Interview with Joshua Miller of the U.S. State Department on Research-Driven Diplomacy

In this interview with Joshua Miller of the U.S. State Department, learn why sound market research is so important for state agencies and bureaus, and how it can support the work of public diplomacy professionals.

Learn about:

  • The characteristics of good market research;
  • How market research helps public diplomats;
  • How market research can improve the efficiency of public diplomacy;
  • The challenges of advocating for more research-based public diplomacy;
  • Advice to emerging researchers interested in public diplomacy;
  • 3 publications every public diplomacy professional should read.

Josh, what is research driven diplomacy and how did you get involved?

I like to say that every diplomat who does public diplomacy asks the same two questions: “My embassy doesn’t have the budget, or the staff, or the other resources we need to speak with everybody in this country about every possible thing – so whom should we be speaking with and what about?” Good market research answers those questions. It identifies promising targets – the “whom should we be speaking with” – and a winning message – the “what about.”

Armed with those insights, our diplomats can use their public diplomacy resources more effectively – the research tells them how to get the biggest bang for their buck. Which, at its most basic, is what market research does for any kind of communications – it helps maximize the impact of finite resources, whether for public diplomacy, or PR, or political campaigns, or other kinds of outward-facing communications.

I, myself, learned market research by working those other verticals – and that was exciting and rewarding work, but I had always wanted to do some kind of public service, too. So eventually I joined the State Department, where I could provide our country’s diplomats with the same market research insights that I had been providing to my private sector clients.

Why is market research so important and what value can it add to the public sector?

Every federal agency – and every state and local one, too – faces a finite budget and staffing, and other resource constraints. Market research is a map for navigating those constraints. Why fly blind? In other words, why take the chance of wasting your communications resources on less receptive audiences or less persuasive content?

Good market research shows public affairs teams, and press offices, and all the other public sector entities that do outward-facing communications how to achieve as much as possible with as little as they are given – how to have the biggest possible impact for the lowest possible expenditure. Taxpayers expect – and deserve – that efficiency.

Which lessons can you share with others interested in working to integrate the private-public sectors of communications?

Don’t just ask, “What is happening?” Ask, “How do we win?” That latter question – in other words, “How does my embassy, or my agency, or my bureau, or my office achieve its communications goals?” – that is the question the public sector needs market research to answer.

The public sector needs research that is prescriptive, not just descriptive; it needs strategic research that gives actionable guidance, concrete steps to take. And concrete steps that actually can be taken: good market research should never exceed its users’ capacity to act on it.

So forget recommendations that break a bureau’s budget, or conflict with agency regulations, or require overly complex interagency coordination, or are otherwise impossible to implement. Be strategic, but be practical, too.  A good rule for all market research, whether the client is private sector or public.

What are the challenges in advocating market research within the context of public diplomacy?

Doing the research is not enough; market researchers who work in public diplomacy need to do the research and teach our diplomats how to use it – diplomats are experts at foreign affairs and international communication, but they have little experience in translating research into actions to be taken in the field.

So market researchers need to show them how: we are not merely researchers, but teachers, too.  And also preachers: market researchers who work in public diplomacy need to evangelize market research.  They need to tout its value to public diplomacy, since many diplomats, I’ve found, are initially sceptical of whether market research can benefit their work. Patient explanation can allay that scepticism – and over time, I hope, can really acculturate our diplomats to market research, normalizing its use: a change in organizational culture that would have a bigger, longer-term impact on public diplomacy than any particular research project.

Your advice to emerging researchers interested in public diplomacy?

Leap into the crucible of a political polling firm, or a big market research agency, or a PR shop that does research for its campaigns; you’ll work crazy long hours for demanding clients – but that is the best way to learn your craft right.

Doing academic research is no substitute. And neither is living overseas, or learning foreign languages, or even managing international programs. All those experiences can be valuable, but getting your market research fundamentals is vital.

3 publications everyone in charge of market research, strategic communications or public diplomacy should read…

For a smart academic perspective – and crisp writing, compared with many academic publications – pick up anything by Jarol Manheim. His research explored the intersection between PR, market research, communications campaigns, modern media, and foreign policy, and even tried to give it some useful theoretical underpinnings.

For industry trends, do a monthly skim of Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, Research World Magazine, and the other trade publications out there. Good market researchers know “the business of the business,” not just how to do research.

The Economist. You can’t do good public diplomacy, or good market research for public diplomacy, unless you know your current events – and The Economist is the best English-language synopsis of the week’s newsworthy goings-on.  Read it, cover to cover.

Thank you, Joshua.

Joshua Miller is founder and lead of R/PPR Research, an office of the U.S. State Department (but the opinions expressed in this article are his alone and not necessarily those of the U.S. government).  He is also the principal of Miller Research Services, a market research consultancy.

Connect with Joshua Miller on LinkedIn.


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