Propaganda and fireworks

Grilling lamb in Chaoyang Park

Happy Lunar New Year! A bit late, I know, but here in China we’re still only about half way through Chun Jie (Spring Festival). It lasts 15 days and at different points, you can expect renewed bursts of fireworks.  Fairs spring up in parks and around temples – we recently went to Chaoyang Park fair to absorb the sights, check out the food stalls,  (“Whole Sheep Grill!”  “Boil Corn!” and so on) and be chilled to the bone in sub-zero temperatures. 

The beginning and end of Spring Festival are marked by massive quantities of fireworks.  The fifth night is also a big night for fireworks, as that’s connected with wealth:  a good blast of fireworks is supposed to help ensure prosperity.  You get the idea – more fireworks than you can imagine for 15 nights, mostly aimed at scaring away a monster and ushering in wealth and prosperity for the new year.

Prosperity is one of the FCO’s key agendas – one of the themes around which we build our work – more tourism, jobs and investment heading towards the UK.  Part of that agenda is this year’s GREAT campaign, aimed at reminding others (and maybe ourselves) what’s great about Britain in the year of the Olympics (I guess the ‘Premium’ campaign doesn’t sound so attractive).  There are lots of things that are great about Britain – so why not remind everyone?  These campaigns come under the umbrella term of ‘public diplomacy’ and it’s worth thinking about what that term means briefly.

It’s a way of describing the activity governments use to advertise their values and project their image abroad.  There are plenty of learned journals and bodies of writing that look at public diplomacy in its various forms.  In some countries, you can take a whole degree course in public diplomacy, such as the masters course run by the University of Southern California.  It’s not far removed from what we used to call propaganda.  One of my former bosses had worked in his early career in the Propaganda Department of the Commonwealth Office before its merger with the Foreign Office, selling the virtues of freedom, democracy and the extraordinary group of nations that make up the Commonwealth in the 1970s.  It was, apparently, a lot of fun – but we don’t really have anything so nakedly termed as a ‘Propaganda Department’ anymore. In fact, all areas of the FCO get involved to some extent in public diplomacy.  If we want to achieve anything with countries around the world, we need to win hearts and minds by explaining the value of what are doing.

In consular work, we have run the ‘Know Before You Go’, group of campaigns where government identity is suppressed to help get our message across to a young target audience, sometimes around a specific event.  Nothing turns young people off quicker than a website laden with the dead hand of government, so there are occasions where we find ways of spreading the word without the splendid grey suit Governmentness of, for example,  ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’  There’s only so much our website can do to attract visitors to our message  – for the rest, we have to look at our risk areas, target our market and carry on generating the fireworks.

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