Digital diplomacy: from Ferrero Rocher to tweeting – Vicki Treadell


In 1938, Richard Heindel, a revered American academic said that: “Bluntly summarised, the British diplomatic mind when dealing with politics had no love for the press and very little respect. A distinction is made between the press and public opinion, and without denying the mischief of the former, does not identify it with the latter. The press may influence people, but it does not generally influence governments or officials. The press will usually follow the governments.”

How times have changed!

First, the British Diplomatic Service has a healthy regard for the media.

Second, we see you as vital channels of communication and as partners where we have common cause.

Third, we are clear that a free and open media is vital to true democracy.

The relationship between diplomats and journalists has clearly evolved since Richard Heindel’s day!

That is not to say that the public perception of an adversarial relationship between diplomats and the media, not least in a post Wikileaks and (Edward) Snowden world, does not hold some truth.

For example, the balance between necessary secrecy and confidentiality against exposure in the name of public interests and transparency.

But it is my opinion that diplomats and journalists also have much more in common than it might first appear.

We are driven by the truth and the demands of our audience.

We need to build relationships, often with the same contacts.

We need to understand what makes people tick.

We have to gather information, analyse it, interpret it, report it and use it to pursue our objectives.

But we have differences nonetheless, what motivates and drives us beyond seeking the truth e.g. print media’s imperative to sell copy where a sensationalist story helps, our need to defend and explain a government position or policy.


However, one of the things that challenges both of us today is the digital world.

We are all living in real time.

We are all competing for space against a global population armed with a mobile phone.

Where people are having direct conversations in the moment, a tweet to a prime minister, a YouTube video that inspires thousands, millions of views being expressed on any theme and topic and breaking news as it unfolds live on our TV or smart-phone screens?

Just look at what is trending from moment to moment on Twitter.

Anyone can be a citizen journalist or an iDiplomat.

How do we keep up?

How do we remain relevant in an age when we no longer have unique access, where we are not the key conduits of information nor have the exclusive ability to control it?

When more people have a mobile device than a toothbrush.

When Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIN, Google+ and Twitter feature on a world population top 10.

When 53% of Millennials would rather lose their sense of smell than their technology.

In the age of mass travel and communications and the exponential growth of Internet use, more people are able to exchange more data and ideas with increasing speed.

Most the world’s accumulated knowledge is for the first time available to anyone anywhere with an Internet connection.

Among other things, this is breaking down barriers, this is blurring borders of every kind, and it is creating a new world order of shared consciousness and collective intelligence.

The game has changed and we must change with it.

We can’t afford not to or else our professions will become irrelevant.

If we ever needed proof of the power of social media, we don’t have to look too far.

In the Arab Spring of 2011, these digital tools were used to topple authoritarian regimes across north Africa. As one activist in Cairo succinctly put it: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”.

More recently, ISIL launched its campaign of terror by using social media to seduce, recruit and radicalise vulnerable individuals.

“Terrormedia” no longer uses the al-Qaeda method of sending anonymous videos to Al Jazeera for broadcast when individual jihadists can upload their videos directly from the battlefield and can instantly update their Facebook statuses to a million followers.

So how should diplomats respond?

Well, we need to stop debating whether or not to be part of the digital revolution. Instead, we need to become part of it and we need to learn quickly and simply see it as a diplomatic tool just as we used to respect the power of the pen and a well crafted dispatch.

It’s not easy but we must just to do it.

As one BBC journalist commented: “watching these venerable diplomats trying to embrace the digital future felt a little like watching my grandparents dancing at a rave.”

To which the response from one Sir Humphrey was: “It may look weird but at least we’re dancing.”

The fear with anything new is that it is seen as something extra to do. But let me be clear, social media will not replace diplomacy, it is simply, as I have said a new tool like pen, ink and paper once was.

But it does mean that we have to work harder and faster to be attune to events and opinions as they unfold.

To seek, where we can, to be ahead of the curve to inform and shape debate.

It is also a vital means for us to get connected, to stay engaged, to nurture and build relationships and networks.

It is the most powerful and exciting tool and we have to learn to use it well bearing in mind that what we do plays out in real time and is instantly available to a worldwide audience.

There will never of course be a substitute for private, confidential discussions with decision-makers and power brokers. Indeed, this aspect of our approach becomes all the more important, its value rises and the strength of the personal connections we make is what will differentiate us in terms of the unique insights and knowledge we gain.

Of course, diplomats must use social media with our eyes wide open. There are risks. It’s not always easy to get the nuances and subtleties right in 140 characters.

I believe that social media will help diplomats to challenge the perception that they are detached from ordinary people. That our days are filled with long lunches and our “tradecraft” is the art of eating a Ferrero Rocher with one hand while holding a glass of fine wine in the other.


Through social media we can show people we are human, what we are doing, how we are engaging to build relationships, to push agendas, to make our countries safer and more prosperous.

Through social media we are also accessible in a way that we never have been before.

Through social media we can show we care personally about the values that we protect.

Through social media we can challenge and be challenged.

In this brave new digital world, the most effective ambassador will carry a smart-phone rather than a fountain pen; a digital demarche will be more powerful than a diplomatic one, and a set-piece international conference with stuffy men (and women) in stuffy rooms will be replaced by more fluid, open interaction with the people whose interests we represent.

The 2015 iDiplomat will be authentic, engaged, transparent and purposeful.

My organisation, the British Foreign Office, has set itself the challenging objective of being one the world’s leading users of digital media to enhance foreign policy.

In December 2012, we launched our digital strategy with a commitment to use digital tools in every aspect of our work.

Most if not all of our ambassadors are now online and every single one of our 260 missions overseas has a social media presence. We are encouraged to think digitally first.

Here in KL, I and my team are active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. But we want to do more and to be more involved in the debates – whether on politics, security, business or values – that are happening across the social media spectrum in Malaysia.

We want the British voice to echo loudly and to interact.

Social media gives us incredible reach if we use it wisely and responsibly. At the end of the day, it’s the message and how we engage that matters.

I do not see digital diplomacy as something extra, I see it in the mainstream of our work, what we do and how we do it. It is a fundamental part of being modern, relevant and engaged in the 21st century. – November 25, 2014.

* Vicki Treadell is the British High Commissioner (designate) to Malaysia.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
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