Diplomacy in the digital age
British High Commissioner to Ghana Jon Benjamin delivered a speech on Diplomacy at the DreamOval Foundation event at Accra.
It’s great to be back at the British Council - almost my second home in Accra, professionally speaking - with thanks to the Dream Oval Foundation for inviting me, and just as importantly, for letting me choose my own topic! But I hope it’s one of interest to you. The topic is – “diplomacy in the digital age”.
It is, however, Friday evening, at the end of a long week and so I don’t want to bore you by speaking for far too long. Instead, I’ll leave a lot of time for questions afterwards, which I’m hoping they’ll be quite a few of.
Now you know we Brits often quote Winston Churchill, and here’s one of my favourites. Just before making one of his many memorable speeches - like this one timed, I believe, on a Friday just as everyone might already prefer to be off concentrating on their weekend plans - Churchill said this: “I’m now going to make a speech. It’s my job to talk and it’s your job to listen. Let me know if you finish your job before I finish mine”.
So, at the first sign of anybody dozing off or finding their smart phone much more interesting than I am - which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be too difficult – then I’ll cut these opening remarks even shorter and there’ll be time for even more of a discussion.
Now, what follows are my views and mine alone. As such they are no more valid or inherently correct than anyone else’s, so I’m very happy to be challenged and told I’ve got it wrong – that’s what discussion and debate are for.
First up, some definitions. We’re talking tonight about digital diplomacy.
Diplomacy existed long before digital diplomacy, so - what is diplomacy? Well, diplomacy is how countries do foreign policy [repeat]. Fair enough, but what’s foreign policy then?
Foreign policy is one sovereign state’s strategy for dealing with other sovereign states. [Repeat] And why? A country has a foreign policy in order to safeguard its own interests and achieve shared international goals. In other words, diplomacy is about how a country does that. Foreign policy is managing international relations - to achieve your own aims internationally and shared international goals with others. That’s the aim of foreign policy; diplomacy is the means of achieving that aim.
And diplomats are the people who do that professionally, though there are plenty of other less flattering definitions around about my profession, like, famously: “diplomats are people sent abroad to lie for their country” – not a concept I personally subscribe to!
So, if diplomacy is the machinery for conducting foreign policy, what about digital diplomacy, the title of this talk? What does that mean?
Put simply, digital diplomacy is how governments and their diplomats use the Internet, smart telephony and social media as part of managing international relations, again in their own national interest.
That’s what we’re talking about, and that’s important because, frankly, sometimes - and I say this even as a keen practitioner of it myself - I think that there is a tendency to overstate the meaning and importance of digital diplomacy. As a profession, I guess like many other professions, diplomacy can have a self-obsessed fascination about itself – often while failing to make an impact on others. There’s a recent tendency, I think, to spend too much timing talking and navel gazing about digital diplomacy rather than just getting on and doing it.
My point is this: digital diplomacy may be a new form of the art, but it’s still diplomacy, not separate from it. And diplomacy, one of the world’s older professions - though not I’m reliably told the oldest - has essentially always consisted of two parts - the private and the public.
Private diplomacy – by which I mean confidential, quiet exchanges between governments and off-the-record private conversations with leading figures in society - still happens and is still the core of what we do. So, if I go to see the President, or the Foreign Minister, or the leader of the opposition, or a key businessman about a perspective commercial deal involving the UK, or I have an off-the-record discussion with the Editor of a newspaper, then what we say to each other remains private. indeed, much more often than not, the very fact that we’ve met stays private too: you won’t find me tweeting about it.
But that confidential, behind-closed-doors diplomacy has always been complimented by public diplomacy. And public diplomacy means direct, on-the-record communication by governments, directly or through their diplomats, with the publics of other countries in order to inform and influence them – and sometimes in ways that the governments of those other countries might not like.
Public diplomacy has existed for as long as private diplomacy has.
So, my main thesis tonight is that digital diplomacy is just another, just the latest, form of public diplomacy, though arguably the most public form of it ever. Similarly, social and digital media may be the latest and most wide-reaching forms of communication ever known – but they are still types of communication, not something wholly separate.
In other words, let’s not put digital diplomacy and social media completely on a pedestal. Individual human beings have always communicated, that’s one of the core things that make us human; and societies have always engaged in mass communications. So, we’re talking about a new form of communication, not something that is above and beyond, or a wholly separate category from basic communication, per se.
All that said, the Internet, social media, blogging, smart telephony etc are qualitatively different forms of communication, and that has consequences for how we use them in diplomacy. Digital technology has certainly disrupted and transformed diplomacy, and most of all of course that public part of it, the part we call public diplomacy. Apart from anything, our diplomacy now has to be quicker, less formal and rigid, more impactful, more robust in debate and more responsive to those who question it.
To paraphrase one of the great gurus of this subject - my friend and colleague British ambassador, Tom Fletcher - successful digital diplomacy is about three things: authenticity, engagement and purpose. It’s most effective when all three are achieved at the same time.
If you only meet two out of those three qualities – which, again, are authenticity, engagement and purpose – if you only hit two out of those three, then you may miss the mark.
So, for example, authenticity and engagement without a real purpose can be eye-catching but may well end up being pretty ephemeral or not more than sloganistic. But add some real purpose – such as the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which was both an awareness raiser and a description of the end goal at the same time – and a digital campaign can create a common aim that goes viral.
Against that of course, we can surely only judge that campaign a success, if we then do actually bring back the girls, something sadly we’re still waiting for in this case. So, we have to progress more now in developing the metrics to know if and how we’ve actually influenced others, what reach and access we have and where – and whether we’ve actually achieved anything through such campaigns.
And, more generally while I’m on this subject, beware of viral hashtag hysterics that may reflect very genuine and widespread concern, but often replace, or certainly don’t lead to, real action. People often have short memories. The circus moves on, a new issue takes over public attention. So, a social media campaign might be very intense but only short lived, with little account asked for later by the people who so enthusiastically took part in the first wave of concern.
Real concrete results in diplomacy are nearly always the result of long, hard, patient hours, days, weeks and months - and sometimes years – and not the result of sending out a tweet.
So, that’s authenticity and engagement without a real purpose.
But, alternatively, how about if you have authenticity and purpose but no engagement? Then, you might be transmitting a message without others hearing you and without you listening to what others think. A lot of political and business communication still falls into this trap.
For me, one of the great things about my own social media engagement is that I end up speaking directly with - or ‘engaging’ - a lot of quote unquote ‘ordinary’ people, including people who, quite frankly, didn’t necessarily expect to find themselves having a conversation with an ambassador or high commissioner.
Given that diplomats, particularly ambassadors, have so often, and often for good reason, been regarded as remote and elite figures living in an ivory tower, I think this ability to have a real time conversation and directly to answer questions from people who have never interacted with a diplomat before is inherently terrific. It breaks down real or perceived walls. It humanises my profession. It is also democratic and transparent, as a way for the public to hold diplomats accountable – and remember diplomats, like me, are public servants and so they should be held to account.
In short, social media now allows supposedly ‘ordinary’ people to talk directly to a real person in a position of some relative power and influence – and, generally speaking, I think they much prefer that than to speak to an institution, or, indeed, to a brick wall.
So, that’s authenticity and purpose without engagement.
So, finally, what about engagement and purpose but without authenticity? In my view, that can simply add up to insincerity.
I’ve often said that while we all make mistakes on social media - and heaven knows I have made and learnt from a few of my own - the biggest mistake now is not to be on social media at all. Another mistake is to be on it so infrequently or in such a boring, ‘safe’ manner as not really to engage at all.
But, another serious mistake in my view is to be on social media but to fake it, by trying to be someone you’re not. Generally, sooner or later, people will see through a faker. So, I always try and be myself, and true to myself, in my online persona, while also trying to be a good representative of those who pay my salary.
So, for example, if you don’t really care about football, you should not pretend that you do, simply as a means of seeming more approachable. Fortunately, as you know, I do like football, and talk about it a lot. But I don’t generally pretend that I like, say, opera … because I don’t. So, I don’t talk about or join in debates about it.
Incidentally, I’m often asked why I tweet about things, not obviously to do with my work – sport, music, film, funny cartoons etc. Well, quite apart from the fact that Britain is incredibly strong in all those categories, since we are global leaders in what is now called ‘soft power’, I also happen to think that discussing those things is part of being authentic. I love my work - it’s not just my job, it’s my vocation in life – but it doesn’t totally define me. I have other interests and passions, certain things make me laugh, I have a work-life balance. And I think it’s authentic to show that more personal aspect of oneself too sometimes.
In short, on social media in general and in digital diplomacy in particular, it’s important to find your own, genuine voice, not somebody else’s. Reflect a true you, not somebody else.
Of course, there are plenty of pitfalls. I sometimes make what I think are light-hearted jokes, laced with obvious irony to signpost that fact, but some people then take such comments entirely literally and deadly seriously.
And bear in mind, too, that it is much easier to share information, which you can generally do very quickly, than to change opinions, which needs perseverance, if it is to work at all. And always remember that everyone is always absolutely entitled not to agree with you and absolutely entitled to question you.
Another questions I get is “why do you answer so many questions from others on social media”? I think that, generally, if somebody has taken the time to ask a question, then whenever it’s practically possible they deserve an answer, again not least because I am a public servant paid for by the taxpayers of my country to provide a public service.
The ‘how’ people disagree or ask questions, though, is important: I never indulge in personal abuse or insult, that’s just basic good manners. But far too many people clearly do just that online – the famous trolls. My view is that there are always civil ways to disagree with others or ask them questions. Too many people say exaggeratedly harsh things on social media or digitally, that they would never say in public or to the face of the person they are attacking. I think there’s still a need for better social media etiquette overall.
There are many other aspects of digital diplomacy that I don’t have time to go into this evening which also merit discussion:
for example, how governments, how foreign ministries find and mine digital information to identify national and global trends;
or, the fact that national leaders in different countries now communicate with each other directly, both privately and publicly, pulling down the walls of the often stilted protocol, formal rules and intermediaries which for so long governed that sort of high-level interaction between countries;
or, how we as governments and embassies can increasingly deliver online public services such as visas, passports, consular services, travel advice and emergency response in disaster situations to our citizens overseas?
I end by saying that digital diplomacy – by which I really just mean diplomats being proficient and present online and in social media - is not just a recent new addition to traditional diplomacy but already a core part of it. Every ambassador from every country ought to be on it – presenting, debating, responding, countering, influencing. This new kind of public engagement shouldn’t be a professional optional extra but a compulsory part of the job description of every diplomat of every country in whatever country they are serving.
So, if you’d like, I’ll now extend that very necessary public engagement by taking any questions or comments you’d like to put. Thanks very much for listening.