On Friday, December 2nd, the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group, and the Latvian Mission to Geneva, co-hosted a Digital Diplomacy event at the UN headquarters in Geneva. The purpose of the event was to examine whether there is a Return On Investment in digital diplomacy activities.
The event demonstrated that the first stage of digital diplomacy has ended. This stage was characterized by the mass migration of MFAs, embassies and diplomats to digital platforms. MFAs wanted to be active on many platforms, in many countries while posting as many tweets as possible.
Now we are witnessing the professionalization of digital diplomacy. Diplomats are looking for the best ways to use digital diplomacy to achieve pre-defined and measurable goals. But doing so, means that diplomats must end their numerical obsession. The quality of one’s followers is more important than the quantity. Likewise, the question is not how many re-tweets you average, but who is it that is re-tweeting your content.
Below are 10 #DigitalDiplomacy tips for MFAs, embassies, diplomats and organizations looking to better their practice of digital diplomacy and overcome numerical obsessions.
- The tip first deals with the transition from targeted communication to tailored communication. Tailored communication means that a digital platform is used to reach a specific audience group that has specific interests, needs and attributes. The generic embassy Facebook page that tries to talk to everyone all the time usually ends up attracting almost no one.
- The second tip deals with a transition from digital tactics to digital strategy. A digital tactic asks- What will cause my Tweet to go viral? A picture? A joke? An animation? A digital strategy aims to achieve a long term, pre-defined goal that can be measured. The goal determines the audience and the audience determines the platform. Such is the case with a three months social media campaign to remake Poland’s image among Swiss financial consultants. These consultants mainly use twitter so that will be the platform de jour. The strategy would consist of a Twitter campaign with a dedicated hashtag and pre authored tweets, pre-prepared info-graphics and pre scheduled events such as a Q&A with the Polish finance minister.Free questionnaires would be disseminated amid Swiss financial consultants before and after the campaign to measure actual impact.
- Digital strategies not only bring structure and measurability, they also free up the embassy digital diplomacy staff. Theses staffers are now free to deal with day to day communication and master new digital platforms. But most importantly, these staffers are now free to engage with the embassy’s followers. This means conversing online, supplying information, answering questions and participating in online debates. All out studies show that it is engagement that drives digital outreach.
- Mistakes are inevitable. The online public is volatile, unpredictable and comic as we saw last week with the hashtag #TrudeauEulogies. Bust as Hugh Elliot of the British FCO says, the life span of online blunders is short. Within a day most people forget the mistakes of yesterday. So diplomats should continue venturing online while superiors should be tolerant of mistakes.
- Digital diplomacy is supported by knowledge and talent. While not all diplomats have the talent to become twitteratis, they can develop the skills necessary to effectively use digital platforms. But this requires training that is tailored to the responsibilities of the diplomat and his posting. MFAs cannot train the press attaché to Berlin as they would the Ambassador to Dubai. Tailored training is thus another way to professionalize digital diplomacy and increase its ROI.
- Tweeting and facebooking is but one form of communication that does not cancel others. Face to face interaction and op-eds still play an important role. But so do other digital platforms. Whatsapp may be the best platform for online press briefings with journalists while smartphone apps can be utilized for consular crises.
- Despite the current rhetoric regrading echo chambers and fake news, it is important to note that social media audiences are intelligent and interested in the world around them. Diplomats are expert analysts of world affairs. Thus, sharing insight and analysis drives digital outreach. The most influential Ambassadors on Twitter are those that curate content for their followers, suggest websites and journalists and offer analysis.
- Increasing ROI means adopting new qualitative measuring tools. These can include free online questionnaires, free online surveys, Twitter survey questions and sentiment analysis to explore the rhetoric one facilitates online. But just as important is frame analysis. Social media is a contented environment in which the narratives, of or frames, of one diplomatic actor are immediately contrasted by the narratives of another. ROI necessitates analyzing the opponent’s frames and responding to them.
- There are three forms of change that a diplomatic organization can aspire to. Changing a follower’s opinion, changing his perception and changing his behavior. Opinion change occurs when a follower says “maybe we should have a global open internet”. Perception change occurs when the follower says “Digital rights are important”. Behavior change occurs when the follower begins to advocate online and offline for digital rights. Notably, perception and behavior change can only occur through meaningful interaction and long term engagement. Conversations online, partaking in online activities and online debates are the only tools that can facilitate perception and behavior change. Thus, an embassy or MFA should invest more time in online conversations, and less time in being active on multiple platforms (i.e., Facebook, twitter, YouTube, snapchat and Google+).
- Digital Diplomacy requires the bursting of two bubbles. The first is the bubble that encapsulates one’s target audience. Such is the case with the Egyptian MFA trying to reach out to Israeli twitter followers. Israelis don’t follow the Egyptian MFA and do not follow Egyptian news sites or journalists. Thus they reside in a bubble that the Egyptian MFA cannot reach. The second bubble encapsulates the MFA itself. Most MFAs are followed by diplomats, journalists and elite audiences. This means that MFA exists in a bubble that is limited to certain issues/actors and views. This bubble may prevent the MFA from accurately analyzing online sentiment, gaging public reaction to the MFA’s policies and identifying changes in public opinion. Bursting both bubbles requires knowledge relating to algorithms, coding, hashtags and network analysis. Therefore, this task should be accomplished by the MFA and not the embassy or diplomat. This suggests that one must separate between the digital capabilities and skills of the MFA and that of the embassy or diplomat. Such differentiation can dramatically increase the ROI on digital diplomacy.
The best way to summarize this post is to reflect on a point raised by Prof. Corneliu Bjola at the Geneva event. There has to be a relationship between digital “outputs” and digital “outcomes”. Every output should build towards a desired outcome. A twitter Q&A session, for instance, is not a single occurrence. It is an output that can lead to a pre-defined outcome such as opinion change. This link between outputs and outcomes ensures that digital diplomacy is used to achieve will defined and measurable goals thus increasing ROI.