Why corporate diplomacy matters

Betsy Whitaker speaking at Meridian's Corporate Diplomacy Training program.


Meridian International Center has launched its Corporate Diplomacy Training program where we equip corporate leaders across industries and sectors with the diplomatic tactics, strategy and insights to succeed in a competitive global business environment while enhancing leadership skills and advancing multilateral cooperation. We sat down with Betsy Whitaker, a former diplomat and our trainer for the program to discuss her stance on corporate diplomacy 

Meridian International Center: Why is corporate diplomacy training necessary? 

Betsy Whitaker: I see tremendous overlap between the work of corporate diplomats, if you will, and traditional diplomats. It’s all human relations. Whether we’re diplomats trying to cultivate a bilateral or multilateral relationship of mutual respect or in the corporate world trying to create longer-term relationships of mutual respect, both diplomats and businessmen – with perhaps different specific objectives – are trying figure out how to bridge any kind of cultural gap, language gap or gap of understanding so that we can pursue our objectives in a reasonable and effective way. 

MIC: What motivates you to train the business community in diplomatic skills and strategy? 

BW: As a diplomat in the field, the foreign commercial service part of the job is to help American businesses understand the local landscape, navigate local cultures, laws and regulations to make contacts in hopes of trade promotion. Whether it’s building a factory or export-import stuff, I’ve always understood the partnership potential that exists between U.S. government and U.S. businesses. 

MIC: We live in a digital-first era where much of our interpersonal communication, and business, is done through texting, emails and other messaging platforms. How do you view the role of technology and digital tools in teaching skills, knowledge and tactics around corporate diplomacy? 

BW: Your use of these tools needs to be informed by the people you are trying to reach, with the discussion of, “let’s understand the environment for your work,” and then that should inform your selection of tools. Understand that some tools are limitedexchanges have their place, press conferences have their place, other tools of engagement that we use in public diplomacy for an example. Twitter has its place, Facebook has its place, if that’s where the people you want to reach are. But the question is, how do you use that tool in an effective way? I’ve seen lots and lots of examplesmostly from embassies, who have figured that out and used Facebook in highly effective ways to deliver specific messages, but they also use other tools that are better suited to delivering other kinds of messages; messages that are more nuanced and require more than 280 characters. These are wonderful tools; they are hugely powerful, and they are world changing, but they are tools. Before you pull one out of the toolbox, understand what you are trying to do, who you are trying to reach, and think about whether this is the tool to do that work. 

MIC: What can the diplomatic community gain from corporate leaders embodying “their” skills, knowledge, tactics? 

BW: I think these opportunities are terrific to share some candid experiences from both sides, of successes and failures, and to note in the process of that interaction that what we do really isn’t all that different; that as human beings on both sides, corporate and government, we are motivated by the same things, by the same organizational loyalties and priorities, and our own aspirations. What I like about this work is what I like in the field: when people stop thinking about the silos and just on the task at hand, it actually works amazingly well. 

MIC: Why do you think the private sector should partner with a nonpartisan institution like Meridian for this corporate diplomacy training? 

BW: Meridian is uniquely positioned as an organization; it has a fabulous reputation. You are honest brokers and you sit with a foot in both camps. You play very nicely with U.S. Government, especially the State Department; you provide wonderful support for what we are trying to do in creative ways. From the private sector, you are an organization that promotes international understanding, and many businesses are not founded with an international orientation. I think you are, in your openness and interest in the Washington community and beyond.