“The dinner went well. The guest of honor didn’t sneeze. We were lucky.”

This comment was heard after a dinner at the U.S. State Department, where senior administration officials hosted a dinner for a delegation beginning a week of high-level meetings. The guest that didn’t sneeze was the senior person, allergic to flowers. Even though there were flowers on the tables, there were no sneezes.

It wasn’t luck that the guest was comfortable. Research by the protocol staff had discovered the allergy and found flowers that wouldn’t cause a problem. Thanks to the staff’s work, no headlines appeared announcing that dinner at the Department of State made a visiting dignitary sick.

At first, reading this story seems to confirm the stereotype that protocol and the work of protocol officers is simply about flowers, menus and seating plans. But to focus on those tasks is to miss the purpose that drives these activities. Robert W. Frye, former Chief of Protocol of the U.S. Distinguished Visitors Bureau of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, explained it clearly: “protocol is the art of creating a distraction-free environment that facilitates the complete and open exchange of information to resolve issues and build relationships in global business and international diplomacy.”

Protocol and diplomacy operate together. In a sense, protocol exists so that diplomacy, the practice of international relations and dealing with people across borders and cultures, can take place.  This is true whether we are considering traditional diplomacy at the nation-state level or today’s broader view encompassing public, corporate and citizen diplomacy.  Protocol is the partner.

It is the practices and customs known as protocol that convey the respect and sensitivity to others that diplomacy requires, whether it’s in negotiating treaties, cultural exchanges or business partnerships. We observe how people interact. We note the outward signs of diplomacy that are really protocol in action. What we see is organized and orchestrated by protocol professionals who, unless there is a problem, are invisible and silent.

Although few people even know that protocol officers exist, the position has been an integral element of US diplomacy for almost 100 years. Each President selects a Chief of Protocol who holds the rank of Ambassador and whose appointment must be confirmed by the Senate.  The current US Chief of Protocol is Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, appointed in August 2009.

It isn’t only the federal government that has a Chief of Protocol. Within the United States, protocol officers operate at all levels of the government: national, state, county and city, and within the branches of the military. They play meaningful roles on university campuses, in museums and major corporations.

Protocol is important for governments throughout the world. Protocol and Diplomacy International – Protocol Officers Association (PDI-POA), the first international association of protocol officers, has more than 200 members representing 20 countries.

If these protocol officers play a silent and invisible role, then what do they do?  What is protocol on a day-to-day basis? The following is a list of some of their responsibilities:

  • Preparing briefing books that cover history, culture and protocol of the countries involved in visits or destinations for travelers;
  • Developing a visit plan that reflects the interests/preferences of both their principal and the visitor;
  • Coordinating with the staff of the visitor;
  • Selecting menus that are appropriate for the time, place, and guests;
  • Creating seating plans that show the appropriate honor and respect to the guests;
  • Selecting, wrapping, and sometimes delivering gifts taking into account the personal interests and culture of the recipient;
  • Coordinating with security services ranging from the US Secret Service to local law enforcement to ensure an event that is safe and runs smoothly;
  • Writing speeches to be delivered by their principals;
  • Assisting Ambassadors, Consuls General, and Trade Commissioners in their city to engage with local leaders.

A former deputy chief of protocol said her office learned to coordinate with everyone hosting meals for a visitor. With that additional step, no guest of honor would eat salmon (or chicken) for every lunch or dinner during a four-day visit.

But Protocol activities aren’t always hidden from view or as successful as our opening story.  The Obama administration has had several missteps. One that created international headlines revolved around the choice of gifts for (then) Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Why the fuss? It was perceived that the gift given did not show honor or respect to the Prime Minister or the relationship between the two countries.

The gift that caused the uproar? Twenty-five DVDs selected by the American Film Institute, viewed by some as way of marketing American films rather than recognizing an interest of the Prime Minister. The selection was in sharp contrast to the gift presented to President Obama: a pen set for his desk made from the wood of a warship that was used to help eliminate slave trade, a sister ship to the one used to make the desk in the Oval Office.

When you consider these gifts from the point of view of protocol, of setting the stage for diplomacy and relationship building, the American choice seems surprisingly impersonal. We can’t know who selected the gifts or why. We only know how it was perceived.

While this story reflects the events at center stage of global diplomacy, it should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. It tells us that all our actions, not just our words, carry meaning and shape the interpretation of our intentions. Increasingly, we all build international relationships. We connect globally through our work, travel, writings and conversations.  We deliver messages about our business, our country or about ourselves. We are diplomats.  Therefore we must create an environment our companies, our organizations and ourselves that allows diplomacy to take place. In this day and age, it isn’t enough to be a diplomat. We must be protocol officers too.

Lanie Denslow is the founder and principal of World Wise Intercultural Training & Resources and International Director at The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising.   A well known speaker on the topic of global business protocol she is also the author of World Wise What to Know Before You Go and co-author of Working with Americans.   You can contact Lanie at [email protected].