Digital Diplomacy: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Several weeks ago I participated in a Digital Diplomacy Conference hosted by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was really quite a good event: participants from around the world, and both academics and practitioners.

I was given (or perhaps this is how I chose to interpret my role) the task of pouring some cold water on the buzz – to talk about some of the challenges and pitfalls in putting all the enthusiasm and good ideas into action.

As you may have noticed from my previous posts, I’m a big believer in the promise of social media for diplomats. I think it’s essential if diplomacy is to reinvent itself and remain relevant in the modern age. Diplomacy is about the exertion of influence, at the end of the day, and social media tools, used wisely, enable diplomats to wield greater influence.

But I’m not so naive as to believe that such activity is without risks, to both you personally and your government. Sometimes the evangelists (and I count myself amongst them), in our enthusiastic efforts to recruit disciples, tend to gloss over the possibility that a digital diplomacy effort might all end horribly, in a veritable train wreck.

As someone at the conference said quite sensibly (Chatham House rules prevent me from identifying them), part of the trick with social media is that you need to “seek the edge”. There is no point using new media to just broadcast old media messages. You need to be interesting, insightful and relevant if you are to build a platform of influence. You need to give personally. Sometimes you need to be controversial. At the very least you need to be prepared to weigh in on the controversial issues.

But when you are out there, always seeking the edge, at times you will inevitably find yourself dangling perilously over it. With that in mind, here are some maxims I try to keep in mind when using social media as a diplomat. (I can’t call them rules as such, as I break them too often. But they do provide some guidance.)

Firstly, remember your limits.

As a diplomat, you are an actor, not a commentator. You represent a government. Tempting as it is, you can’t just weigh in on a trending topic and vent your personal views. This is a particularly fraught area when it comes to domestic politics. Like all diplomats stationed here, I have my own views and judgements about political developments in Israel. But these are for conveying privately, to my capital. Unless Australia has a particular equity at stake in the debate, it’s not my job to weigh in publicly and applaud or criticise.

You are also jurisdictionally limited. It’s your job to defend, explain, sell and provide context for your own country and your country’s policies, but only to the extent they relate to or are relevant for the country in which you are stationed. You are not some sort of super-spokesperson at large. It’s perfectly appropriate for me, as Australia’s ambassador to Israel, to articulate our long-standing support for a two-state solution. But it’s not my role to comment on terrorist attacks in Turkey or the US presidential race – that’s for my colleagues in Ankara and Washington.

Remember also that social media is for communicating current policy, but not for policy-making. If you want to change the policy, you’ll need to do it through the normal channels and processes, and make the case through your headquarters. You can’t just announce it via Twitter.

Secondly, acknowledge the risks.

Some of these risks are the same as for other forms of media engagement. There’s the risk that, in your efforts to package policy in the most compelling way for a local audience, you’ll inadvertently create “daylight” between you and your capital. And there are few stories the media love more than seemingly inconsistent messages.

There’s the risk that, by engaging with a negative story, you might give it a new lease of life, rather than letting it die a natural death.

And then there’s the risk particular to social media: that you’ll engage with your critics and trolls in a way that quickly becomes unedifying and undignified. No matter how right you might think you are, and how ill-informed your critics, it’s nearly always best just to let it go.

Someone at the conference claimed that the “half-life” of digital mistakes was far shorter than those committed in the old, analogue world. Reflecting upon that assertion, I could not disagree more. As those harrowing stories of careers ruined by ill-advised social media commentary testify, a digital mistake has an almost omnipresent quality. It can live and scar your life forever.

Thirdly, don’t delude yourself that foreign ministries are anything other than conservative by nature.

There will be digital czars in every one of them telling you that the culture has changed, that experimentation is encouraged, that mistakes will be tolerated, and that a hundred flowers should bloom. They mean well by this. But until social media is embraced as a mainstream platform for diplomacy, rather than seen as a sideline activity for those eager and inclined, they will not have your back.

When I think of the digital diplomatic doyens out there, I struggle to find evidence that they have gained in career terms from their significant digital impact. Tom Fletcher, the UK’s former ambassador to Lebanon, has left the foreign service. Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, is old enough and senior enough to get away with testing the limits (as he says himself, he has nothing to lose as this is his last job:

But for those of us in more modest professional positions, we need to be patient.

Test the limits, but do not seek to destroy them. Do what you can to encourage digital diplomacy to become more mainstream, and make it an integral part of career progression. Help identify champions and role models. And seize upon the young people in your organisations, whose digital literacy and enthusiasm is a force to be harnessed for change.

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