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Public Relations and Public Diplomacy for Plan Colombia
The purpose of this study1 is to identify and evaluate the public relations strategies and tactics used by
the Colombian Government and related organizations to gain the support of the U.S. government and people for
the approval of "Plan Colombia." The data for this study was gathered through primary and secondary
research. Primary research consisted of four intensive interviews conducted via telephone and face-to-face
meetings with government officials, political analysts, and public relations professionals. Secondary data
includes newspaper articles, website contents, and literature pertaining to the convergence of public relations
and public diplomacy.
Information on public relations and public diplomacy used by Latin American governments is scarce, yet it is
a growing practice in this part of the world. The present article attempts to contribute to the body of
knowledge available and to increase the understanding of the region, its practices, and interactions with the
Even though the literature on Latin American public relations is limited, the importance of the inclusion of
foreign publics is well documented. Signitzer and Coombs (1992) indicate how the advances on technology and
the ability to reach audiences create a greater need to "include foreign publics as part of their public
relations targets" (p.137). However, the areas of political science and international relations address
most communications between nations today.
Nevertheless, the functions of public relations and public diplomacy are merging into a more suited field for
the international communication of nations and their need to convey a message to their foreign publics.
A parallel between Latin America and Africa is a good example of the use of public relations and public diplomacy
for developing nations:
President [Robert] Mugabe decided to organize a campaign against the imposition of possible sanctions
against Zimbabwe by the international community. He was lobbying the international community against
the sanctions by involving his ambassador to the United States, Washington and the European Union. They talked
to United States congressmen [sic] and the Black Caucus to try and reject the Zimbabwe Bill.
Zimbabwe's representatives in the US [sic] have also been lobbying and persuading African diplomats based
in Washington to oppose the Bill, while former American ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young and a public
relations firm, Cohen & Woods International, have been enlisted by the Zimbabwe government to fight the
impending sanctions. (Rensburg, 2002, p. 40)
Foreign diplomats compete for the attention of American decision makers to influence the decisions made
in Congress. Therefore, countries use a range of activities to fulfill this goal. In 1991, the government of
Colombia paid $3.1 million in consulting fees to the Sawyer/Miller Group to produce newspaper ads, pamphlets,
and letters to the editor which were sent to journalists all around the United States (Zaharna & Villalobos, 2000).
The premise of Sawyer/Miller Group's campaign was to change Colombia's image "from the villain to the victim,
then turn the victim into a hero, and then define the hero as a leader in the war on drugs" (Zaharna &
Villalobos, 2000, 34).
These tools being used by foreign governments and interests exemplify the close relationship between
public relations and public diplomacy. The overlapping of these two branches of communication is creating
an identifiable procedure in which it becomes more adroit for foreign governments and different types
of organizations to communicate.
Gruning (1993) reiterates this point when he claims that modernen governments and other
international organizations thus find themselves using public relations strategies as they conduct what
political scientists have called public diplomacy" (141). Furthermore, he points out the importance of the
personal influence model of public relations2. The government of Colombia in its dealings with the U.S.
Congress through ambassador Moreno exemplifies this practice.
A strong public relations/public diplomacy campaign was developed during Ernesto Samper government (1994-
1998), when the U.S. government decertified Colombia in its war on drugs. This was done with the assistance of
the Kelley Swofford Roy, Inc. Company (KSR), whose goal was "to reinstate Colombia's 'certified' status, to lower
the risk of economic sanctions and to correct the impression that Colombia was not doing enough"3.
KSR developed a comprehensive plan targeting a range of constituencies including the American public at
large, policy-makers in Washington and Colombian Americans. The project included: seminars, policy "white"
papers, lobbying, targeted constituency direct mail, press briefing materials, media relations, public
speaking engagements, and a targeted newspaper advertising campaign. After two years, Colombia was
certified again by the Bill Clinton administration4
In 1998, when Andres Pastrana was elected president, he presented a plan that would address the violence and
the drug trafficking that had created such severe damage to his country (Garcia, 2001). The plan was intended
to become something of a Marshall Plan for Colombia to rebuild its institutions and the areas that had been
forgotten for so long leaving them to the authority of the guerrilla. With the approval of the plan, the government
of Colombia becomes one of the largest recipients of American security aid after Israel and Egypt
("Dangerous times," 2000).
To convince the U.S. Congress to approve the plan, the government of Colombia had to develop an extensive
public relations and public diplomacy effort. The Ambassador of Colombia in Washington D.C., Luis Eduardo
Moreno, played an essential role in securing the confidence of the U.S Congress in the efforts of the
Colombian government in fighting against drugs.
In his term as ambassador for the Pastrana government, Moreno visited more than 162 times the U.S.
Congress (Martinez,2002). As a result, Moreno convinced 50 senators and other important decision makers to go
to Colombia and look at the situation first hand. Among those who visited the anti-narcotics teams, the illicit
crops areas, and different regions of Colombia were Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of Energy
Bill Richardson, Senator Christopher Dodds from Connecticut, Driana Feinstein from California, Bob Graham
from Florida, the president of the New York Stock Exchange Richard Grasso, owner of The Washington Post
Katherine Graham, along with many others (Martinez, 2002).
Through the Akin Gump and Strauss lobbying firm the ambassador arranged meetings with the top decision
makers in Washington to achieve the approval of the plan (Martinez,2002). It was finally passed by a very
narrow margin in June 2000, opening the way to the allocation of 1.3 billion dollars to the government of Colombia.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
This article had the purpose of studying the way the Colombian Government has used public relations and
public diplomacy with the goal of gaining the economic support to develop "Plan Colombia." Here is illustrated
the way in which international communications in the form of public relations and public diplomacy are merging
to best fulfill the necessities of nation states to communicate a message and influence the public opinion of a
The research, although concerns the particular case of Colombia, provides an example to the way in which
foreign governments utilize the available public relations and public diplomacy tools that in the past have
been considered more of the political science realm. As public relations practitioners and the entire field develop,
a stronger tendency to specialize in the field of international public relations is created.
With the opportunity and the tools available, the field of international public relations is becoming a mayor area
of study and of importance for the decision makers everywhere. Latin America in particular has a great deal
of potential for practitioners and for academics to study and to develop with the public relations practices around
The qualitative research involved a content analysis of advocacy advertising published in newspapers like The
New York times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, among others.
The boundaries for the analysis were the period of January 1, 1994 to December 31, 2000. In-depth interviews
where carried out via telephone and face-to-face with agencies and Colombian government officials.
1. University of Florida Institutional Review Board approval was sought and granted for the study's primary
research stage. Back
2. Sriramesh (1992, 1996) first introduced the personal influence model to the public relations literature. Back
3. Personal interview with Rafael Lamo-Gomez, October 25, 2002. Back
4. Personal interview with Rafael Lamo-Gomez, October 25, 2002. Back
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