The Public Diplomacy Role of Celebrity Diplomats

Principal Investigator:
Geoffrey Wiseman

CPD Workshop: Celebrity Diplomacy

This project was an exploratory examination of the effectiveness of the “Goodwill Ambassadors” and “Messengers of Peace” programs of the United Nations (UN) system. The UN was the first major international institution to develop the concept of celebrity diplomats, starting in the 1950s, and its evolution since then has been substantial but generally neglected by the scholarly community.

The research for the Celebrity Diplomacy project sought to address a number of questions:

  • How do celebrities select issues to raise public awareness, such as genocide in Darfur, defending human rights, development and debt relief and environmental conservation?
  • Is the use of celebrity diplomacy new to public diplomacy and international relations?
  • Is this type of public diplomacy accepted among global publics and the diplomatic communities?
  • Is it more widespread today than 50 years ago?
  • Is the process of selecting celebrity diplomats more sophisticated or institutionalized?
  • Is this type of public diplomacy a clever use of soft power by international actors?
  • Are people investing emotions, time and money in celebrity activities and is it a worthy investment?
  • Does celebrity diplomacy help or harm international actors and the surrounding relationships?
  • How did celebrities become partners on these issues and how are they supported, encouraged, guided to take on these types of issues in places of conflict and hardship?

The research sought to address these questions by selecting the UN Messengers of Peace program as a case study. Researchers coded and analyzed the media coverage of the Messengers of Peace program over a period from January 1, 1997 to July 1, 2009 to determine how publics and the media represented these celebrity public diplomacy efforts. The research project also facilitated the coordination of the Celebrity Diplomacy workshop held on April 21, 2009 in collaboration with the Norman Lear Center.

Main Research Findings

  • From a public diplomacy perspective, the UN’s Goodwill Ambassadors and Messenger of Peace programs have been marked by programmatic incoherence and inconsistency, but in recent years the UN – notably at the urging of the Secretary-General – has begun to develop a more structured framework.
  • The distinction between the Goodwill Ambassadors and Messengers of Peace is not understood by many in the media and even less so among the wider public, suggesting a set of branding problems that needs to be addressed. Moreover, presentation of the Messenger of Peace brand is inconsistent, including by the Messengers themselves.
  • There is evidence of national “headquarter” bias. For example, UN programs with headquarters in certain capitals tend to have a disproportionate number of Goodwill Ambassadors from the particular host country. In one case, 25% of the Goodwill Ambassadors for one agency are from the host country, inconsistent with the UN requirement for balanced representation.
  • There is great variation in media coverage of the current Messengers of Peace, with George Clooney receiving the most coverage (33% of articles found in the search).
  • Most media coverage for all the Messengers of Peace was recorded at the time of the initial announcement of the appointment, reinforcing the importance of that announcement. Coverage that mentioned the Messenger of Peace program then dropped off considerably, re-appearing at annual events such as the International Day of Peace. This drop-off in post-announcement media coverage of the Messengers is a problem for the UN and the lesser-known Messengers. Media seem to treat the Messenger of Peace designation as an award rather than as an actual position with a mission and specific duties. Overall, the tone value of the coverage from the sample was neutral. However, longer articles by op-ed writers and commentators, especially from the American Right, tended to be much more critical.
  • In policy terms, it remains unclear whether the UN’s celebrity diplomats are effective in helping the UN achieve its objectives in promoting the world body’s goals in peace building, disarmament, human rights, environmental protection and human development.
  • In theoretical terms, the Messenger and Goodwill Ambassador programs have been under-theorized by scholars of the UN. For example, The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations (2008) has no chapter or index reference to either program. Cooper’s use of the “celebrity diplomacy” concept has helped draw attention to the UN celebrity programs. But the promise of further theorizing beckons, such as how celebrity-type voices make representation claims and might be included in a broader public sphere context (in the Habermasian sense), or how charismatic individuals might contribute to evolving cosmopolitan norms regarding the nations states that make up the UN, as distinct from the UN itself and the higher purposes for which it stands, in promoting justice in world affairs.

To watch the video of the panel discussion at the Celebrity Diplomacy workshop, click here.

Click here to read an article published in Variety magazine about the Celebrity Diplomacy workshop.

To learn more about the CPD Workshop, view a list of the panelists and see photos from the event, visit the Celebrity Diplomacy event page.