Major heads of state have the Group of Eight. Economists have Davos. And now, for the first time, chief protocol officers have the Global Chiefs of Protocol Conference — catchy moniker yet to be determined.
More than 100 of these traditionally inconspicuous officials — charged with navigating the international do’s and don’ts between their respective governments and foreign dignitaries — are in town for the two-day summit that began Thursday. The representatives from 77 countries are attending sessions that cover the protocol basics of hosting international summits, working with the media and the intricacies of giving official gifts. International etiquette may sound trivial, but gaffes can — and do — make global headlines.
Protocol officials generalized about their hopes for the conference. Sammie Eddico, Ghana’s protocol chief, said he hoped to network: “Since we are meeting with colleagues, we will share our ears, and talk about ceremonies, traditions and etiquette.” Kosovo’s senior officer of state protocol, Burim Susuri, said he “wanted to celebrate the independence of the U.S., and learn some protocol issues,” while the Guyanese representative, Esther Griffith, said she is particularly interested in learning about seating arrangements and gift-giving. Diana Locke, from Belize, said she wanted to know how protocol is sorted out in a large country. “In Belize, we are only three persons in our unit, so looking at some of the techniques that they use here will be interesting,” she said. “Our protocol is slightly different because we follow more of the traditions of the British culture.”
The possibility of irrevocably wrecking diplomatic relations between nations didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind Wednesday evening, when the protocol officers attended the State Department’s annual Fourth of July celebration, this year attached to the conference as the summit’s opening session.
After milling about in the lobby of State Department headquarters — where a five-member fife and drum corps in 18th-century-inspired garb played ditties from the era — guests were escorted upstairs into the Benjamin Franklin Room, where the unofficial theme of the night appeared to be Fun Day at Six Flags.
To gain entry, guests had to wear small, illuminated American flag pins. The flashing lights certainly contributed to the amusement-park vibe, as did the red-white-and-blue poles with pennant-shape signs pointing guests to the face-painting station (yes, there were some ambassadorial children in attendance), candy bar, ice cream bar and green screen for picture-taking. Servers in white offered guests bags of popcorn; trays of corn dogs, mini burgers, coleslaw, pasta and other classic Americana victuals were positioned across the room. A DJ played music by Bruce Springsteen and other True American Patriots.
The highlight of the event was the State Department’s first apple pie contest, with only two directives — be creative and use apples — which attracted entries from 15 diplomatic missions, with heavy representation from Central and Eastern Europe (hello, Azerbaijan). Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management and one of the contest judges, announced the winners. Belgium won, with the U.K. coming in second and Hungary third. But as U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Marshall said in her opening remarks, “We’re all winners.”