Digital diplomacy: are we the champions?

In digital diplomacy, it is never job done. We need to continue to experiment to stay on our game. And it's a game fraught with tensions.

Hugh Elliott asks, 'Are we the champions of digital diplomacy?' (pic credit: FCO)
Hugh Elliott asks, 'Are we the champions of digital diplomacy?' (pic credit: FCO)

The tensions exist between:

Control and creativity: governments love to "control the message" – and consistency and alignment are indeed vital. But digital loves spontaneity and innovation. It is hard for (older) hierarchies to let go enough for the (newer) networks to be really effective.

Risk and reward: we must be risk-takers but not reckless. The dividing line is a daily experiment. And do we have too many unengaging pictures of men (usually) shaking hands?  Yes, we still do.

The roles of civil servants and politicians: the old role of the civil servant was discreet, impersonal, behind the scenes, policy implementers not campaigners. How do the old distinctions hold up when social media has made whole populations into vociferous political actors and when personal presence is vital for influence?

Personal and professional: civil servants generally like to keep their private lives private and live a low-key existence, but digital diplomacy is an exposed, often uncomfortable world where the dividing line between personal and professional is fading fast.

Activity and impact: we are all human and love the numbers game. But we should not hide behind digital statistics and must constantly look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what impact is our digital work actually having?

Facts and fictions: as the #fakenews debate is showing, we need to build and keep a reputation for reliability and veracity. Not easy given the suspicions and mistrust out there.

And about the very legitimacy of digital diplomacy: "non-interference in the domestic affairs of states" is at the heart of the Vienna Convention. Yet the very best digital diplomacy can feel suspiciously close to that line. Does the Convention need a digital update?

So, are we champions? To tell the truth I have no idea. I even doubt that other foreign ministries really matter (no offence, colleagues).

The real "competition" are all those individuals, groups, institutions vying for the ears and eyes of those with influence for whom – digital or not – there are still only 24 hours in any day. And for whom, when all is said and done, talking in person remains a vital and often the most impactful form of engagement.

As we go about our job of promoting the prosperity, protecting the security and projecting the values of the UK, of telling the stories of who we are, what we are doing and why we are doing it (sometimes the subject of misunderstanding or bemusement); of listening to and engaging with others all around the world, we will continue to innovate. We will be ever more digital. We will still aspire to be the best foreign ministry because we are competitive and it's fun and rewarding.

We will have lots of ups and downs along the way. But we will do so mindful of the fact that human beings are at the heart of what matters and that digital diplomacy is only one means to the vital goal of diplomacy, which in the words of former foreign secretary Lord Hague is "to improve the condition of humanity".

Hugh Elliott is the former director of communications at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, now director of Europe at the same department.

This is an extract from a blog that first appeared on the FCO's website before Elliott took up his current role.


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