Public diplomacy in a networked world

Public diplomacy in a networked world

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When diplomat George Morrison contacted me to discuss his CIPR Diploma research project on public diplomacy via social forms of media I wanted to hear more. Here he writes about putting the public into public diplomacy. By George Morrison

As a diplomat, I’m fascinated by the growing trend of Foreign Ministries using social media as part of their public diplomacy tool kit.

According to @DigiDiplomats 77 Foreign Ministries now have official twitter accounts, and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has over 120 twitter channels and 120 Facebook pages.

Tweeting Ambassadors, ‘liking’ Embassy Facebook statuses, and checking out Instagram accounts of a government minister's visit to a distant country are increasingly the norm.

Public diplomacy, like public relations, has evolved as society has changed. It’s come a long way from the days of the Cold War where the word propaganda was regularly used to describe the discipline.

But how has the profession, which has its roots in persuasion and was traditionally run by diplomats who are instinctively drawn to discretion, adapted to the use of social media?

Social dialogue in public diplomacy

As a CIPR Diploma student, I had the opportunity to analyse the use of social media by Foreign Ministries, in particular how they used it to create dialogue with publics abroad as part of their public diplomacy activity.

My research highlighted many trends that practitioners will be familiar with:

  1. The majority of public diplomacy people surveyed believed dialogue and engagement with a wide range of publics was a good thing and critical to the success of their business objectives. We’ve seen William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary and US Secretary of State John Kerry both championing this within their respective departments;
  2. It was also accepted that social media gave Foreign Ministries unparalleled opportunities to engage in dialogue with a wide range of publics. They could now be where the conversations were happening; listening, analysing, engaging and ultimately shaping the debate; and,
  3. Public diplomacy practitioners understood that social media had to be integrated across the organisation if it was to be successful.

But my study also threw up some interesting contradictions.

Putting the public into public diplomacy

While practitioners understood the potential for social media to facilitate dialogue, very few practiced it. Most still used social media to broadcast messages with very little interaction with publics.

As a result, we're probably losing the opportunity to build relationships with important individuals and groups, limiting our ability to influence. It is also difficult to measure impact without any feedback.

There was strong evidence public diplomacy practitioners recognised that social media was forcing diplomacy to become more transparent and more consultative,  putting the public into public diplomacy. But there was concern about losing control of messaging by using social media.

An interesting dilemma.

Ceding control and deference to reference

Putting aside the argument of whether we ever had ‘control’, the instincts of some practitioners to control the message clearly doesn’t fit with the ‘democratisation’ of information that social media is facilitating.

And if our aim is to enter into dialogue with publics, then by definition we can’t get too hung up about handing over control of one half of that conversation.

There wasn’t a widespread recognition that the number of actors involved in public diplomacy had increased.

As a profession, we need to widen our perspective and understanding of what a relevant public is. Nowadays governments don’t have the monopoly on information.

Social media has given NGOs, civil society groups, business and even individuals a voice in foreign policy development and implementation. Of course, social media can help public diplomacy practitioners get to grips with this- it’s a powerful research tool in the right hands.

Just as public diplomacy is gearing up its use of social media, we find the public are treating communication from ‘official’ sources with more and more scepticism, preferring to trust their peers.

This movement from deference to reference poses an interesting challenge for public diplomacy, and is forcing the profession to come up with innovative ways to engage publics.

My research only scratched the surface of this topic, but gave me enough of an insight to conclude that the profession is making headway in adapting to the realities of a networked world.

Awareness of the important role social media based dialogue can play in achieving organisational objectives is also on the up. But blockages remain to mainstreaming it across the profession.

I’d advocate going back to basics and drawing on the foundation of good public relations and public diplomacy practice, namely being clear what we want to achieve, working out who we need to speak to get there, and work out if it’s been achieved.

About the author

P1010932George Morrison is a diplomat with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He was the Head of Communications at the UK Embassy in Bangkok and after deciding to get a job closer to the UK, ended up working at the British High Commission in Australia. He has just completed his CIPR Diploma in Public Relations and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn how to juggle part time study with a wife and two kids while getting a thorough understanding of PR as a Profession. You can connect with George via Twitter @GMorrisonUK.

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