Moving digital diplomacy on from communications

Digital diplomacy has established itself, over the last five years or so, as a kind of badge of tech honour for the forward-looking foreign ministry, an acknowledgement of the changing world around them. They dutifully post on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, keeping their audiences in touch with their (offline) activities. That sound you can hear is that of a checklist being ticked.

The mass adoption of digital communications techniques by governments and their foreign ministries is, very definitely, a Good Thing. It adds to our understanding of the processes of governing and diplomacy; it’s a significant shift towards greater transparency and therefore greater accountability. It’s all good. But it’s not diplomacy.

What we’ve seen so far, from foreign ministries around the world, is repeated variations, in different formats and on different platforms, on the presentation of meetings between diplomats, often beginning, and sometimes ending, with a picture of them shaking hands in some gilded room – 21st Century reporting on 19th Century diplomacy.

The brand of ‘digital diplomacy’ has yet to escape the confines of the communications teams (the hastily re-named press offices) and is limited to offering commentary and occasional, often scheduled, engagement opportunities. It is not just a communications model but, in fact, rather an old communications model – offering news snippets and occasional interview opportunities in the guise of tweets, posts and Q+A sessions.

It’s not that the communicators are doing a bad job with their digital tools, in fact many are showing some imagination in the way they tell their stories and the platforms on which they tell them, but the era of expecting kudos for the very fact you’ve bothered or some sort of modernist credibility for the platforms you’ve chosen has passed. Digital diplomacy has reached the boundaries of communications. It’s time it did what it says it does: actual diplomacy.

Most diplomats regard a significant part of their job as to represent their country by building relationships with the key stakeholders in whatever country or specialism they work in. They would use those relationships to promote greater understanding, trade or cultural links, dependent on the policy priorities of the time. And most diplomats continue to prefer to perform those functions in high-ceilinged rooms with other diplomats.

But as has been noted elsewhere, the world has changed around them and not all power flows through those high-ceilinged rooms any more. Not all diplomatic relationships are with other diplomats or with other countries. Organisations such as the EU, NATO are peopled by familiar-looking figures, but work very differently; there’s NGOs and charities working in many a foreign field and, from the Arab Spring onwards, there a fluid spectrum of protest, agitation and terrorist groups which only have a digital voice, and use that voice in lieu of a publically acknowledged leadership or structure. ‘Take me to your leader’ leads only to Twitter.

Dealing with all those challenges is beyond the remit of any communications team, and that majority of ambassadors who simply use their social media profiles to broadcast a limited range of pronouncements of outrage/concern/encouragement/delight.

Digital in MFAs needs to move beyond the public-facing, broadcast model and push diplomats and policy experts into using it as the default part of their everyday armoury. Plenty say that they do, very few are using the technology to radically change their world, in the way that many of us in other industries have had to.

That means not confining the use of digital engagement to the obvious public-facing roles but to make it the responsibility of every diplomat to use digital to help re-define their professional relationships and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to listen. To use digital to forge a new understanding of their audiences, to broaden who those audiences are (thinking beyond other diplomats and into a far wider range of influencers and stakeholders), and to monitor online conversations based on what people are saying when they’re not in the room, so that they hear from more than just the bubble they inhabit, from a wider group than just their dopplegangers.

It leads to greater challenges – there are fewer certainties about hierarchies and deference, less understanding of the legacy models of old-established departments and less concern for the subtleties and nuance of carefully chosen language. But all this digital technology has been invented, after all, to connect human beings to each other, to give further opportunities for understanding, engagement, even conversation. This is what diplomacy is all about. It’s time for all diplomats to put aside their cosy certainties, stop ring-fencing digital to the communicators and embrace it as an essential professional skill.

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