DIPLOMACY 101: Public Affairs
Updated: Jun 18
Diplomats in the US Foreign Service work in one of five career tracks. Even though they are called "generalists", which means they can work on almost any issue during their 20+ year career, they have to specialize in something. The choices are consular, economic, management, political or public affairs.
In this post I’d like to start with the career track that outsiders probably find most difficult to understand: public diplomacy. Granted, the name is really vague, but it basically means informing, influencing and persuading people in foreign countries.
WHAT PUBLIC DIPLOMACY OFFICERS DO
Diplomats passively conduct public diplomacy by tracking the media, replying to journalists’ questions, drafting ambassador's speeches and generally making sure that embassies send out accurate, clear and consistent messages.
Diplomats actively do public diplomacy by hosting events, traveling all over the country, funding civil society initiatives, organizing cultural and educational exchanges, and engaging media outlets to promote the US image and advance foreign policy goals.
Public diplomacy sections in the embassy have two sides; the information side and the cultural side. The information side is busy tracking the local media, drafting statements, posting on social media, and acting as a spokesperson for the embassy. The cultural side funds and organizes things like educational exchange programs, youth programs, and speaker programs.
HOW DOES PUBLIC DIPLOMACY ADVANCE US INTERESTS?
Public diplomacy officers mainly focus on government-to-people relations (as opposed to government-to-government relations). This is important, because civil society people and organizations influence the government decision-making process – unless a country is a total autocracy of course.
In today’s digital age, governments usually care about public opinion and listen to key influencers like political commentators, NGO leaders and other high-profile figures. So it really helps when they are on our side – or at least understand and interact with us.
At the same time, public diplomacy involves some damage control. Diplomats try to counter misinformation about the US, and to build positive and enduring relationships with foreign audiences everywhere.
WHO CAN BECOME A PUBLIC DIPLOMACY OFFICER?
You don’t need a special degree to become a public diplomacy officer. Like in other career tracks within the Foreign Service, diplomats learn the necessary skills after they are hired.
That said, this career track might be the more natural choice for people who are already good communicators. Public affairs officers often find themselves on local radio and TV stations or giving speeches in front of large groups, so public speaking and writing skills are important – especially once you move up the career ladder.
BEING A PUBLIC DIPLOMACY OFFICER – WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE
My husband R is a public diplomacy (PD) officer, so my experience with this career track comes mainly from following what he does. The State Department doesn’t allow couples to work side-by-side for fear of nepotism, so the chance that I will ever work in the PD section is minimal.
R is very happy that he chose the public diplomacy career track and truly loves his job. For me, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he seems to be “on the road” and working evenings a lot more than most of his colleagues. On the other hand, I often get the chance to accompany him to interesting receptions and wonderful cultural events.
R didn’t start working as a PD officer right away, though. No matter your career track, all diplomats have to complete at least one consular tour at the entry-level (in the first four years). Career tracks are not very important in the beginning. R worked as a Vice-Consul for the first two years, and as a Political/Economic officer for the next two years.
A typical first job for a public diplomacy officer is Assistant Information Officer (AIO) or Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer (ACAO). As the names imply, these are assisting roles, and in larger embassies it means that you have a narrow portfolio. R’s first PD job – during his third tour – was as an AIO in charge of dealing with print journalists, while other AIOs in his section worked on radio journalism, TV, and social media.
The next step up is the job of Assistant Public Affairs Officer (APAO), Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO), or Information Officer (IO). These roles come with more responsibility because they have bigger portfolios, manage more staff and resources, and whenever the PAO is out of office they run the PD section.
R’s fourth tour was as an APAO. He was in charge of cultural affairs, so in a way he was as much CAO as APAO. He was also the Ambassador’s main speechwriter and accompanied him to lots of events in different cities. He was and in charge of the mission’s social media and spoke about America’s institutions and its people to many groups, large and small.
As APAO he also managed several locally employed staff (LES), and with their help organized a plethora of local events, as well as talks by visiting American officials, academics, and creatives. He organized educational and cultural exchanges that allowed students, scholars, officials and professionals to visit each other’s country. He felt that sending smart and influential people to the US through special programs and studies was one of the most important things he did, because those experiences tend to turn people into long-term friends and allies of the US.
R is currently a PAO in Armenia. He seems to be doing the same type of work as he did as APAO, except that he has even more people and money to manage. PD sections always have programming budgets but in Armenia the budget is relatively big, which means extra staff, projects and responsibility for taxpayer money. Also, as “section head”, he joins senior staff meetings and serves as the main embassy spokesperson.
WHERE TO FIND MORE INFORMATION
Below are a few external links to help you find out more about the public diplomacy career track for Foreign Service Officers:
(State Department) The Mission of Public Diplomacy
(State Department) Overview Of A Potential Progression In Your Career Track