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Interview with Helene Boulanger
President of the Université of Lorraine (France)

Helene Boulanger was recently elected President of the Université of Lorraine (France). She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and began her journey with Euprera almost 30 years ago. She has been part of the MARPE team for 10 years. Together with other members from Euprera (Anne-Marie Cotton, Anca Anton, Susana de Carvalho Spinola, Sonia Pedro Sebastiao, Pepe Martinez), she has helped to implement European projects on public relations, lobbying and, more recently, public diplomacy.

You have very recently (January 2023) published an article focusing on public diplomacy analysed through a very specific angle: social media, in particular Twitter. Would you like to share some of the key findings of this research?

This article is one of the results of our MARPE Diplo project, endorsed by Euprera. MARPE Diplo brought together 5 different universities (Artevelde University of Applied Sciences, Université de Lorraine, Universidade de Lisboa-ISCSP, University of Bucharest-FJSC and Universidad Cardenal Herrera CEU), 5 professional communication and PR associations (ARRP, APCE, C² Square, CIPR and Corporate Excellence), 3 knowledge organisations (Euprera, NYU-USA, Protagoras) and independent researchers. Together we developed a body of knowledge on public, organisational and civil society diplomacy (If you want to learn more about these concepts, read our glossary). Our main findings are available on our website: http://marpenetwork.eu/marpe-diplo/.
With Anne-Marie Cotton and Susana de Carvalho Spinola, I’ve had previously worked on the strategy of the European External Action Service (EEAS), a relatively new European diplomatic service established in 2010. In our previous analyses, we noted a dominance of security and foreign policy messages emanating from the EEAS, demonstrating the European Union’s (EU) bargaining power. It was clear that the EU had discovered the benefits of public diplomacy, but was practicing more traditional diplomacy on public diplomacy-specific platforms (e.g. Twitter). Asking whether or not the EEAS is entering the second phase of its life cycle (launched in 2010, its introduction phase was under Katherine Ashton, 2009–2014, followed by Federica Mogherini, 2014–2019, and Josep Borrell, 2019–2024), Anne-Marie Cotton and I conducted a dedicated content analysis on 765 tweets.
We demonstrate in the article that, over the years, the overall discourse of the EEAS has become much more public diplomacy oriented. Comparing results from earlier periods with the current analysis showed a decrease in the dominant position of security and foreign policy messages emanating from the EEAS, moving from hard to soft power in support to the EU foreign policy. That’s one of the benefits of working on the same research object over the years: you can uncover deep strategic orientations that are otherwise almost invisible.

Cotton, A.-M. and Boulanger, H. (2023), “Analysing public diplomacy on Twitter with the MARPE Diplo methodological framework: the case of the European external action service”, Journal of Communication Management, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.  https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-04-2022-0036

You also participated into a study to endorse the convergence of communication and diplomacy, through the creation of a master diploma programme on Public and Organisational Diplomacy framed by communication sciences. How do you propose that these two fields of study are integrated? And why, in your opinion, is communication still so underrated into programmes for diplomats-to-be?

What an adventure! The journey began for me in 2010 when the Dean of my Faculty, Marcel-Paul Cavalier, asked me to replace him as the University’s representative on the MARPE team. At that time, there were 3 different language lines of our Master of Art in European Public Relations. One of them was a French-speaking partnership between France and Romania.
In 2011-2014, the MARPE team organised 3 intensive programmes (IPs) with the help of Erasmus funding: “Public Relations: Government relations and Lobbying in a European perspective”. The 3 Erasmus IPs aimed to show that Public Relations is an exciting and growing field throughout Europe, but also that it is critical for future PR practitioners to develop the knowledge and skills enabling them to work in a fast-changing international environment. In the light of recent European and global social and political developments, the MARPE team aims to explore and contribute to the advancement of new areas of study connected to PR and communication, such as lobbying, public and organisational diplomacy. As it is critical that future PR practitioners develop the needed professional agility, MARPE is committed to the concepts of ”applied learning” and ”progressive problem solving”.
Therefore, it made perfect sense for us to explore the concept of “public diplomacy” and how it has been appropriated (consciously or not) by all kind of companies (organisational diplomacy) or citizen movements (civil society diplomacy). We were granted an Erasmus Strategic Partnership from 2018 to 2021.
The link between PR and diplomacy has been more specifically analysed by Susana de Carvalho Spinola. After a complete state of art on the subject, she introduced us to the work of Jackie L’Etang and it was something of a revelation: “(…) public relations should properly be considered in tandem with international relations, not simply because it performs a (publicity) function in the process of diplomacy and international relations, but because it is linked to fundamental positions about the way individuals organize themselves into collectivities (whether publics or nations), form identities and relate to other collectivities. Assumptions about what is considered appropriate in organizational and international intercourse and about the rights of organizations and nations to define and fulfil their destinies are as important as the communicative acts that are undertaken in the name of those represented.” (L’Etang,1996, p.34).
This way of thinking about the public relations function -as a social agent that propagates meanings, significance and rituals through narratives and thus assumes itself as co-creator of realities- constitutes the basis of the Strategic Public Relations Model (Carvalho Spínola, 2017). This perspective is based on the study of the organisation’s identity, publics, and fundamental values that guide its actions. Also, this perspective on public relations does not necessarily have to be limited to their performance in a business or organisational scope, but can be extended to society, which ties perfectly with Jacqui L’Etang’s view on the way in which individuals organise themselves in collectivities, form identities, and relate to other collectivities (L’Etang, 1996, p. 34). In the context of transnational organisations, we also identified the need for competencies in the scope of international and diplomatic relations for communication professionals. This reality underlines the importance of awareness and acquisition of skills that combine knowledge of international relations, but also of international communication.
There is still a long way to go before diplomats will be dully trained in communication, not only as a technique, but on a strategic level. However, I think that the gradual opening up of diplomatic recruitment (as it is the case in France) will help to change this mindset more quickly.

Check out our proposal for a new master curriculum: http://marpenetwork.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/MARPE-Master-Curriculum_2021_final_online.pdf
L’Etang, J. (1996). Public Relations as Diplomacy. In J. L’Etang, & M.Pieczka, Critical Perspectives in Public Relations (pp. 14-34). London: Thomson Business Press.

You’ve been appointed President of the University of Lorraine. Do you think that being an expert in Strategic Communication will be a plus in this particular role? How?

There is a French idiom saying: “Les cordonniers sont toujours les plus mal chaussés”. I think the English counterpart says: “The shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot. It’s so much easier to analyse what other people are doing and make them recommendations, providing good advice, rather than do it for yourself.
But still, I think my area of expertise helps me in different ways. I’m trained to analyse situations and issues from a systemic and global perspective. I’m used to connecting large numbers of stakeholders and dealing with the tension between a long-term vision and our collective short-term reality.
Another skill that comes in handy: being used to not controlling the basic force that moves your organisation forward. In a way, that’s the essence of leadership: not commanding, but inspiring, so that together we achieve more or less what you’ve planned. And typically, this is an essential skill in strategic communication.

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