Why is Public Diplomacy Data Driven? A Response to Bean & Comor

Note: A version of this post first appeared on the USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s website

Introduction: Data Driven Public Diplomacy

Last month, All Azimuth published an article by Bean and Comor titled “Data Driven Public Diplomacy: A Critical and Reflexive Assessment”. The article focuses on a report published by the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy regarding the use of quantitative assessment tools in measuring and evaluating US public diplomacy activities. As the scholars note, the rise of digital technologies, and the utilization of digital platforms in public diplomacy, has seen greater emphasis on measuring public diplomacy activities and their ability to influence foreign populations. From big data sets, to social media analytics, public diplomacy and its evaluation is indeed data driven.

Bean and Comor’s main arguments are that the desire to evaluate, and measure, public diplomacy is a result of two important factors. The first is a residue of the Cold War mentality which viewed public diplomacy as a tool for influencing, and at times manipulating, foreign populations. This residue still impacts how US diplomats conceptualize public diplomacy and view its function in achieving foreign policy goals. The second is a lack of clarity with the regard to what public diplomacy is supposed to achieve. This leads to a futile attempt to measure influence rather than engage with foreign publics and address US polices that are poorly received abroad.

Comor and Bean’s article is important for three reasons. First, it demonstrates how organizational norms and history, alongside the beliefs of diplomats, influence the conduct of diplomacy. Second, it addresses a substantial gap between the potential of digital public diplomacy and its application. The incorporation of digital tools in public diplomacy was supposed to bring about a shift from influencing foreign populations to engaging with them in dialogue with the goal of relationship building. As the authors demonstrate, the opposite has happened with digital tools simply entrenching Cold War notions. Lastly, the article demonstrates the need to more amply define the goals of public diplomacy.

However, Bean and Comor’s analysis also fails to address five important factors that have given rise to data driven public diplomacy.

The Road to Data Driven Public Diplomacy

Life in a Numerical Society- The first issue the authors fail to address realest to the characteristics of modern society. As Jan Melissen argues, diplomacy is a social institution that is practiced by social beings. Thus, changes in society at large eventually lead to changes in diplomacy. Sociologists have noted that the modern society is one which increasingly relies on numbers, statistical correlations and pie charts to grasp the world around it. Ulrich Beck states that our numerical mind frame stems from science’s elevation to a new religion. Others, such as Zigmond Bauman, argue that the desire to quantify and measure productivity is the main attribute of modernity. Whatever the reason, if an argument is to be made in a newscast, an election campaign or a newspaper article, it is supplemented by figures. Thus, the desire to base public diplomacy evaluation on numerical data may also be a result of societal norms and not just organizational norms.

A Limited Case Study- While on the topic of statistics, one has to note that Bean and Comor deal with an extremely limited sample looking only at American public diplomacy. While this does not diminish from their work, it is problematic for two reasons. First, the practice of public diplomacy is now a global phenomenon. The foreign ministries of Israel, India, China, Mexico, the UK, France and Jordan are all attempting to interact with foreign populations. Yet even more importantly, many of these diplomatic institutions strive to use digital platforms in order to quantitatively evaluate their public diplomacy activities. Such is the case with the foreign ministries of Israel, Finland, Norway, Poland and Ethiopia, to name a few. Thus, the question that arises is why is public diplomacy, in general, so data driven and so fixed on numerically measuring influence? One answer might lie in globalization’s impact on foreign ministries.

The End of the Monopoly- For years, foreign ministries had a monopoly over representing the state abroad. But globalization has ended this monopoly. At a time in which pandemics, terrorism and crime do not recognize borders more and more ministries are facing the world (e.g., ministries of agriculture, health, telecommunications, and energy). This process has seen steady erosion in the standing, and funding, of foreign ministries. Faced with reduced budgets, alongside growing demands, foreign ministries are forced to demonstrate their value. One way of doing so is by measuring the reach of one’s messaging, his ability to attract global attention and the steady increase in his global networks of ties. In addition, since its inception, digital diplomacy has been viewed as cost effective diplomacy.

The Driver of Digital Diplomacy- The end of the Cold War brought about a desire for more cost effective diplomacy. As Hocking & Melissen write, the search for cost effective diplomacy led nations to experiment with virtual diplomacy, be it in the form of virtual embassies or social media based public diplomacy. As such, the utilization of digital tools in public diplomacy has always come under strict financial scrutiny and public diplomacy practitioners have always had to demonstrate its return on investment. This led to a deep routed need to evaluate and measure digital public diplomacy. Thus, it may be the origin of public diplomacy, alongside institutional norms, that led to a data driven approach

The Digital Economy- One more factor that may have led to data driven public diplomacy is the manner in which worth is calculated in the digital economy. In the 19th century one’s worth was determined by land, in the 20th century by money and in the 21st century by the number of followers he attracts. The digital economy is one that evaluates brands and celebrities based on their online reach. As more and more foreign ministries collaborate with private consultancy firms, and public relations experts, so they too come to evaluate the worth of their activities through data driven parameters. The influence of such PR firms is evident in the growing number of reports that offer data driven assessment of nations’ powers (e.g., Soft Power 30, Good Country Index).

The Ultimate Goal of Diplomacy- A final factor that needs to be taken into account is the goal of diplomacy, in general, and not just that of public diplomacy. It may be argued that at its core, diplomacy centers on relationship building. Diaspora diplomacy aims to engage a nation’s overseas population; multi-lateral diplomacy seeks to create alliances between permanent representatives while bi-lateral diplomacy aim to cement relationships between two countries. Yet diplomacy is also about leveraging such relationships. UN ambassadors network with one another so as to secure votes on important resolutions, nations look to Diasporas to stimulate trade while embassies are tasked with identifying mutual foreign policy goals and perusing such goals.  To assume that public diplomacy would only seek to create relationships, without leveraging them, presupposes that public diplomacy can serve as an island entire of itself. The question may thus be how to redefine diplomacy in general, and not just public diplomacy.


Bean and Comor’s recent article sheds light on an important finding- the incorporation of digital tools in public diplomacy has not brought about a shift towards relationship building with foreign populations. Rather, it has offered new means to achieve an old public diplomacy goal- influence and, at times, manipulation. In this post I have attempted to reflect on this finding as well as call attention to the fact that it is not limited to American public diplomacy.

I would end by stating that I adamantly support Bean and Comor’s main conclusion- public diplomacy will never be successful if its goal is influence. Rather, the goal should be to understand how foreign publics view a nation’s policies and to amend these policies when necessary.  Online messaging will not influence Pakistanis’ view of the US. Limiting drone strikes might.


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