Insights on “Influencer Diplomacy” from a Diplomacy Lab Project, by Amb. Anthony Wayne

Many thanks to Joe Johnson for his excellent May 21 blog post about this spring’s Diplomacy Lab project on “Influencer Diplomacy,” which was prepared by seniors at American University’s School of International Service.

As Joe mentions, Diplomacy Labs are a great way for students to learn about the State Department’s work and to contribute analysis and ideas to State offices working on tough problems.  Two other teams that I mentored also worked on public diplomacy projects.

This spring, I enjoyed supporting the six AU students as they researched and crafted a report for a relatively new State Department office in the Global Public Affairs bureau (GPA), which works on partnering with influencers.  I share below a few highlights from their spring report and a link to the full study.

The spring 2024 team began their work with only a very basic understanding of the tasks and challenges faced by US public diplomacy today.  However, the team was supported with great insights shared by several members of PDCA and others with PD expertise as well as by their own excellent research.

The team developed criteria and researched potential influencers who might be good partners for GPA going forward as well as the type of events that might be most fruitful for influencer diplomacy by the State Department.  Importantly, the student researchers worked to put “influencer diplomacy” in the broader framework of effective public diplomacy and to share valuable recommendations for developing the potential of this new instrument in the public diplomacy tool chest.

Please see the full report, “Partnerships, Policy, and Public Diplomacy: A Deep Dive into Influencer Diplomacy." For an introduction, I have excerpted the report below.

Excerpts from the report’s executive summary:

Social media presents a novel space of contested narratives. Partnerships with social media influencers are rapidly being recognized as an effective way to communicate a message to the public in an increasingly digital world. A wide variety of corporations make use of social media influencers to publicize their brand and reach a greater audience. This is not just the purview of the private sector, as nations have come to see influencers as a potential conduit for pursuing their interests, for good or for bad. …

Our team surveyed the relevant literature and interviewed experts in hope of adding additional value for those working to better harness the power of social media influencers in achieving the United States' public diplomacy objectives. The team drew from the work and words of esteemed scholars and practitioners such as Nicholas Cull, Vivian Walker, and Ilan Manor. The team has also sought wisdom from the extensive literature on the use of influencers in the private sector. Many of the lessons from the private sector are broadly applicable to the use of influencers for public diplomacy goals.

One of the research team's central findings is that these relationships will be most productive as two-way partnerships. Influencers are trusted figures among their audiences. For that good will to be channeled positively for U.S. goals, the audience must maintain that trust. One-way relationships are likely to come across as inauthentic and therefore backfire.

Long-term partnerships will also help prevent feelings of inauthenticity and can build in valuable feedback from influencers on trends and developments in their circles to share with public diplomacy officers. The value of longer-term partnerships is consistent with the literature and the team’s interviews regarding private-sector and public-sector experiences. It is also fundamentally grounded in the psychological explanation for the effectiveness of influencers.

Transparency is a major strength of the United States’ PD and a central distinguishing factor that separates the current practices of the United States and its fellow democracies from those of authoritarian regimes. From countries as varied as Russia, China, El Salvador and the UAE, regimes worldwide have taken to using influencers for propaganda. Instead of communicating facts to a broader audience, such countries use influencers to spread misinformation and conceal their own behavior. Often, these nations partner with influencers without the nature of the partnership being known. Such influencers often purport to be regular citizens, further muddying the information space.

When an influencer partners with the State Department, that fact is clearly advertised.
There is a practical utility in this openness … this openness is the first step in developing an organic, trust-based partnership. Organic partnerships are key as they encourage an influencer to communicate in their own voice. This will lead to a better reception and help enable the United States to achieve its public diplomacy goals. Also, in cases where the partnership's nature is concealed and later revealed, the trustworthiness of the influencer and likely future partnerships involving either partner is greatly diminished. …

Finally, transparency in partnerships aligns with the values of the United States … The research team believes that the United States should continue leaning into the central strength and great tradition of transparency in partnerships.

[Note: The team also describes the process and criteria used in identifying potential State Department events and themes where it believed influencers could be of value as well as in selecting potential influencers.  In the full report, the team identifies some potential influencers that might be good candidates for partnering with the State Department.
At the end of the report, the team provides a succinct recommendation section … including a recommendation to try to develop lasting partnerships with influencers.]
Anthony Wayne is a PDCA member and Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service. A Career Ambassador, Wayne is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.