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Setting the Stage for Success

Protocol Officers Work With Foreign Visitors in U.S.

Ten years after leaving the Foreign Service and establishing a career in public relations I happened into a little-known area of international work in the U.S. that actually combined both my previous experiences. As deputy director of the Houston International Protocol Alliance, I oversaw the care and feeding of 150-200 foreign dignitaries visiting Houston each year as well as the needs of the city’s resident consular corps representing more than 70 countries.

In international relations, protocol refers to the formalities, procedures, and courtesies that govern relationships between countries and their representatives. The U.S. Department of State has a protocol department that is the lead player in arranging state visits, taking care of embassies and diplomatic staff within the U.S. and ensuring the proper courtesies are provided to U.S. diplomatic representatives when they travel abroad. However, many U.S. cities with high international profiles manage city-specific protocol functions as well.

In Houston, the Protocol Alliance arose more than 20 years ago when a group of independent international organizations operating in the city pooled their resources to coordinate their activities on behalf of visiting dignitaries.

Over the years, the Protocol Alliance was shifted to the umbrella of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, maintaining the Protocol Alliance’s independent status, which was of prime importance to its founders and is a key factor in its strength today. In many cities, the protocol function is part of the mayor’s office, exposing it to the whims of politicians.

Whatever the political realities of a city’s protocol function, the day-to-day activities are similar, although some cities perform a wider range of services than others. In addition to hosting international dignitaries, protocol officers help facilitate travel of city officials to foreign countries on trade missions, serve as the primary point of contact for resident consular officials regarding life and business in the city, answer inquiries from the general public on questions ranging from studying abroad to flag etiquette, facilitate or sponsor the sister city relationships, advise the mayor and city officials on international issues and serve as a clearinghouse for a city’s international organizations.

In Houston, we hosted nearly 200 visiting dignitaries each year. Most of these visits were low key. Some were personal visits: sometimes they were for treatment at the Texas Medical Center, which has its own protocol staff; sometimes they were simply layovers at the airport. In many cases nothing more was required of us than a notification to the airport authorities to ensure proper expediting of perhaps a Latin American cabinet official transiting Houston on a return trip home from Europe.

A good percentage of visits, maybe 30 to 40 percent, were at the invitation of one of the city’s international organizations or corporations. The dignitary might be speaking at a conference or coming in to negotiate contracts. For this type of visit, we would generate a welcome letter from the mayor, perhaps send flowers or a welcome gift, and often arrange for a courtesy visit in the mayor’s office. The level of courtesies extended was determined based on rank, previous visits, and any official ties the city might have with the dignitary’s country, such as a sister city or a large population from the country living in Houston.

Each year we hosted a few visits of heads of state or royalty. These were the visits that brought a certain degree of glamour, and a great deal of hard work. President Vladimir Putin’s first visit to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford involved a stop in Houston, for which we produced a full airport arrival ceremony, complete with a high school band, children with flowers for Mrs. Putin, and sorting out conflicting advance arrangements from the Russian Embassy and Mr. Putin’s team from Moscow.

We had no shortage of people seeking jobs at the Protocol Alliance, and, though we were a small staff, there was turnover and an opportunity to hire every couple of years. Many applicants labored under the misconception that protocol is all glamour and wearing white gloves and meeting with royalty. In fact, at its most exciting and complex it is most akin to event planning with a bit of baby-sitting thrown in. It is not a job for people who need to be the center of attention. A protocol officer’s responsibility is to keep the spotlight on the appropriate dignitaries, ensure that all are accorded the respect due to their position and rank, and stage-manage all the behind-the-scenes activities and disputes so that they do not intrude on the actual event.

While working at the Protocol Alliance, I also came into contact with a wide variety of people working in complementary positions at a number of organizations. I found that the airport system, the port authority, the local universities, the medical center as a whole and many individual hospitals within it, and many private corporations had staff dedicated to the needs of high-ranking international visitors.

While I ultimately decided to spend more time on the care and feeding of my own toddlers rather than that of local and international potentates, I found the intricate world of international protocol to be fascinating. As childish as it sometimes seems, these courtesies and procedures set the framework for the real work of relationship-building and diplomacy. Even though you are in the wings, you are still a witness to meetings and events involving people whose decisions affect world politics and economics in tangible ways. Researching the customs of various countries and understanding why different cultures do things differently is very gratifying to anyone with an interest in international affairs. A few truly exceptional meals, some unique thank-you gifts, and lovely mementos such as handwritten notes from a princess or an ambassador made the experience one I will never forget.

Other Places to Look for Protocol Work

Many state and local governments in the U.S. devote manpower to issues of international protocol, but not all have dedicated protocol departments or officers. In some cases, the function is contained within the governor’s or the mayor’s office. It may come under a department of international affairs or be connected to economic development or the chamber of commerce. In Houston, it falls under the auspices of the convention and visitors’ bureau. The best source for official contacts in state and municipal protocol is the National Protocol Directory published by the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol.

Large universities, especially those that have large foreign student populations, or house think tanks or presidential libraries, usually have a protocol function. For instance, Rice University is home to the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. The Baker Institute hosted many heads of state and elder statesmen on a regular basis as speakers. While the Houston International Protocol Alliance made any arrangements for the mayor’s participation, the Baker Institute staff was skilled in managing special events, accommodations, flag displays, seating arrangements, and other aspects of dignitary visits. Protocol considerations were part of the overall understanding needed by events managers on the Baker Institute’s staff.

Airport systems and even individual airlines deal with the needs of high-level international passengers every day. Even more so in the current heightened state of security, the needs of traveling diplomats must be attended to with special care. The special services or international services department is probably where you will find the specialists who arrange expedited customs clearances, private security checks, and VIP waiting areas for diplomats and royalty. Port authorities and international medical centers have similar staff.

Multinational corporations are increasingly attuned to international protocol. Oil companies, mining companies, manufacturers of military and aerospace equipment, telecommunications providers, and many other types of companies deal directly with foreign governments. When their representatives travel abroad or when they invite foreign ministers to the U.S. to visit their facilities or sign agreements, specialists on their staffs coordinate travel, accommodations, special events and protocol. More often than not this function will fall within the public relations or public affairs department, or perhaps an international trade division.

For More Info

New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, This office publishes The National Protocol Directory, the most complete listing of protocol offices in the U.S., as well as consulates, embassies and UN missions.

U.S. Department of State Office of Protocol,, works with state and municipal protocol offices throughout the country and is a general resource for protocol-related matters.

RENEE BROOKS CATACALOS is a writer based in Hyattsville, MD. She holds a B.A. in foregin affairs from the Univ. of Virginia and spent five years as a consular officer with the State Department serving in Mexico City and Istanbul. Among her public relations careers, she was Deputy Director of the Houston Protocol Alliance.

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