What Ediplomacy can Learn from Ehealth: The Importance of Tailoring Foreign Policy Messages

On Governments and Cyberspace

In 1996 John Perry Barlow published the Deceleration of Independence of Cyberspace. In his manifesto, Barlow envisioned cyberspace as a world that is detached from the physical one, a world that would offer its inhabitants a new marketplace of ideas and free speech far from the tyranny of government. For in Barlow’s cyberspace, the governments of the world had neither power nor sovereignty.

Nearly two decades later, Barlow’s vision for cyberspace seems to be irrelevant. Nowadays, cyberspace is not separate from the physical world but is rather its extension in digital surroundings. Relationships that begin online soon materialize offline and friendships that were forged offline are maintained online. Likewise, the days of anonymous chats rooms are over. Our online and offline personas have merged on our Facebook and twitter profiles. Yet most importantly, the governments of the world are no longer banned from cyberspace. On the contrary, they have become its most recent inhabitants.

While foreign ministries (MFAs) have now made the move to cyberspace, they are not the first branches of governments to do so. National health systems and Ministries of Health were among the first to realize the potential of cyberspace and Information and Communication Technologies as tool for reaching their citizenry and their use of cyberspace may be of great interest to MFAs.

From Targeting to Tailoring- National Health Systems and Cyberspace

In the past, public health campaigns aimed at altering health behaviors of a national population were considered expensive and ineffective. This is due to the fact that altering one’s health behavior is quite demanding. For instance, smokers that are called upon to give up their addictive habit are asked to sacrifice a beloved activity for the prospect of a healthier future in a few years’ time . Yet in age of immediate satisfaction, this is not always viewed as a lucrative transaction.

During the 1980’s public health experts sought to increase the effectiveness of their campaigns by targeting specific populations. Thus, the campaign would no longer target all smokers but only smokers who have expressed a desire to “kick the habit”. In the decade of Ronald Reagan, the “A-Team” and Miami Vice, reaching specific populations was achieved through phone surveys and questionnaires distributed at community centers.

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But it was the birth of cyberspace, and the internet, that truly revolutionized health related campaigns as they could now target individuals rather than specific populations thus making the transition from targeting to tailoring. If targeting is an attempt to reach a specific population, tailoring is meant to meet the specific needs and characteristics of an individual. In the decade of Facebook, Survivor and Obama this could be achieved through the internet and the cell phone.

Smokers now taking part in health interventions receive health related messages based on their specific habits. So a smoker who experiences craving during the morning will be sent a text message to his cell during such hours offering techniques to overcome cravings such as playing a game on his phone. Over the past few years, numerous studies have found that tailored health interventions are an effective way to bring about health behavior changes. Tailoring health messages to one’s specific needs and characteristics makes them more relevant to the individual and thus increase the possibility of health behavior change (e.g., stop smoking, change daily diet).

From Targeting to Tailoring- Foreign Ministries and Cyberspace

The transition from targeting to tailoring may prove useful to foreign ministries currently mastering the art of digital diplomacy. I do not mean to suggest that MFAs should now develop smartphone applications and tailor foreign policy messages to the individual (Dear Ilan- President Obama wants to assure you of his commitment to LGBT rights. The @State Team). But rather, that foreign policy messages should be tailored to the characteristics of specific national populations and that such tailoring should be the ultimate goals of bi-lateral embassies.

At the moment, however, tailoring seems to be almost nonexistent. While MFAs often operate social media channels in foreign languages (e.g., Israel MFA’s Arabic channel, State Department’s Russian channel), the content published by bi-lateral embassies is often identical to that which is published by MFAs. Thus, many embassies publish content that is completely irrelevant to the local population. This, in turn, prevents embassies from reaching their goal of creating long lasting relationships online that will translate to support for their foreign policy offline.

Realizing the Potential of Digital Diplomacy

Tailoring foreign policy messages is of paramount importance if digital diplomacy is to reach its potential. The question is how does one practice tailoring?

First, MFA content should not simply be re-tweeted by embassies. Social media managers at the embassy level should evaluate if MFA content is relevant to the local population. If this is the case, then such content should be modified in order to increase its relevance to the local population by taking into account local customs, values and history. Likewise, the relationship that exists between nations should also impact the content shared by bi-lateral embassies (e.g. allies, adversaries). A nation’s image among a foreign population must also be taken into account when publishing foreign policy messages on social media. The manner in which the US is viewed by Israelis, Egyptians and Mexicans necessitates that different content be shared by US embassies in each of these nations.

In addition, tailoring calls for more more social media content that is authored by the local embassy and deals with its activity. Finally, tailoring of foreign policy messages rests on taking into account feedback received from one’s followers. Tweets and posts that cause local uproars should not be discarded but rather analyzed in order to determine what element in the message was rejected by the local population, and why.  Taking into account such feedback would enable embassies to truly utilize social media interaction with thier followers.

In summary, tailoring calls for greater freedom at the embassy level as well as willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. It also necessitates that MFAs realize the importance of the embassy social media manger to the national digital diplomacy effort. Should MFAs fear these changes they may inadvertently inhibit their ability to make the important transition from targeting to tailoring.

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