Is Digital Diplomacy the Old Radio?

Yesterday I came across a piece with the headline: Digital diplomacy is the new radio

This is the first paragraph

Digital Diplomacy is the new radio. Ever since politicians figured out that they could speak directly to ‘the masses’, we have had the phenomenon of public diplomacy. It became possible, via radio, to speak directly to people without having to go through official government channels. In the early 20th century, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks effectively used the radio to stoke revolutions in neighbouring countries. A hundred years later, with the advent of social media, public diplomacy has taken a new leap, to 140-character policy frameworks, thanks to Twitter.

There’s nothing new about arguing that social media is really a form of broadcasting but what struck a chord was the reference to the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.  What you found in totalitarian 1940s and 1950s broadcasting was a personalized, contentious and condescending tone that explained why the other lot were rubbish.  I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the Russian Embassy London Twitter account – it doesn’t seem to do much to improve the image of Russia or improve relations with the UK but I suddenly recognized the tone.

Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy Part 1

I was happily reading Brian Hocking and Jan Melissens’ report on Diplomacy in the Digital Age and largely agreeing with it when it struck me:  reports about diplomacy and tech stuff haven’t changed in 20 years.*   Why is ‘digital diplomacy’ permanently new? Why isn’t it old? Why are we still writing about it in the same way?

What I mean is that the core analytical structure hasn’t changed. You set up (implicitly or explicitly) an ideal type of ‘the digital age’ or something similar and this then serves as a standard for evaluating the diplomatic practices of a country or as comparison for another ideal type ‘diplomacy’. The ‘digital age’ is assumed to provide a singular standard that national practices or ‘diplomacy’ must conform to. This gives rise to a narrative of modernization where certain MFAs are assumed to be advanced and others retarded in the process of adaptation to a singular ‘digital’ future.

The problem with this mode of analysis is that ideal types are tools and shouldn’t be mistaken either for accounts of the real world or for theories – warnings that Max Weber offered in his original discussion of ideal types (Weber 1949: 101-2). In 1995 we didn’t have any real world experience with ‘digital’ and an informed guess was the best we could do. But now the field of practice is 20 years old as is the history of writing about it.

For example, the FCO got its first web pages in 1995, in June 2000 it produced an E-business strategy that covered issues such as the ability to deliver services on-line and knowledge management as well as external and internal communication. in the second half of the ’90s most of the foreign policy think tanks in Washington were running projects on ‘virtual diplomacy’ or similar, and by the turn of the decade we had both theoretical perspectives (Off the top of my head Nye and Owens 1996, Rothkopf 1998, Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1999a, 1999b) and some early discussions of the impact of the web on diplomatic practice (eg Potter 2002). We even substantial comparative pieces of research that address the adaptation of foreign ministries to ICTs that have been around for a few years (eg Batora 2008, Archetti 2012 and I’m sure that there’s more). What concerns me is that the discussions that we are having today don’t seem to reflect this 20 years of experience but instead reflect a constant year zero (or perhaps zero day would be more appropriate) in the area.

In part 2 I’ll offer some thoughts on why we are still writing that same report and how we ought to think about the question of digital diplomacy.

*Whatever happened to diplomacy 2.0, internet diplomacy, web diplomacy, virtual diplomacy, the revolution in diplomatic affairs etc?



Archetti C (2012) The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice: An Evolutionary Model of Change, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 7: 181–206.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999a) The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999b) The Nature of a Revolution in Diplomatic Affairs, International Studies Association Convention, Washington DC.

Bátora J (2008) Foreign ministries and the information revolution: going virtual? Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Hocking B and Melissen J (2015) Diplomacy in the Digital Age. The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Nye JS and Owens WA (1996) America’s Information Edge, Foreign Affairs, 75: 20–36.

Potter EH, ed (2002) Cyber-Diplomacy: Managing Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century. Montréal, London: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Rothkopf DJ (1998) Cyberpolitik: The Changing Nature of Power in the Information Age, Journal of International Affairs, 51: 325–59.

Weber M (1949) The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Il: Free Press.

UK Govts Head of Communications Doesn’t Like Press Releases or Strategic Communication

Since the beginning of this year Alex Aiken has been Executive Director for UK  Government Communications and has been pushing hard for change and savings – he certainly doesn’t seem to be short of opinions, there was some excitement on Twitter this morning when PR Week reported a speech he’d given last week announced the death of the press release

As far as he’s concerned too much PR is about SOS – sending out stuff  when it needs a much more OASIS – objectives, audience, strategy, implementation and scoring.

He notes that during the recent excitement over the culling of badgers in the UK the responsible department sent out one press release and 350 tweets.

His line seems to be that government spends too much money on old media and thinks in terms of ‘strategic communications’ which in his mind seems to imply old media based marketing campaigns.  His solution is that government communicators need to embrace a PR based campaign management approach.  Of course some people would argue that  OASIS is nothing but strategic communication 101 – I think his concern is to shake up the routines of government communications offices.

Another of his signature views is the importance of evaluation for government communicators and he argues that this is a skillset that everyone should have.  Can’t disagree with that but I can see a pathology here:  use social media because it gives us some nice easy to use metrics.  But…those easy to use metrics aren’t actually measuring policy outcomes.  But from the point of view of view of the professional communicator they are vital:

“If you’ve got ten people at a board meeting, ten of them will consider themselves communications experts,” he says. “As a head of communications, having the numbers helps to prove that you’re the expert.

There’s an interesting profile from his period in his previous job here.

Digital Diplomacy: Forget the Hype and Just Get on With It

I’ve been meaning to write about digital diplomacy for a while.  Two weeks ago Ben Scott (formerly one of Hilary Clinton’s crew at State) and I , were in Tallinn to talk  to Estonian ambassadors and this forced me to think about the issue.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a sceptic about the whole thing but perhaps less so than I realized.

The argument for digital diplomacy typically advances in two parts.  1. The world is being revolutionized by digital technology.  2. Diplomats should use social media.  What I’m sceptical about is actually 1 but I’m totally on board with 2.

The problem with the revolution argument is that it really depends on the loss of perspective that I commented on here.  The reason that diplomats should use social media is exactly the same reason why I don’t think that there’s a revolution:  diplomacy has always been a matter of networks.  Diplomats are expected to build networks in order to find out what’s going on and create influence.  Ben made the valuable point that one of the great contributions of social media, particularly Twitter is as a tool for listening, by identifying important voices in country it offers a rapid way to get a broader understanding of what’s going on from there they can think about intervening in debates.  As a mode of gathering information and insight  It’s exactly the same thing, as  that staple of diplomatic routine, reading the papers

There is a bit of a digital diplomacy backlash going on at the moment (examples here and here) but the problem is not with the practice but with the overblown claims derived from the radical technology literature which tend to abstract the impact of digital media from any social, cultural or political context.

The point is not that social media changes nothing but it is better seen as part of the evolution of diplomatic practice. In a way the potential of Twitter is that it allows a diplomat to more rapidly explore the networks of their host society than it would be possible to do using other methods.  Jules Jusserand was the French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925 if you don’t have 23 years to build your networks maybe twitter is a useful accelerant to the process.

The FCO’s Digital Strategy

Just before Christmas the FCO issued its digital strategy.   This isn’t a long document so a few comments about context, content and the broader implications for UK diplomacy.

The key contextual point is that it is a response to November’s  Government Digital Strategy.  This is chiefly concerned with the improvements in services to citizens and financial savings (£1.7-1.8 billion pa) that would ensue if transactions were delivered on-line and if people chose to use them. All government departments were required to produce their own strategies.   Hence the FCO strategy is not an outpouring of spontaneous digital excitement but a response to a government level initiative.  As the GDS points out the majority of central government transactions with the public are done by seven departments involving taxes, motor vehicles, pensions and similar, while the FCO does transactions through its consular work its diplomatic activity doesn’t fit so neatly into the framework.  As a result the FCO digital strategy is much more detailed when going through the  list of consular functions, the extent of digitization and the possibilities for expansion.

However, if you’re reading this blog I suspect you’re more interested in the policy and diplomatic bits of the report than certificates of no-impediment and why they have to be on paper.

In assessing where they are the report notes that the primary use of ‘digital’ has been as  a communications tool  but argues that they are extending it into new areas using it for

  •  ‘[F]ollowing and predicting developments’ as they did during the Libya crisis and the Arab Spring where they used sentiment analysis  to produce daily updates circulated around Whitehall (It’s not clear whether they actually used specialist tools for doing this or just read tweets)
  • Formulating policy – giving the example of consultations around a recent white paper on policy towards the UK overseas territories
  • Implementing policy – the example is of their UK for Iranians website (sounds like message delivery to me)
  • Influencing and indentifying who to influence, here they give a big shout out to the Ambassador in the Lebanon Tom Fletcher who seems to be the current FCO digital stakhanovite
  • Communicating and engaging on foreign policy – the foreign secretary answers questions on twitter.

By item four on this list I think that they are repeating themselves.

What do they want to achieve:  spread ‘digital’ across the organization and use it to deliver to deliver more open policy formulation and increase transparency.

In order to achieve this there will be a digital champion at FCO board level,  more training and access to digital kit  – for instance through adjusting security settings on the network to allow easier access to social media tools.

A few quick observations

The basic direction in FCO communications is to get social media more integrated into the everyday work of the organization hence the move away from the centralized communications directorate.

There is a move to get greater integration between ‘digital’ and news.  The hope is that the integration will produce a better news operation.   Historically, the news function has been at the core of UK public diplomacy so it’s important that the drive for digital helps this rather than undermines it.  The number of people who will potentially be reached by working through media organizations dwarfs the numbers of people who are ever likely to follow  British diplomats on Twitter and Facebook.

Having identified online influencers during the Arab Spring what did the FCO do?  In ‘some cases invited them to meet with us in person’ – seems sensible to me.   The key point is that diplomacy has always been about crafting relationships and maintaining networks.  New technology is creates new opportunities for doing this.  The key choice in diplomacy is to identify which relationships and networks are the ones to use in each case. The challenge is to make sure that ‘digital’ adds options without damaging the ability to make use of existing opportunities

Finally, the document never defines what ‘digital’ is. Is is it a tool?  Is it an ideology?  Is it both?

UPDATE: There’s an interesting post on the FCO’s Digital Diplomacy blog about about the role of regional digital hubs in supporting the work of the embassies.  Because of the location in different timezones there is a always 24 support available.


Internet Freedom is Not About Regime Change

Via the USC twitter feed this link to a video interview with Alec J. Ross of the  State Department which contains this exchange

RFE/RL: Iran accuses the U.S. of providing soft help to activists to bring down the Iranian regime. Is regime change in repressive countries such as Iran, which are considered hostile to the U.S., one of the unstated goals of the U.S.’s Internet-freedom push?

Ross: Absolutely not. Internet freedom is about helping people exercise their universal rights: the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of the press. It is not a regime-change agenda.

If you look at the video he seems to having difficulty restraining himself from bursting out laughing.  Also you can’t see his hands so I bet his fingers are crossed.

Of course there is a slight possibility he really believes what he says.  That would be really worrying.

21st Century Statecraft at Work

The Zimbabwe government is reported to be mounting a crackdown on social media

The acting foreign minister is quoted as saying

The Internet and things like Twitter and Facebook are being used to destroy…We from the older generation do not know anything about these things. They are used for regime change and to make our youths revolt against their leaders

Sounds like he’s been reading up on 21st century statecraft.

PD2.0: How Much Effort Do You Need?

Via Cat Tully’s blog I came across some discussion on the Socialbakers social media measurement site about corporate use of Facebook.  They argue that posting too much can undermine user engagement just as much as too little.  Looking at brands versus media companies thei view is that brands should post 5-10 times a week while media companies should aim for a multiple of this – somewhere up to a maximum of 100.  It woudl then follow that MFAs/Embassies should clarify what the objective of their FB presence.

In a later post they take up the issue of when does managing a Facebook page become a full time job.  Although posting 5-10 posts a week wouldn’t require anything like this they you also need to look at the number of fans and the level of interaction required.  Increasing numbers of fans means more comments and a greater requirement to respond.  Socialbakers point to cases where companies have a team of three people to manage their Facebook presence.  This comes back to the issue of how much resource social media requires if it is to attain its full potential.  The problem is one of relationship management- building a set of social media relationships requires constant attention.  The issue then becomes one of trading off the contribution of a particular level of FB engagement versus other public diplomacy activities.

More on Web Video as Public Diplomacy Tool

Looking at my Twitter feed this morning @edipatstate has retweeted a link from @usembassyta – the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to a video of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg responding to questions from Facebook users.  Aha I thought –  this is the PD push to manage the fallout from Obama’s speech on Thursday.  Steinberg has been in Israel the for the last couple of days and this is the second video that the Embassy has posted.

But what strikes me is the lack of interest that either of these video has triggered.  The first of these has had 20 views (21 including my view of it) and the other has had 25.  Neither has had any comments.  In looking at English language Israeli news websites over the years  I’ve always been impressed by the speed with which stories attract comments so given the reaction to Obama’s speech particularly on the Israeli right the absence of feedback is surprising.

Now it might be that the Embassy is running other media related activities but we come back to the problem of how Embassies can actually generate traffic to their social media platforms.

Anglo-American Youtube Diplomacy: Work in Progress

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter I keep finding links to new MFA videos clicking on them and wondering  what the point is…

Partly my reaction is driven by the view that web video is an incredibly inefficient way of communication mostly you could describe the content in a paragraph that could be read in a fraction of the time that it takes to watch the video.  Also public diplomacy researchers are not the key audience for PD video so what I think is not that important.

Anyway here are a couple of examples that I found in the inbox in the last few hours.  First Up the US-European Media Hub in Brussels.  Its Facebook page describes it thus

The U.S.- European Media Hub connects journalists in and around Europe with access to U.S. policymakers and perspectives. The Hub is part of the International Media Engagement Office of the U.S. Department of State.

Their Youtube channel is here.    This has a lot of very serious talking head  videos about issues such as the role of the American Chambers of Commerce – some of which have accumulated as much as 45 views in a month.   This triggers a few thoughts.

  1. Who are you trying to communicate with?  The people that are interested in some of these issues are not going to learn anything from these videos and there’s nothing to draw in people who aren’t interested.
  2. How much does it cost to produce this material?  It maybe that it’s so cheap that the opportunity cost of production is so low that you might as well make them as not..but if there is a resource implication is this the best use of resources?
  3. The usual constraint of web activity applies how do you attract attention? I happen to follow the US Embassy in London on Twitter and so got the link but what if you don’t.

Over at the Foreign Office they are busy with their Olympics Campaign and Jimmy Leach the head of Digital Engagement tweeted a link to this Celebrating Britain video yesterday if you looked at the Olympics PD plan you will see some of the themes about connection coming out – also see the words that flash on the screen – ideas that you are supposed to take away.

Three  thoughts about this one.

1) Firstly, the video could be shorter and sharper (it’s actually a compilation of other films) – it’s not as if we don’t make lots of pop videos.

2) it faces the usual problem of UK branding, the tension between well established perceptions of the UK as a conservative country with a long history and the desire of government to make it look modern, cosmopolitan, connected, creative and high tech.

3) This is very much outward facing communication – one of the rules of nation branding is that you need to get buy in from the population and  its probably best that this doesn’t get too many views from the UK so that the comments don’t fill up with sarcastic comments.

The FCO produces quite a lot videos of various types –  their channel is here