Digital diplomacy: old dogs learn new tricks

What can today’s organisations learn from a Renaissance cardinal about innovative communications? Quite a lot, it seems.

The first government ministry responsible for conducting foreign policy was created in 17th century France. Visionary minister Cardinal Richelieu realised that nation-states would benefit from being continuously represented in other countries. Diplomats were told to converse with the leaders, politicians and the public wherever they were based to further their national interests, and a ministry was created to make sure they had the information and tools to do so.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, and many countries’ foreign ministries still looked to outsiders like ancient, elitist and ossified institutions that were the antithesis of the innovative trends sweeping the globe. The leaders of nation-states had each other on speed dial, with foreign ministries often playing catch-up to work out their own country’s foreign policy.

But now, diplomats have gone digital. The United States’ Department of State, for example, has an enormous online presence, with tweeting diplomats, thousands of web portals across hundreds of territories, and millions of Facebook followers. Other countries are following suit.

Such engagement comes with risks: on Twitter, Britain’s ambassador in Chile recently caused controversy by questioning the sexuality of Argentinian soldiers; on Facebook, the wife of a US diplomat got in trouble after blaming vegetarian Indians for a wave of sexual assaults; and an online post by Russia’s London embassy critical of the UK’s role in the Iraq war gained far more attention than a more carefully worded official communiqué.

This last example shows why, despite the risks, digital diplomacy is here to stay. Foreign ministries need diplomats in both the virtual and real world. If they don’t frame conversations about their countries, others will; the popular – and fake – DPRK News Service Twitter account is a warning to those tempted to duck the digital era.

Foreign ministries are not natural innovators. Risk averse, institutionally conservative and bureaucratic, they are more comfortable communicating formally in a carefully thought-out manner. However, necessity has forced them online, since that is where the conversations that will determine how their country is perceived will take place.

Private and public sector organisations can learn from the proactive approach to communications promoted by Cardinal Richelieu. They should consider being present wherever they’re being talked about. This may be outside their comfort zone, but it is critical if they want to influence how they’re perceived.


17 August 2016

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