The United Kingdom and the Rise of Digital Public Diplomacy

Written By: Gleb Mytko, University of Leiden/Clingendael Institute of International Relations

By Colearn (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Technological developments in the field of digital communication have revolutionized the practice of public diplomacy. A considerable number of countries have recognized the many opportunities offered by these new technologies and have embraced them. Each year, both the number of states with such programs and the amount of resources dedicated to these activities grow. Countries that fail to understand the importance of digital public diplomacy are greatly disadvantaged, and this is widely recognized. In March 2012, for instance, the Australian Federal Parliament and the national media criticized the Department of Foreign Affairs for completely failing to take advantage of new technologies, and an inquiry was begun.[1] Simply put, it is no longer possible to disregard digital public diplomacy.

            The extent to which countries employ digital communication technologies to conduct public diplomacy varies greatly. Industrialized nations have generally been the first to adopt such practices and the most committed to digital public diplomacy. For these reasons, they have also been the most successful. The US has roughly 150 full-time staff at home and 900 diplomats abroad who use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs to conduct public diplomacy.[2] Over time, these countries have developed more sophisticated and multi-faceted strategies. This is not to say that digital public diplomacy is only practiced by industrialized nations. Rapidly developing countries such as India have started to utilize new technologies for diplomatic purposes as well. Because digital public diplomacy is still in the early stages of development and is constantly evolving, real success stories are still few and far between. However, with time, states will develop more advanced and effective approaches to this kind of activity.

            The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to conduct digital public diplomacy and has developed a strategy that works particularly well. Its approach is structured and flexible, efficient and effective, and sophisticated and wide-ranging. Through examining the UK’s activities, scholars can learn about multiple aspects of digital public diplomacy, including motivating factors, structure, and training. Such an examination will also help identify the advantages, understand the challenges, and explore measures of success. The case of the United Kingdom is valuable because it offers a variety of insights about effective strategies. Much of the information about the country’s efforts was gathered during an interview with British officials.

            In the UK, the Digital Diplomacy department of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) takes the lead in these activities. The department develops broad guidelines on how to use social media and other new technologies and trains diplomats before they are posted abroad. The department also plays an oversight role because it must approve the diplomats’ more risky activities and evaluate their performance. Within each embassy, officials have some leeway in regards to how they engage with foreign publics. Diplomats are free to choose what issues are discussed, what segments of the foreign public are targeted, and what information is provided to the people. Because much is learned on the job, strategies tend to evolve over time. The Digital Diplomacy department assists diplomats with the adoption of best practices by encouraging them to share positive and negative experiences.

            For the UK, the motivation to carry out this type of diplomacy comes from the recognition of its many advantages over traditional techniques (e.g., organizing events, publishing articles, targeting politicians). Exogenous factors such as the global financial crisis and the rise of new communication technologies have also provided additional motivation. First and foremost, digital public diplomacy is much more cost-effective than traditional strategies. It requires a much smaller commitment in terms of financial resources, time, and personnel during a time when budgets for public diplomacy continue to shrink worldwide because of financial difficulties. In the UK, expenditures on these activities are expected to remain well below historic levels for the foreseeable future, meaning the country will have to rely on digital public diplomacy to a much greater extent.

Using social media and new communication technologies allows diplomats to reach a much wider audience. Often, this includes groups that have never been targeted before. For the UK, digital public diplomacy is the most important tool for engaging foreign youth. Immigrants in foreign countries are another important group. With one Facebook message or blog post, officials can reach thousands of people representing a wide range of groups. Recently, UK diplomats in the Netherlands sent out a tweet about a conference on Somalia being held in London in order to highlight their country’s work in Africa. The tweet was picked up by The Guardian and was re-tweeted. Instead of reaching just a few hundred followers of the UK embassy, it reached 26,000 people. The message was read by Dutch residents, UK citizens, and a variety of people working on Somali issues. The impact of the original tweet was greatly magnified as it spread over the internet. This multiplication effect is another key advantage of digital public diplomacy. If done right, messages put out by diplomats are spread by individuals, organizations, and the media. Their impact increases greatly at no cost to the sending country.  

While digital public diplomacy has numerous advantages over traditional public diplomacy, it can never completely replace its counterpart. Simply put, there are some things it cannot do effectively such as targeting the political class in a foreign country. There are also a number of challenges associated with digital diplomacy. Most importantly, not all people have access to new communication technologies or use the same types of social media. It is also very hard to get the balance between information that is interesting and that which is in line with what the government is trying to convey. If the message is not attention-grabbing, it will not be picked up by other actors. Often this involves taking risks, which sometimes do not pay off. A UK diplomat light-heartedly posted a comment about the sunshine and sand of the Caribbean on a blog designed to shed light on how modern day diplomats live. The message was picked up by the UK media and was portrayed as a government official living the good life at the taxpayers’ expense. As the message is spread and discussed by third parties, it may be portrayed in a way that is contrary to the interests of the sending party. Additionally, it must be remembered that with today’s digital public diplomacy, there is no separation between the domestic and foreign publics, which makes this type of activity even more difficult.

Many new forms of communication and social media require short messages, which are much easier to spin and misrepresent. Thus, digital public diplomacy requires a great deal of careful planning. However, the repercussions of a message are often unforeseeable, which makes getting the right information out much more difficult. The fact that mistakes are permanent when using new communication technologies only raises the stakes. Once something is on the internet, it cannot be removed. The multiplication effect discussed above increases how much damage a mistake can cause.

Finally, the most important challenge for countries practicing digital public diplomacy is how to measure success. No country has found an effective strategy for measurement, including the UK. The country has abandoned using surveys and has concluded that a purely quantitative approach is lacking. Looking at the number of views, “likes”, and re-tweets is not enough to fully gauge the impact of the messages being sent out. A more nuanced, qualitative approach is needed to ascertain the full value of digital public diplomacy efforts. Such an approach has not yet been developed, meaning it is difficult to gauge whether a particular strategy was effective. Identifying best practices is also problematic because of the issues with defining success.

Despite these challenges, digital public diplomacy will become more prominent in the future. Because of the above advantages, countries will continue to dedicate greater attention to such activities. To be truly effective, however, digital public diplomacy must complement traditional public diplomacy. These two activities are deeply interconnected and must be approached with this in mind. The UK has developed a comprehensive strategy that combines digital and traditional public diplomacy. Although it is unclear how effective the UK has been, the fact that it is moving in the right direction is apparent to all. Individual successes in conveying important messages to foreign publics during the last few years are indicative of a strategy that is effective. The fact that diplomats from other countries have inquired about the UK’s approach also attests to its success. As the UK’s digital public diplomacy strategy continues to evolve and improve, it will play a more important role in international relations in the years to come.

 

Gleb Mytko is currently enrolled in the International Relations and Diplomacy program offered by the University of Leiden and the Clingendael Institute of International Relations. Previously, he worked as a global industry analyst and regional specialist (Eastern Europe) for the Freedonia Group (US).  

He is availabe for contact at: : gmytko@yahoo.com

 

 


[1] Ireland, Judith, “Australia lags in E-Diplomacy”, Sydney Morning Herald, 03/27/2012.

[2] Ireland, Judith, “Australia lags in E-Diplomacy”, Sydney Morning Herald, 03/27/2012.

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