The Foreign Office and Strategic Communications

September 18, 2010
    Earlier this week Ingrid d’Hooghe asked me about the relationship between public diplomacy and strategic communications at the Foreign Office.  This caused me to scratch my head a bit and then start rummaging through the pile of FCO documents on my desk.I think that the first point is that there is a lot of ‘strategic communications’ in British government.  This goes back to the 2004 Phillis Report on Government Communications.  At the time this report was seen as something of a critique of the role of government communications under Tony Blair, particularly in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  While the report is critical of the emphasis on media relations (spin) under Blair and Alastair Campbell it actually affirms the central role of communications in the process of democratic  government.  The report advocates the professionalization of communications and emphasizes the importance of communications activity other than media relations.  The consequence is that almost every UK government agency has departments and jobs with ‘strategic communications’ in the title.  Strategic communications posts can involve communicating with the public or they can be part of the intra-organization communication function.  Of course ‘strategic communications’ on your business card looks a lot cooler than ‘communications’. 

    If we go to the Foreign Office website the Communications Directorate is listed as part of the ‘Central Group’ of functions including IT, Strategy and Planning and the legal advisors.  The organization structure on the website  lists the functions of the Communications Directorate  as

    Press office

    Speech writers

    Internal communications

    Digital diplomacy

    Strategic communication

    UK stakeholder engagement

    However, it we look at some of the correspondence between the FCO and the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee it’s apparent that the organization of the Communications Directorate is slightly different (also on this version of the FCO Organogram Dec 2009)
    Press Office

    Digital Diplomacy

    Strategic Campaigns Unit (my emphasis)

    Public Diplomacy Unit

    Corporate Communications – includes UK stakeholder engagement

    Digital diplomacy manages the web presence of the FCO.  The Public Diplomacy Unit focuses on the PD ‘partners’; the British Council, the BBC World Service and the Wilton Park conference centre.  The campaigns unit organizes and coordinates campaigns on priority issues (these are identified within the FCO Strategic Framework  – more on the question of planning and targets in a later post).  Within the unit there are strategic communications teams.  This advert for a strategic communications consultant from 2009 is quite helpful in laying out the relationship between policy, campaigns and strategic communications.

    I think that the point is that the campaigns are intended to involve all the instruments available to the FCO, including conventional diplomatic activity so that strategic communications are a part of the campaign.

    The coordinating structures consist of daily meetings between the Units within the Communications Directorate,  meetings with the ‘partners’ every six weeks and twice yearly meetings of the Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Forum chaired by the Foreign Secretary.

    I think that the take away from this is that in FCO terms ‘strategic communications’ should be seen as a tool that exists within the context of a broader concept of diplomacy and public diplomacy.  The contrast is with the way that in the US ‘strategic communication’ seems to be being used as the overarching concept (for instance in the White House 1055 Report).  Public Diplomacy becomes the State Department’s contribution to strategic communication.  Given the tendency to treat communication as an add on I’m not sure that the this is the best way forward.

    I’m going to stop there for the moment. Thanks to Ingrid for asking the question.


One comment

  1. Thank you for this interesting report.

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