Are Local Employees the Unsung Heroes of Digital Diplomacy?

The past decade has seen the accelerated digitalization of diplomacy. While scholars, diplomats and diplomatic institutions are still searching for a definition of the term “digital diplomacy”, most agree that digital technologies have substantially affected the practice of diplomacy. Over the past four years alone, digital technologies have been employed in nearly all realms of diplomatic activity ranging from public diplomacy to consular diplomacy, crises management, multi-lateral negotiations and even sports diplomacy.

Notably, the digitalization of diplomacy has necessitated that diplomatic institutions adopt new working routines and standard operating procedures. This has been most evident in the creation of digital training courses which aim to provide diplomats with the skills necessary to harness digital tools. From Lima to Canberra, and Ottawa to New Delhi, MFAs are instructing their diplomats on the use of social media, the management of blogospheres, the identification of fake news and the importance of digital networking. While training courses vary from one MFA to another, most diplomatic institutions now offer some form of guidance to their diplomats before theses venture online.

However, not all MFAs offer training to local staffers employed in embassies and tasked with managing digital diplomacy activities on a day-to-day basis. Local staffers are often placed in charge of digital communications due to limited resources. In other cases, local staffers are tasked with digital diplomacy given the need to translate content to local languages. Such is the case in Tokyo where local staffers aid most embassies in the creation and dissemination of digital content. Lastly, local staffers may be placed in charge of digital activities given technological limitations. Western diplomats may find it hard to communicate via the Russian social networking site VKontakte or the Japanese “Line” application. Similarly, Korean diplomats may be less familiar with WhatsApp, which has become a leading social network in Israel. Subsequently, local employees may be the unsung heroes of digital diplomacy.

As the examples above demonstrate, management of digital platforms by local staffers is often a necessity. But it can also be an advantage. This is because local staffers can augment an embassy’s digital activities in three ways.

  1. Tailoring social media content

One of the greatest affordance of social media sites is the ability to tailor messages to the unique characteristics of target audiences. This is especially important in the realm of public diplomacy and nation branding. By tailoring diplomatic messages to local norms, customs, values and beliefs, diplomats may be able to author content that will better resonate with social media users. This, in turn, may lay the foundations for social media engagement and even influence over the worldviews of digital publics. Similarly, nations can use social media to proactively manage their image by taking into account the shared history of two nations, their scope of diplomatic ties, their shared values and even shared aspirations. Indeed, the French embassies in Tel Aviv and in Nairobi should not craft a similar image of France given that France is viewed differently by Israelis and Kenyans. Local staffers are best suited to tailor diplomatic messages to local audiences both in terms of values and norms and in terms of historic perceptions.

  1. Mapping digital landscape

Digitalization is an accelerated process. Within the scope of a year, new technologies can render older ones obsolete while one social network can replace another. Moreover, digital audiences are constantly migrating from one network to another. This is especially true of digital natives and millennials who are like shifting sands under the legs of diplomats seeking online engagement. Local staffers are also best suited to map changing digital landscapes as they far more immersed in local digital customs than diplomats posted to a different country every four years. Local employees can thus help ensure that embassies see a continuous return on their digital investments.

  1. Sentiment analysis

One of the overlooked facets of digital communications is sentiment analysis. MFAs and embassies can nowadays tailor their sentiment to that of local audiences. The age of a lingua franca may thus be over as each embassy can adopt a different tone, one that will resonate with local digital publics. From sarcasm, to dry wit and understatements, sentiment is an important tool in digital diplomacy if one wishes to truly engage with online publics. Yet embassies can also analyse the sentiment of comments posted on their Facebook profiles and Twitter channels. At times, these comments may seem harsh, or violent or even troll-like. Yet this might be the result of cultural differences, differences that diplomats cannot pick up on. Local embassies staffers can help embassies use the right sentiment and they can analyse the sentiment of comments posted by local digital publics. Such comments can then be integrated into the policy formulation process.

In summary, local staffers can be an asset that contributes to the efficacy of embassy communications. For this reason they should be placed at the core of an MFA’s digital model rather than at its periphery. This should include training sessions for local employees, remote feedback and increased autonomy. One MFA that has adopted this model is the Israeli MFA which has held  workshops in Jerusalem for its local staffers. Other MFAs should follow suite.