Innovations in public diplomacy and nation brands: Inside the House of Sweden

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Abstract

This article investigates innovations in public diplomacy and nation brands through the example of Sweden's Embassy in Washington, DC, the House of Sweden (HoS). The analysis explores the styles of communication and public outreach made possible by the interaction between its architectural design, brand values and public diplomacy applications. Aimed at practitioners and scholars with an interest in public diplomacy and nation brands, this article assesses the activities, impact and implications of the House as a platform for public diplomacy. In addition to using the HoS as a case study in its own right, the article discusses some of the unique events hosted there, as well as related experiments such as the Second House designed for virtual world Second Life.

INNOVATIONS IN PUBLIC DIPLOMACY AND NATION BRANDS: INSIDE THE HOUSE OF SWEDEN (HoS)

The HoS is Sweden's flagship Embassy in Washington, DC. Opened in August 2006 and inaugurated in October that year by King Carl XVI Gustav and Queen Silvia, the Embassy is considered ‘the most ambitious public diplomacy project ever undertaken by a Swedish foreign mission’ (Embassy of Sweden – Washington, 2007). Its architecture and aesthetic, designed by Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen with art installations by Ingegerd Råman, hint at an impact far beyond bricks and mortar. Under the banner ‘A new Embassy, A new concept’, the HoS is designed to demonstrate a new direction for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA), emphasising ‘openness and exchange’ through a glass exterior and visitor-friendly environment (Embassy of Sweden – Washington, 2008). Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter described it as a ‘new platform for Sweden’ representing a ‘new diplomacy more open and “transparent” than before’ (Alton, 2006). The building itself can thus be considered a bold experiment in public diplomacy and nation branding.

The innovations delivered through this building – and the consequences they hold for practitioners and scholars of public diplomacy and nation brands – are the subject of this article.

THE HoS AS PUBLIC DIPLOMACY

At a cost of 480 million kronor (US$72 million in 2005), former Washington Ambassador and Foreign Minister Jan Eliasson's ‘baby’ was the result of 40 years of lobbying for a new flagship premises in the United States (Hennel, 2006). Located at the intersection of the Potomac River and Rock Creek in Georgetown, the location is superb. As a platform for promoting diplomacy, culture, educational and artistic events, it could be said to demonstrate Brand Sweden – the Foreign Ministry's branding-inspired take on the new public diplomacy – by materialising and acting as a focal point for its values and ideals. Emerging from a broad consultation with its many stakeholders and promotional bodies beginning in 2005 and reaching maturity in 2007, Brand Sweden represents Sweden’s response to the communication challenges of the twenty-first century.

When they eventually found this [location] they said let's do a modern diplomatic mission that really can communicate Sweden with openness and be a window. It's one of the biggest Embassies we have so it's natural, and it was a very important step for the MFA to take that, to have an Embassy that really can be a bit more like a model for the future, how Swedish diplomatic missions actually can transform into something that is more public. (Thomas Carlhed, Director of Branding & Coordination, Swedish Institute, 2009, personal communication)

In his 2005 Study of Sweden’s Image Abroad, Lars-Olof Lundberg of the MFA argued that Sweden should create a common platform for promoting the nation within an overarching trade remit.

Within the framework for the MFA’s overarching goals, the goals of the collective promotion of Sweden may be said to make Sweden visible and contribute to growth and employment. ‘Promotion’ is a term which has been crystallised over the past 10 years and which unifies general information about Sweden with the commercial. (Lundberg 2005, p. 16)

Based around the principle of maximising political weight abroad by creating consensus between government departments, Brand Sweden is perhaps first and foremost about creating a sense of common purpose and identity among promotional actors domestically. Public diplomacy is defined in terms of promotional outputs, with self-representation, selling the brand, and the instrumental deployment of culture and ideas to boost trade established as its principle purpose. A previous enquiry into cultural diplomacy from 2003 also recommended that new meeting places and arenas for cultural exchange be created at the Swedish initiative (Kulturdepartementet, 2003).

The HoS performed a major role in crystallising these new aims. Cecilia Julin, Ambassador for the MFA's Press, Information & Communication Department and previously posted to Washington, argues that the House demonstrates the MFA's capacity to act as an integrated organisation capable of pulling in the same direction and presenting the results of this through thematic work open to the general public. The HoS underscores the notion of Brand Sweden as a platform for consensus, and personifies ‘what we stand for’. In other words, the HoS has become a focal point not just for Swedish-US relations or government-public relations, but also for demonstrating the validity of a nation brand approach to public diplomacy (Julin, 2009, personal communication).

BRANDING AND ARCHITECTURE

The HoS was designed to act as a ‘highly visible platform for the country and its commerce, culture, science and diplomacy’. In physical terms, the locale consists of seven conference centres, 19 corporate apartments available for rent and Embassy facilities. It hosted around 50,000 visitors in its first year over the course of 20 exhibitions, 15 stage performances, more than 60 seminars and around 60 large receptions. This included roof parties promoting Swedish pop music aimed at younger demographics, which led to queues of 3000 Washington, DC trendsetters. It is open to the general public 12:00–19:00 Wednesday to Friday and 12:00—16:00 on Saturdays and Sundays.

Promotional material describes the architecture as a ‘beacon of openness and transparency’, drawing on the ‘Scandinavian’ aesthetic of ‘simplicity, modernity, and unpretentious elegance, wedded to characteristic Swedish practicality and flexibility’ (Embassy of Sweden – Washington, 2007). This is perhaps neatly embodied by the many conference rooms, which reflect the peculiarly Swedish business culture of endless meetings (emphasising consensus rather than unilateral leadership), and the apartments with their emphasis on everyday living spaces. It is a space developed from utopian claims about Swedish culture, as well as practical, everyday elements.

Such claims abound in the Swedish Institute's bombastic literature on Brand Sweden. The preferred formulation of Sweden is as a ‘progressive, open country focused on development that balances development with people's needs and environmental considerations’ (Swedish Institute, 2008, p. 6).

In the 20th century, Sweden underwent a rapid social transformation – from an agricultural society to an industrial society, from an industrial society to an information and knowledge society. This took place without revolutions, through steady movement. Development has meant a continually rising standard of living. (Swedish Institute, 2008, p. 15)

The common platform in many senses glosses over ongoing struggles over the definition, direction and coherence of Swedish identities. This is not the Sweden of immigrants or inequality between the urban centres and vast rural spaces, but acts as a kind of socio-industrial history tailored to these new trade and investment objectives. Swedish history is grasped and defined by Brand Sweden as a linear trajectory from an agricultural to industrial to information society: without uneven development; without the inconvenience of interacting, competing and lingering temporalities and rhythms; and demanding individual submission to national progress (Lefebvre, 1992/2004). It abstracts contemporary social practices such as the Swedish welfare state model, non-hierarchical social relations and public access to official records into marketable state-products to be consumed by enlightened foreign (and domestic) citizens.

The HoS is constructed as a material structure embodying these symbolic values through its architecture and aesthetics. It could be said to materialise the brand in a tactile, practical sense that encompasses everyday life (business meetings, apartment styles, events) and turns values into experiences. The materiality of the HoS therefore represents the bringing outwards of a value system into the physical world, emphasising experience over information, and establishing a multidimensional space of value-based communication (Lefebvre, 1961/2008, 1974/1991). These approaches to nation branding create a marketable form of national identity that can be experienced and felt in tangible terms by public visitors to the centre. Marshall McLuhan's axiom ‘the medium is the message’ seems entirely appropriate (McLuhan, 1964).

PUBLIC OUTREACH STRATEGIES

Six themes were presented in the first 18 months invoking ‘a holistic, integrated point of view ... politics, culture, trade and research have been combined to reinforce each other’. ‘Activities’ in this sense encapsulate the performative, interactive elements of the HoS environment. Early themes included Architecture & Design, Cars & Transportation, Water & Environment, Children First! Innovation & Technology and Discover Sweden (Embassy of Sweden – Washington, 2007; 2008). Drawing on the strategy known as niche diplomacy, each theme follows clear areas of national strength to maximise impact (Henrikson, 2005). Thus, Swedish interests in design, technology and the environment (for example) are well represented.

Under each thematic heading, different departments work to their own remits. For example, during the Cars & Transportation theme, the Trade & Economic Affairs Department was dealing with specialist publics in the automotive industry, whereas Culture Affairs generated interest through photo exhibitions and the like, and Science & Technology lobbied on biofuels. Specialised publics and general publics are thus distinguished and engaged in different ways within a common project heading. This demonstrates a multi-sector approach to promotion, drawing on the pooled resources and diplomatic styles of different government agencies in a targeted and coordinated manner. The platform of the HoS acts as an umbrella for many parallel diplomatic and promotional activities, and encourages coordination based around a common facilitative space and set of symbols.

We are working with 4 different aspects of promoting Swedish interests side by side: culture, trade, science & technology, and policies … We have a holistic approach within each program and we have a very broad outreach by working with the 4 aspects … you might come here for one reason but you leave with many. (Mats Widbom, Cultural Counsellor, Swedish Embassy Washington, DC, 2009, personal communication)

Functionalism pervades every aspect of public engagement. The exhibition units in the HoS conference centre are constructed from wooden blocks rather like large Lego bricks. They can be used as furniture, switched around and can be easily updated. Many contain moveable objects, images, sounds, moving images, internet applications and have drawers with things to investigate. The highlight of my visit in December 2009 was a soccer pitch frequented by farmyard animals, with a looping audio track outlining the key arguments in climate change debates. Participation in this sense is tactile, produced through disarming synecdoche of major foreign affairs issues.

Involvement, that's what the whole thing's about. The people that come here, they are invited to use both sides of the brain and all of the senses in dealing with our grand narratives and our ideas. So you might come here for one reason but you leave with several, that's why the holistic approach is so effective, because we’re communicating on many different levels at the same time. And that's the key to the success of our public diplomacy program. (Widbom, 2009, personal communication)

Engagement with participatory publics involves generating stories and ideas that people can become involved in. According to former Cultural Counsellor Mats Widbom, this does not so much promote Sweden as encourage others to engage with ideas and themes that Sweden has a stake, leadership or is otherwise involved in: ‘We are promoting ideas rather than our country’. Central to this is taking abstract brand values and bringing them ‘outwards’ into narrative structures so that they are tactile and personal. Again, McLuhan's ‘medium is the message’ axiom seems apt for the Swedish approach to aesthetics and identity-building.

We are trying to build a story, a kind of storytelling for what we are doing, and that is very effective in our outreach to media […] We are trying to identify issues and ideas that really Americans feel belongs to them as well and involves them. (Widbom, 2009, personal communication)

A particularly striking aspect of these innovations is the consistency of vocabulary used throughout the promotional literature, the House itself and government officials. Brand consensus is continually reinforced from all sides.

Consistency of approach continues into social media. Facebook has been used to manage the network of event attendees, with an inner circle of regulars drawing on their contacts so that ‘they send out to their next circle which sends it out to the next circle, so instead of shouting out ... we build it circle after circle’. This was more effective than the earlier approach of simply promoting events that caused chaos during a Eurovision party when more people were sent away than were able to enter. However, Facebook again acted as a useful means of engagement:

We had a professional photographer here that took wonderful shots the entire night […] We were sending out this to all the people, also those that couldn’t come, so I think that when you talk about events you have to think of all these three life stages: before, during, after, and that should be part of your communication strategy. (Widbom, 2009, personal communication)

Social media can therefore be seen as a way of increasing the breadth of participation, a means of network management and a method for manipulating the temporal duration of an event. It associates the HoS with a younger demographic, new communication technologies and furthermore underscores the overall consistency of dialogical and open communication methods.

IMPACT

The House has now hosted over 150 conferences, with well over 100,000 visitors. However, when it comes to specifically determining impact, there remains a lack of clear data. Although a number of indicators suggest a power of attraction, these are primarily indicators of outputs, attendance and favourability. The actual impact on behaviour and policy outcomes is more difficult to gauge.

One thing that we have discussed with the Swedish Institute as a part that could be more developed is tools for measurement … In one sense of course we are influencing in this city, we did a huge theme about living green, we had a very good turnout in media, we had a lot of people coming here, almost 14,000 people came to the different events, we had a special evening on green issues with 500 young people here, we did a lot of events, seminars on climate change and environment … so the 14,000 people that came here, I’m sure that they were influenced in one way or another. (Widbom, 2009, personal communication)

Although these data suggest some kind of impact, they fall short of proving a direct correlation between HoS activities and the achievement of specific outcomes. With such a massive financial outlay of tax-payers funds in building the House, it may seem surprising that no clear indicators of success in providing value have been published. Customer surveys contribute to an overall sense that events have been perceived positively, but the HoS lacks the tools to make explicit links between activities and broader policy initiative.

We did a visitor study and the figures showed that there was a very positive reaction, that we learned something more, that we would recommend this to someone else to come, we had 20-30 questions. But then it's hard to say, what will that mean for the big issues like what's happening in Copenhagen [during the climate change negotiations in December 2009]? (Widbom, 2009, personal communication)

Since its inauguration, the HoS has received coverage in all the major Washington newspapers, as well as television and radio channels. Media attention has been ‘very positive’ including a venue of the year award in the Washington Post (2008).

We had 13 minutes on Fox News [the day after the New Hampshire Primaries], direct broadcasting from the House of Sweden when we started up the Innovation & Technology theme, and the House of Sweden was mentioned I think 55 times during this … everybody was watching TV, [the coverage was worth] millions and millions of US dollars.… I’m 100% sure that we wouldn’t have had that broadcast here if we hadn’t have had the House of Sweden and the programs that we had at that time. (Widbom, 2009, personal communication)

Again, although this demonstrates that innovative PD campaigns with strong branding can generate strong media interest, this remains little more than an advertisement and an anecdotal indicator of impact. However, given that the last major study of Sweden's profile in the United States considered it little-known or entirely unknown to the majority of Americans, with an estimated awareness score of 1 out of 5, the fact that HoS attracted so much attention through pooling of promotional resources indicates some form of success for the common platform project (Lundberg, 2005, p. 165; Svenska Institutet et al, 2007, p. 44). Whether this success has been cost efffective, and whether it has contributed to the outcomes determined by MFA policy objectives, is another question that cannot be addressed with this data set.

BEYOND THE HoS

In 2007, the Swedish Institute launched an Internet-based twist on the HoS building. The Second House of Sweden (SHoS) is a representation of the Washington, DC Embassy designed for online virtual world Second Life. If the HoS could be said to materialise the values of the common platform, the SHoS virtualises this material form, and reproduces it in cyberspace as a kind of placeless Embassy. The SHoS was launched 30 May 2007 by former Swedish Institute General Director Olle Wästberg and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

A sense of possibility, innovation and leadership in new communicative fora is central to Brand Sweden, and the SHoS was all about making use of technology to expand public outreach. More an Embassy in name than nature, the SHoS acts as an official information and events centre for the promotion of Swedish interests in Second Life. Olle Wästberg introduced the project to the press in the following terms: ‘There are so many residents, or participants [in Second Life], from groups we, like others, have difficulties reaching: the young, educated, and a little cutting-edge’ (Wästberg, cited in Carp, 2007).

Use of the location has been focused around events and activities, including talks by a curator broadcast from the National Museum in Stockholm, live streaming of the Invasão Sueca (‘Swedish Invasion’) pop music exhibition in Brazil, Swedish-language lessons, streaming of the EuroPride festival in Stockholm and a number of other seasonal events and activities (Geens and Peterson, 2007–2009). Generally, the space would hold one or two events a month. A limitation seems to be that Second Life servers can only manage around 60 visitors at any one time during the screening of films and other bandwidth-intensive streaming media (Karl Peterson, Project Manager, Swedish Institute, 2009, personal communication).

Again, data on impact are centred on outputs, attendance and press coverage. As of October 2007, SHoS was receiving 300–400 visits per day of 15–20 min from an estimated pool of 1 million regular Second Life users. The location was visited primarily by Swedes (nearly 40 per cent), with the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Finland the other top nationalities. Swedish dominance suggests a public affairs dimension to the project, with ‘international Swedishness’ a symbolic product aimed at Swedish citizens, as well as foreigners. The consensus-producing aspect of Brand Sweden is particularly visible in this context.

Between January and October 2007, SHoS was mentioned in 558 news articles in 19 countries surveyed, supposedly reaching an estimated 90 million press and internet readers worldwide. More than 150 of these articles were published in Sweden. On the basis of the calculations of Cision, a Public Relations company hired by the Swedish Institute to produce a report on press coverage, publicity relating to SHoS was worth an equivalent of 5.4 million Swedish Kronor (US$750,000) in advertising space (Ström and Grafström, 2007, pp. 12–13 and 27). Olle Wästberg elsewhere claimed that publicity encompassed nearly 1000 press clips in 42 countries, the likes of which had never previously been achieved by a Swedish Institute initiative. In fact, Wästberg was already making this claim at the inauguration, assessing the positive results of the SHoS before it had even opened (Sveriges Television, 2007; Erlandsson, 2007). Hence, the project was an overwhelming success in terms of proving the ability of the Swedish Institute to reach traditional (that is, press) audiences and consolidate Brand Sweden through association with technological innovation, but there is little evidence that – in addition to creating a great deal of attention for the brand – the SHoS had a public diplomacy impact.

The Second House infrastructure has also been used as a way of creating ‘virtu-real’ spaces at HoS events in Washington, DC. An experiment under Innovation & Technology offered Vodka and dancing with a ‘simultaneous virtual 3-D party filled with avatars of real partygoers from Stockholm’ (Argetsinger and Roberts, 2008). Another installation called House of Sweden goes ‘Virtu-Real’ carried out a similar experiment in bringing people together between Stockholm and Washington, DC through digital walls of avatars joined by telephones. Innovative communicative spaces suggest the potential for seamless interaction between like-minded world citizens, underscoring the importance of technology in collapsing the distance between international spaces. However, it should be noted that this is a piecemeal, tentative and limited process impacting very small groups of participants. Nonetheless, it explores brand values and new communication technologies as forms of public diplomacy, and hence suggests radical new potential for public outreach in the twenty-first century.

CONCLUSIONS: ACTIVITIES, IMPACT AND IMPLICATIONS

The HoS and its associated activities skilfully integrate recent innovations in nation brands with approaches to public diplomacy centred on dialogue and participation. Information about Sweden and its brand values is embodied through aesthetics and textures – both physical and virtual – which bring those values out into the realm of communication experience. At its most banal, transparency of communication is simply a glass wall, a functionalist meeting room or a virtual events centre. From the physical properties of the HoS to the technological textures of the Second House, the medium is the message, and the message is the medium. As the objectives of Swedish public diplomacy include creating meeting places and promoting brand values of innovation and progressiveness, this seems a remarkable step towards changing the very conditions for public outreach.

One of the clear strengths of the HoS is the way in which abstract brand values such as ‘openness’ are represented in a material manner. In being open to the public, and in the choice of building materials and promotional rhetoric, the HoS is as close to being a ‘transparent’ Embassy as is reasonably possible given security issues. The Second House presents further challenges to conceptions of transparency in public diplomacy work. In one sense, it is an Embassy situated in placelessness, making the style and structure of the real HoS accessible anywhere in the world as a kind of ubiquitous Embassy. In another sense, the technology has been used to virtualise, reproduce and broadcast emplaced events. This makes such events more accessible, and opens the potential for more complex forms of public engagement with Swedish international policy areas.

Innovation may also be seen in the strategy of connecting spaces that are normally separate from one another, and in facilitating new communicative configurations. For one, the HoS Embassy space brings together the secretive world of diplomacy with the general public. As another example, a number of events at the HoS used the SHoS technology to collapse space-time and bring avatars of people in Sweden into the same space as guests in Washington. Nation brands – in this particular instance – provide the foundation for complex rearticulations of public, citizen, cultural and exchange diplomacies, often in one and the same moment.

The House of Sweden in Washington gives the Second House of Sweden strength, credibility, and the Second House of Sweden gives the real House of Sweden another dimension, creativity and innovation, a bigger audience … It's like omnipresence in one way. (Carlhed, 2009, personal communication)

In this sense, working with values, ideas and media technologies allows for multiple dimensions of contact and presence that reinforce one another. The looping, hypertextual links between material structures, textual symbols and virtual representations create a complex communicative web of uniquely Swedish spaces that provide meeting places while simultaneously steering participation within the preferred view of contemporary geopolitics under globalisation.

Although there are many strengths that should be relevant to practitioners and scholars of public diplomacy and nation brands, it is also worth assessing some of the implications and limitations. First, the costs of this initiative – during an era of cutbacks – make it a one-off rather than a future direction for foreign ministries. As a figurehead, it undoubtedly performs an important role, but other cheaper and less grand adaptations of this approach will be necessary. Second, as Simon Anholt recently observed on a visit to Sweden, the Swedish image is strong and makes for an easy brand to sell abroad (Anholt, Swedish Institute, 2010). The question of how other nations might attempt to adapt the lessons from this approach to carry out similar initiatives is by no means a straightforward one. Third, there is a clear lack of data establishing value-for-money and the effectiveness of performance. Most available measures are based on outputs, attendance and favourability rather than outcomes, behaviour change and influence. In terms of public accountability and evaluation, data does at times seem to be lacking.

Finally, the underlying economic agenda of this exercise merits further investigation. The economic focus orients the brand as a meditation on sanitised images of Sweden rather than a genuine transatlantic dialogue with the breadth of opinions that might entail. For all the rhetoric of storytelling and involvement, citizens cannot directly lobby the MFA or enter into dialogue with policymakers through these exhibition pieces. Nor do policymakers receive (or seem to desire) evaluation data from the activities that could support or inform decision-making processes. Rather, promotion is about boosting the Swedish profile so that foreigners might recognise its goods and potentially perceive them in a positive, brand-associated light. This is good for the brand, but the underlying agenda does not automatically create the strongest environment for credible public, cultural, citizen and exchange diplomacies. In the case of the HoS, with its Washington, DC audience, it works. This is perhaps due to no more than the publics being regular, cosmopolitan consumers of imported products and ideas. But whether this strategy would have the same impact if attempted elsewhere, or by other foreign ministries looking to replicate the approach, is by no means certain.

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1James Pamment has recently completed a PhD at the Department of Journalism, Media & Communication (JMK), Stockholm University. His research investigates current public diplomacy practices and evaluation methods in the United States, United Kingdom and Sweden. James has a background in Media, Philosophy and American Studies, and was previously Vice Consul at the British Embassy in Stockholm.

This article is based on research carried out for a PhD thesis (Pamment, 2011).

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Pamment, J. Innovations in public diplomacy and nation brands: Inside the House of Sweden. Place Brand Public Dipl 7, 127–135 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/pb.2011.3

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Keywords

  • public diplomacy
  • nation brands
  • House of Sweden
  • second house