that there was more to Australia than cuddly koalas and kangaroos and beaches, but that Australia was a sophisticated and capable country with a diverse population that could undertake quite large, complex and sophisticated tasks in a flexible way and do it very efficiently and with a smile on our faces.

In your opinion, are there particular challenges to being a “middle power,” such as working with a smaller budget than a larger country?

In terms of being a middle power, I think there are some interesting issues there for public diplomats, like where you spend your money and how you maximize the return on your spend. Smaller countries typically have a lower profile and start from a lower base in terms of international awareness. They also typically have less to spend in order to raise their profile.

Having a lower profile can be a positive and a negative. The positive is that the world’s view of you is less set in stone so it can be easier to shift. The negative is that it can be very difficult to be noticed unless you have a lot of money to spend on promotion and advocacy. However, if you are a larger country with a very high profile in the world, such as the United States, it is much harder for a public diplomacy campaign to shift attitudes — hence the cost is also much higher. A smaller country will find it more difficult to attract attention from the international community, but if it wants to change its image, it is often working with a less cluttered canvas.

Every country is different, of course. I think there are probably some middle powers that spend a lot more than Australia does on public diplomacy. We like to think we are more effective than most because we focus on getting value for money. And that’s why we do a lot of multiplier initiatives rather than doing big advertising campaigns. Our programs tend to be much more strategic, focusing on influencing people who influence others and on issues that are important to our national interests. It’s all about influencing where it matters.

Overall, Australia generally ranks very positively on various nation branding indexes. However, a 2007 Australian Senate Report concluded that the “effectiveness of the whole of Australia’s public diplomacy is less than the sum of its parts.” Would you agree with that, or would you say that the fact that Australia’s brand is so positive is proof that even though efforts might be disjointed, they are succeeding?

The large number of players working in public diplomacy does present challenges for coordination and integration, but we work hard at consultation. IAB undertakes extensive planning consultations with overseas posts and geographic and multilateral divisions at this time of year to ensure our public diplomacy efforts next financial year are closely aligned with policy development. DFAT also holds a bi-annual Interdepartmental Committee on Public Diplomacy involving some 20 other government agencies to ensure a good shared understanding of the breadth of activity underway and consistent messages on key policy.

As you’ve noted, we consistently score well in nation branding studies, so a diversity of approaches does not seem to be undermining positive perceptions of Australia. Of course, there is always room for improvement, particularly in improving perceptions of Australia’s creativity and innovation, but government-sponsored public diplomacy efforts will only ever be one factor in achieving a policy objective or in contributing to changing perceptions of Australia.

Notes:

1. http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/fadt_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004-07/public_diplomacy/report/index.htm