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Culture a Key Factor in New Model for Public Diplomacy

By Elizabeth Komoroski

School of Communication Associate Professor Rhonda Zaharna's new book looks at the cultural

School of Communication Associate Professor Rhonda Zaharna's new book looks at the cultural "underbelly" of diplomacy

Is a better world possible through better communication? School of Communication Professor Rhonda Zaharna believes so. In her new book, Relational, Networking and Collaborative Approaches to Public Diplomacy: The Connective Mindshift (Routledge), co-edited with Amelia Arsenault and Ali Fisher, Dr. Zaharna explores how nations can adopt a "connective mindshift" to facilitate more nuanced dialogue and ultimately, greater understanding. 

International strategic communication is a passion of Zaharna's and is an interest she has cultivated since she was a student. Over the course of her career, she has witnessed important turning points in "public diplomacy," or, how nations communicate with each other. One such turning point was the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. In her 2010 book, Battles to Bridges: U.S. Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy after 9/11 (Palgrave-Macmillan 2010),she explored how U.S. communication was spurring anti-American sentiment around the world. The irony was that, "in our [communication] textbooks, America was doing everything perfectly, but something else was going on," Zaharna says.

That "something else," Zaharna reasoned, was culture, which led her to her next major project, exploring the cultural underbelly of public diplomacy. The topic of a two-year research fellowship (2011-2013) with the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy, the fellowship included another major publication, The Cultural Awakening in Public Diplomacy (Figueroa Press 2012). The project also features an on-going "monthly interactive blog and discussion forum … which invites students, scholars, practitioners… to share their observations on specific topics related to culture and public diplomacy," she says.

Cultural Underbelly of Public Diplomacy

What is the 'underbelly' and why is it important? "The underbelly sits beneath this animal called 'communication', and we see it and think we understand it- but then we turn it over and we see this new, important side we missed." Zaharna clarifies.

Zaharna says it is vital to appreciate the cultural underbelly for understanding, acceptance and "social flow and harmony." Failure to incorporate these cultural nuances could cause misunderstanding in an age where it is dangerously afforded. In an age of pervasive information, with social issues such as targeted killings and drone ethics still in formation, the way the United States communicates globally must operate within a more collaborative and fluent 21st-century-version of cultural relations.

Zaharna argues, "we can reorient our thinking to communication networks, not messages. We need to think about relationships." The field of relationalism breaks new ground. The word is still not in the dictionary and only a handful of scholarly communication articles even mention the term.

Through her research, Zaharna is challenging the very way we approach and think about communication. We must heed the warnings-- relationships and networks stand as a top priority in a rapidly modernizing and globalized world.Zaharna's new work drives home this vital paradigm shift, or "mindshift" and asks us to change.