Jimmy Leach, FCO: New terms of engagement

Digital diplomats listen as well as they talk, using social media to engage with audiences.

Jimmy Leach, FCO: New terms of engagement
Jimmy Leach, FCO: New terms of engagement

Diplomacy is the art of persuasion, negotiation and building support. Above all, in the shifting sands of international circumstances, it's a process. It's not a campaign with a beginning and an end - successful practitioners constantly re-evaluate the circumstances in which they find themselves, they are always in review.

Anyone who's worked in digital will know that feeling. As established networks tumble, as mobiles, tablets and whatever new gadgetry comes next alters the entry points, the mechanics of engagement change and new demographics are introduced.

Foreign Secretary William Hague announced early in his tenure that he wanted to 'extend our global reach and influence, be agile and energetic in a networked world'. And in response to that challenge, the FCO is learning the languages of web publishing, social media and digital engagement.

We have a web network, with 270 sites in 40 different languages, run on the basis of international 'hyperlocality' - the platform is provided centrally, but content is created locally for specific audiences. We assume digital competence from all involved in communications. Given the tools, local comms teams and ambassadors will write and edit themselves. As publishers, our USP is access - to the policy-making process and to the decision-makers in diplomacy. Blogging is one such entry point. We've had ministers, ambassadors and campaigners blogging everywhere from London and Washington to Helmand and Benghazi. All are open to comments.

But we're moving away from viewing all our content as part of destination websites to the more fluid approach of pushing content to where the audiences are. We can create content for specific media and audiences - a YouTube video to support the Olympic effort or a blog post showing the rebuilding of Afghanistan - different audiences, different approaches.

We've looked at social media as distribution and engagement tools. The FCO has long had a channel on YouTube, and now has almost 100 senior figures on Twitter, including the Foreign Secretary, who regularly does Q&A sessions. Other ministers and ambassadors do their own Q&As on Facebook and YouTube. We're on FourSquare, Flickr, iTunes and Storify.

It's not a tickbox mentality - honest. It's the embedding of information and engagement into the weft and weave of the web, including mobile, allowing hundreds of thousands to interact directly, to hear from us regularly and to amplify our messages. There's also a technical approach to distribution - notably for travel advice where reach and timelines are vital, and where we've built more than 250 RSS feeds and released APIs so others can integrate our information into digital offerings of their own.

It's a profound change in the way we communicate. We're still a little way from digital by default, but we're integrating digital into the communications work across our networks. That integration is quickening, driven by events in the Middle East and North Africa. The need to know who the authors of revolution are and what their plans might be has driven digital to the centre - monitoring and contributing to events as they happen.

Decluttering the noise and understanding where to make the connections and contributions is a new skill in the armoury of the digital diplomat, and is part of creating a broad view that goes beyond the press release of old-style public diplomacy into the determined embedding in conversations far and wide. The digital diplomat is a listener as well as a talker, and it's a whole new world of influence.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

How can a corporate website become a media channel?

By holding on to the content. If a corporate channel offers content that no-one else has, or delivers that content first, then it is a direct source of unique information, and so a media outlet. By retaining control, it gives the end product greater leverage.

What are the essential elements of content that is 'liked' on Facebook?

The value of the link needs to be obvious. It might be simply 'you'll enjoy this' or perhaps it will enable you to perform an action or transaction more easily, but the value needs to be clear before the click or people won't bother. So the text or picture needs to offer that clarity.

Jimmy Leach is head of digital diplomacy for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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