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Studying public diplomacy – experiences of a Portuguese diplomat

Published on 03 August 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

I am currently contributing to a study on Portugal’s public diplomacy. The aim is to provide recommendations for a renewed dialogue between the ministry and stakeholders at home and abroad.

The study follows the call by Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva ‘to communicate more and better’, made at this year’s Diplomatic Seminar and featured in a document outlining the guidelines for the government’s European and foreign policy.[1] The fourth guideline states that ‘diplomacy, and not only in the form usually codified as public diplomacy, but instead as a feature present in all areas of policy, includes a crucial element of communication.’[2]

Mindful of this fact, communicating effectively is one of diplomats’ core missions, but one that is increasingly difficult to achieve in today’s multistakeholder and polycentric diplomacy. Consequently, foreign ministries and their agents must stay abreast of the changing environment in which they operate. This requires a public diplomacy that places a central role in listening to, and engaging with, the various actors that shape the international political, economic and cultural landscapes.

The novelty of the study notwithstanding, Portugal has a long history in the realm of public diplomacy, extending farther back than the coinage of the term in the 1960s. This testifies to the acumen of a country whose diplomacy has enabled the pursuit of a global foreign policy.

Examples abound of Portugal’s influence campaigns, spanning from short-term advocacy to long-term relationship building and serving many purposes: to elicit third-party policies favourable to the national interests, to foster legitimacy for specific actions, to attract more tourism and foreign direct investment,  to advance people-to-people exchanges, etc.

In the XVI century, King Manuel I sent a special mission to the Vatican to display the fame and power acquired in Portugal’s overseas discoveries, conquests and trade. In the streets of Rome, the mission famously paraded an elephant, an Arabian horse, jewellery, silk and other exotic treasures from Africa and the Orient. In more recent times, Portugal strived to shape foreign perceptions, especially in the western world, of its commitment to democracy, development and decolonisation following the Carnation Revolution of 1974. It also spearheaded a campaign to raise global awareness in support of East Timor’s self-determination, leading to the referendum on independence of 1999.

In light of such diplomatic successes, attempts to apply new concepts to old practices cannot overlook the circumstances that enabled past achievements. Instead, they must be made with the full realisation that the nature of diplomacy remains fundamentally unaltered. Its character, however, is in continual transformation. This key distinction is given emphasis in the study for it necessitates a comprehensive analytical toolkit to navigate the crowded waters of contemporary public diplomacy.

The concepts and methods presented by the Asia-Europe Public Diplomacy Initiative provide a good example of what can be done in contemporary public diplomacy. The initiative, set up by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), DiploFoundation (Diplo), and the National Centre for Research on Europe (NCRE), runs a course on Public diplomacy in Asia-Europe relations that brings together diplomats, scholars, journalists, practitioners in development, cultural and press affairs, among others, to discuss public diplomacy in its many dimensions.

The aim of the course, now in its fourth edition, is to develop a toolkit to improve public diplomacy skills. It does so through interactive online sessions with experts and training modules on such topics as interactions with stakeholders, use of digital and social media, images and perceptions in public diplomacy, work with public opinion, and so forth.

The value of this and other public diplomacy initiatives cannot be overstated. It is important to create platforms for an open, informed and interactive dialogue that addresses the main challenges to our common interests. The wealth of ideas and examples brought forward by stakeholders constitutes a treasure trove of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in public diplomacy that one could only obtain by an excessively long and inefficient process of trial-and-error spanning years of fieldwork across several countries. Listening to other views, learning from other countries’ experiences, engaging with colleagues, devising collaborative solutions – these tasks are at the heart of public diplomacy, and require our earnest commitment.

To conclude, public diplomacy is the central arena where different parties are conjoined to enable innovative solutions to today’s challenges. Investing in public diplomacy training, such as the Asia-Europe Public Diplomacy Initiative, is thus banking on the skills and experiences that will allow for more and better communication between stakeholders. Having participated in this course, I am now more able to represent my country and project: in the minister’s words, the image of Portugal as ‘democratic, European, peaceful, safe, with a social market economy, committed to social and territorial cohesion, to innovation and to equality.’[3]


Guest blogger: Tiago Maurício is a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Portugal. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly his own.


[1] Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, As orientações e os objectivos principais da política externa de Portugal, Seminário Diplomático, 5 January 2016, p. 8, available at: https://idi.mne.pt/images/docs/semin_diplo_2016/discursos/003.pdf [accessed 2 August 2016]
[2] Ibid, p. 6
[3] Ibid, p. 7

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