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The Multicultural Keystone

by Steve Okun

This article originally appeared in Public Affairs Asia.

Many practitioners of public affairs in Asia well understand that to be effective in their job, one must engage in the art of “corporate diplomacy.” Indeed, more than a few times I have heard public affairs heads described in Asia as their companies Ambassadors to the region.

But how does one articulate what it means to engage in corporate diplomacy, especially in 700 words? After canvassing a few colleagues for their views, and then adding my own, I decided to search the term “corporate diplomacy” to see what the Internet could provide to help complete the definition. The response of 1,240,000 results showed the term is quite popular. But a quick summary of the results showed the phrase means many different things.

Not surprisingly, conferences have been held on the subject, books have been written on it, and public affairs firms throughout the world discuss how they engage in it for their clients.

The Asia View

From where we sit in Asia, what does it mean to engage in corporate diplomacy? Those who have served for an extended period in Asia known first hand representing a corporation overseas is more than just advocacy. While the traditional definition of diplomacy can be “the art or practice of conducting international relations, as in negotiating alliances, treaties, and agreements,” a secondary definition is “tact and skill in dealing with people.” Corporate diplomacy is the melding of these two definitions.

A component of corporate diplomacy is establishing the company as part of the fabric of society. In this way, the corporate diplomat needs to demonstrate to policymakers and citizens the important role the company serves in their society. For example, how many jobs the company provides and supports, how its products or services will make the local economy more productive, and how the local consumers benefit from those products and services.

As such, identifying corporate social responsibility programs that resonate within a given culture is another key component.

But the corporate diplomat cannot limit his rule to working with the foreign government. Just as important, and sometimes more difficult, is that the corporate diplomat must represent the host country’s interests to his own company. Successful negotiations are not one-sided, and the corporate diplomat’s role is to find the achievable.

While the corporate diplomat must be multi-cultural, one can not be expected to know the culture of the host country well enough to be effective, especially if one serves in a regional role and must work on issues across multiple countries.

Thus, the corporate diplomat must rely upon people who can provide the necessary background on each country.

The Four Ps

A useful paradigm to understand the essential elements to successful engagement in corporate international affairs is to think of the “Four Ps” of any situation. These are:

  • What is the Policy goal to be achieved?

  • What is the Process to achieve that goal?

  • What are the Politics behind the current situation and what are the Politics of changing it?

  • What is the Political Culture of the country?

Indeed, understanding political culture in one country verses another might be the most significant distinction between domestic and international Public Affairs.

To borrow a phrase from a good friend, “while being bilingual is an advantage in being a success in foreign countries, being multicultural is most important.”

These “Four Ps” are not the same in any country. For example, in the United States the political process can seem transparent to Americans. However, it is often not viewed in that manner by those outside of the United States.

Need proof? Attempt to explain the Conference Committee process in the U.S. Congress when the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate work to reconcile their respective versions of a particular bill. Doing so will show how the U.S. political and policy systems are often only understood by those who participate in the process. In China, the legislative process is much different, but there are ways in which a party’s interests can be taken into account during the drafting process. Again, only one who has done it can really understand it.

A variable approach

Likewise, the politics behind policy making varies by country. Yet every governmental system engages in politics. Thus, it is the corporate diplomat’s job to know the methods or tactics involved in managing relations with a state or government.

There is a fifth P which serves as the foundation for a corporation’s diplomatic efforts: People. Achieving public policy success on a global scale requires more than a good business plan.

It requires companies to explore ways to work with others within and outside of their industry. Engaging customers is also critical – especially those in markets in which a company is trying to gain access. For that, companies must have people who can engage in corporate diplomacy.

Finally, to have credibility, these companies must be there for the long term, maintaining a presence in-country. At all times – not just when a policy is being pursued and active participation in local and international organizations are all part of a strong corporate diplomacy policy.

No complete definition of corporate diplomacy can exist as it must vary from country-to-country and company-to-company. Yet when businesses recognize that going international requires them to engage in corporate diplomacy that would seem to be a good start for their public affairs program.


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