Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The authenticity of digital diplomacy
To the Foreign and Commonwealth Office this morning for a meeting on their digital diplomacy strategy. For a government department whose principal aim is to influence and persuade, it felt a curiously clumsy event — even with the organisational assistance of global PR firm Weber Shandwick. A set of (white, balding, upper-middle class) diplomats sat on one side of a row of desks and spoke at an audience that seemed to consist largely of other FCO and Weber Shandwick staff. Comically, the frosty FCO receptionists demanded that laptops be left at the front desk.
The speakers were blogging for Britain in a range of contexts. David Warren (ambassador to Japan) writes for both an English and Japanese audience, attempting to convey his public diplomacy work on climate change, trade and investment, the global economic crisis and international development. Mark Kent (ambassador to Vietnam) aims for a more local audience, particularly to encourage Internet use in Vietnam, and has experimented with new media such as filming a New Year greeting from local hero Sir Alex Ferguson and Foreign Secretary David Milliband. Alex Ellis (ambassador to Portugal) similarly targets Portuguese-language content to readers of a local newspaper website in an effort to reach new audiences and update the UK brand.
Slightly different were the experiences of John Duncan (ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament) and Philip Barclay (staff blogger at the Harare embassy). Duncan's main audiences are campaigners and other governments, with a key goal being to build political communities around UK campaigns. Barclay writes about the desperate situation in Zimbabwe both to convince local readers that the UK is making efforts to help, and to reach a wider audience through the media.
We also heard from Stephen Hale of the FCO's digital diplomacy team. He said that the FCO's "Web 1.0" presence had been very successful but they were now encouraging diplomats to listen better to gauge the right tone for local social media; to publish content in real-time to maximise attention (and Google rankings), without bureaucratic filters and delays; and to engage and campaign through blogs. Culture change is more important in achieving their goals than money.
All speakers felt that authenticity was key in engaging with their audiences, and blog on a range of day-to-day personal experiences for this reason. This can sometimes backfire, as the ambassador to North Korea recently found. The impact of fluffy lifestyle pieces may decline as their novelty wanes. Clearly though social media are a key new way for embassies to amplify and explain the UK governments' messages to local audiences.
More pertinent to my mind is how "authentic" pronouncements can ever be from what is ultimately the UK government's global PR agency. Craig Murray, the ambassador who spoke out over Uzbekistan's torture and murder of political activists, was hounded out of the FCO as a result. Carne Ross, the UK delegation's Middle East expert at the United Nations who testified to the Butler Review that the invasion of Iraq by the US and UK was illegal, left the FCO shortly afterwards. While today's ambassadors stressed their day-to-day independence, there is a strong limit on how far this can be taken. I suggested that some of these public diplomacy activities might be better undertaken by the British Council and BBC World Service, who are widely seen as more independent and critical.
It will be interesting to see how the digital diplomacy strategy develops, and whether the initial media and public interest is sustained as a growing range of more independent voices joins the diplomatic and foreign policy blogosphere. Tony Curzon Price has some other interesting comments at openDemocracy.