Global Focus

The innovative IR/PR master’s degree, meant to serve careers in public diplomacy, is now 10 years old.

By Renée Gearhart Levy

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Members of the 2018-19 MAIR/MSPR cohort, during a break in the Public Diplomacy Symposium

The panel was discussing the information warfare being waged by today’s authoritarian powers, particularly China. The presenters offered the term “sharp power,” and explored when it might be more apt than the oft-used “soft power.”

“The challenge with these categorizations,” said speaker James Steinberg, a University Professor at Maxwell and former Deputy Secretary of State, “is whether or not they elucidate or obscure important analytical distinctions.” More important than any nation’s approach — be it “sharp” or “soft” — is trying to understand the motivation behind it, he said.

While those might seem like subtle differences to some, the distinctions were important to the audience at the annual Public Diplomacy Symposium. The symposium is organized by students in an innovative Syracuse University program, which coordinates master’s degrees in public relations and international relations, in a program preparing students for careers in public diplomacy. The program marks its 10th anniversary in 2018-19.

The keynote speaker this year was Galit Peleg, head of public diplomacy for the Consulate General of Israel in New York City, who led efforts behind Brand Israel. “Nation Branding”was the focus of a panel in which Peleg also participated.

“All organizations have a certain set of values associated with their ‘brand,’” says Ava Khavari, one of two student co-chairs of this year’s symposium. “Countries use those same concepts to help define who they are and how the world looks at them.” She found a panel on the militarization of public diplomacy especially fascinating, as it focused on her “career interests related to public security and defense policy.”

"The program has a sterling reputation with the State Department."
F. William Smullen

In 2008, Syracuse launched only the second graduate program in the nation preparing students for careers in public diplomacy. Professionals in the field conduct communications and advocacy on behalf of large, international organizations — sometimes NGOs, and sometimes countries promoting national interests and advancing foreign policy goals. Among the 100-plus graduates of the program are employees of the World Bank, Amnesty International, PR and media organizations, military and security agencies, and the U.S. government.

No other public diplomacy program requires students to earn coordinated master’s degrees in international relations and public relations. The program is directed by PR professor Dennis Kinsey, in Syracuse’s Newhouse School, and Michael Schneider, who oversees the program in Washington, D.C., where students often spend a semester in full-time internships.

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Public Diplomacy Symposium keynote speaker Galit Peleg, head of public diplomacy and academic affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York City

Also involved is F. William Smullen, a former U.S. Army public affairs officer who is both a program director at Maxwell (National Security Studies) and faculty member at Newhouse. Back in 2004, as former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Smullen was part of a congressionally mandated committee that surveyed people in the Middle East and Europe on their attitudes toward America. They concluded that America’s brand was in steep decline. “People didn’t like us and didn’t understand us for all sorts of reasons,” he says.

When Smullen helped launch the program at Syracuse, it was partly to help address that trend. Today, he says, the Syracuse program “has a sterling reputation with the State Department. Our graduates have proven themselves to be extremely well trained and capable.”

Linsey Armstrong, the other symposium organizer, has an undergraduate PR degree and now hopes to handle communications for international audiences, with an NGO or the foreign service. It helps that her classmates hail from places like South Korea, China, India, and Lebanon. (The program always has strong international enrollment.) Khavari, who is from Canada and worked for a year in communications for an NFL team, now hopes to do communications for an institute or think tank focused on security and defense.

They both spent last summer doing communications internships in Brussels, Khavari with a veteran journalist who covers NATO, and Armstrong with the Women Political Leaders Global Forum, a global network of women prime ministers, presidents, and members of parliament throughout the world. “It was the experience of a lifetime,” Armstrong says. “I’m still doing remote work for them now. It’s wonderful to be able to apply the skills and knowledge I’m learning while still in grad school.”

This article appeared in the winter 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.