By Kimberley Morgan Salmon
Although “protocol” is a system of rules that explain the correct conduct and procedures to be followed in formal situations, events rarely go as planned. This leaves the typical diplomatic protocol professional to managing very ad hoc situations and ‘putting out fires’ at any given event. Details make an event, and protocol runs that event. It is interestingly ironic that diplomatic protocol is accepted codes of conduct, but routines are not its daily truth.
Protocol is key to diplomatic operations. It is the fine art and science of facilitating events for people of different cultures to find common purpose, engage strategic and sensitive issues, and create relationships and memories for a lifetime. The word protocol comes from the Greek language and literally means ‘to glue things together,’ a perfect analogy for what is achieved. Simply put, protocol is creating the right conditions for business or diplomacy to succeed.
The Department of State, realizing the importance of protocol in diplomatic relations, established the role of protocol assistant across the embassies and consulates to provide advice and support in managing country-to-country affairs. Each post has at least one assistant who works under the Executive Office portfolio in an advisory and management type role. Each post’s position may vary slightly, but the essential role is the same. Assistants work not only with the Front Office but with the Mission as a whole to bridge the gap between the host country and the embassy.
Embassy Kingston’s protocol team has seen their fair share of last-minute changes in event planning. For example, after preparing and obtaining approval for their Fourth of July reception guest list, the prime minister of Jamaica did not show up, sending the speaker of the house in his place instead. Protocol quickly advised the regional security office of the change and escorted their guest into the receiving line. The necessary adjustments were made to the salutations to ensure the speaker of the house was acknowledged.
“We always have to be alert for this reality, ensuring that the VVIP is managed seamlessly with little to no embarrassment,” said Kimberley Morgan Salmon, protocol assistant supervisor at Embassy Kingston. “At such large events, we have to monitor the VVIPs closely and ensure the salutations are on point.”
Diplomatic protocol uses internationally accepted codes of conduct and courtesies at the highest levels of government and business to build trust, strengthen relationships, and facilitate decision-making between world leaders in global matters that affect us all. The purpose of diplomatic protocol is not only to create a controlled environment in which it is comfortable and safe for government and business leaders to conduct candid and civil discourse. Its purpose is to also develop successful, long-term international cooperative relationships between nations and people and cultures and communities, which are beneficial to everyone involved. Getting it all wrong could be the difference between an ally or a newfound foe. Accordingly, protocol remains an essential part of diplomacy.
“Protocol professionals are type triple ‘A’ personalities,” said Anne Beard, founder of Protocol and Diplomacy International. “They are perfectionists to a fault, detail oriented, hands on with every scenario, want to dot all the ‘I’s and the ‘T’s, and when plan A, B or C doesn’t work, we will go to plan Z. This is where you learn to trust your instinct and survive or simply improvise.”
“Protocol professionals” refers to all personnel that operate and are responsible for effecting diplomatic protocol. This includes, but is not limited to protocol consultants, advisors, managers, officers, and assistants. Protocol professionals can rarely, if ever, describe their roles as routine. There probably is no typical day as a protocol professional because ironically, even though there are prescribed standards that govern their operations, events remain unpredictable. It is for this reason that the most successful protocol professionals tend to have amicable but organized personalities. It helps in being successful in this field.
Protocol is best understood when it is absent. Roles may vary from institution to institution, but planning and organizing; advising on standards and etiquette; representing the best face of the organization; drafting official correspondence; managing RSVPs and creating suitable seating arrangements, preparing invitations and guest lists; and researching and understanding political, economic, and social trends of global cultures are among the key roles that protocol professionals must achieve.
Protocol assistants can benefit from specialized training at the Department through the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) with a five-day course exposing them to the key concepts of the protocol role. Currently, the training is being revamped to incorporate as many aspects of the job as possible. FSI discussed topics with current protocol assistants to ensure inclusion in the revised program. The communications lines for this inclusion have remained open as the role evolves to meet the demands of a contemporary mission.
Kimberley Morgan Salmon is a Foreign Service national and protocol assistant supervisor at Embassy Kingston.