Involvement in public diplomacy by the private sector, particularly international corporations, has been endorsed by government entities, non-profit organizations, political think tanks, and academics, but there is no clear understanding about how corporations are, or should be, involved. Our study, supported by the Arthur W. Page Center, was among the first to empirically examine the perceptions of corporate communication executives on the role and impact of private-sector corporations in public diplomacy.
Using the Delphi technique, the study documented the views of corporate public relations and communication executives regarding the reciprocal impacts of corporate and national images and the potential for multinational companies to become involved in strategic partnerships with governments to advance public diplomacy goals.
The findings indicate corporate leaders believe positive diplomatic relationships between the United States and the countries in which their companies do business have positive impacts on business. They acknowledge that CSR efforts by U.S. companies operating abroad have a halo effect on national image, and believe the image and reputation of the United States has some effect on corporate image. However, they feel no responsibility to engage directly in U.S. public diplomacy.
At the same time, the data showed potential for strategic partnerships, primarily through sharing corporate expertise and/or consulting with public diplomats; however, the executives reported receiving no request from the U.S. government to do so. Findings suggest it is up to the government to initiate the participation of the corporate sector in public diplomacy.
Although the study showed that the impact of CSR efforts in enhancing national image was viewed as a by-product of CSR efforts, a better understanding of public diplomacy goals and objectives among corporate executives might lead to greater interest in coordinated strategies for improving the lives of people abroad. Additionally, as expectations for socially responsible performance on the part of corporations continues to evolve and expand, corporations may be held to higher standards in terms of their involvement in social issues, requiring corporate executives to rethink their CSR agendas and partnerships.
As strategic leaders and counselors to their corporations, public relations managers likely will play key roles in helping their companies understand and adapt to new expectations and demands in the global environment. Partnering with government and other influential actors in the global sphere offers possibilities for working together in advancing both corporate and broader societal goals.
We hope our findings will contribute to practical and theoretical development in both global public relations and public diplomacy, with implications for ethics and responsibility in the public communication of corporations.
Candace L. White, Ph.D., is a Professor at the University of Tennessee. Kathy R. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., is a Professor at American University.