Winston Churchill reportedly once described diplomacy as “the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” One could extrapolate that Digital Diplomacy is conveying this in 280 characters or less.
However, diplomacy is certainly much more than that, albeit there is no denying that Churchill, with his superior intellect and razor-sharp wit, would have mastered the art of Twitter as well.
According to the U.S. Department of State, diplomacy is “the art and practice of conducting negotiations and maintaining relations between nations; skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility.”
Digital diplomacy is, quite simply, the use of digital tools to achieve these goals. From Twitter, to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, You Tube, WhatsApp, Telegram and more, the list of digital platforms is growing at an exponential speed.
Almost every Foreign Ministry, Ambassador or world leader will employ any one, or number of these platforms, to engage with their target audience and further their national diplomatic interests.
Today, the world of diplomacy is in the midst of a digital revolution. In fact, it has been for a number of years already. When Donald Trump tweets to his over 70 million followers (say for example at 3am threatening North Korea), the world listens (whether they like what he says, is another matter, but the message is received).
Long gone are the days of conveying your capital’s message solely through cables, mainstream media and meetings at the Foreign Ministry. Likewise, no longer is the art of diplomacy the sole domain of aristocratic government diplomats at quaint cocktail parties, but used also by civil society, private institutions and individuals, often without the bureaucratic constraints of governments.
Today, digital media allows us to reach mass audiences in ways simply unimaginable even ten years ago.
With the advent of instant communication, algorithmic diplomacy, artificial intelligence, bots and Fake News, those who do not use – and master – the art of digital diplomacy, will simply be left behind.
As Dave Sharma, former Australian Ambassador to Israel and a noted expert in Digital Diplomacy writes: “Technology has disrupted the profession of diplomacy. Natural monopolies have been destroyed. Margins of advantage have been eroded. Diplomacy these days is a much more contested and competitive space.”
So, what are the 10 Commandments for Successful Digital Diplomacy?
- Thou shall not post simply for posting sake! Every digital post and action must tell a compelling story or have an objective and goal.
- Thou shall not use digital diplomacy solely as an information depository! Although that is an important element, it must not be the sole focus.
- Thou shall engage! Any successful digital strategy revolves around engaging with your target audience. That involves responding to posts, actively seeking out influencers and engaging in conversation. Important note: thou shall look beyond one’s own echo chamber (and host government), as diplomacy must be conducted with friends and foes alike.
- Thou shall not, under any circumstances, engage in digital warfare with the Russians! These guys are masters. They have factories of bots, trolls and fake followers. Literally. Avoid it like a Siberian winter.
- Thou shall take risks! This does not mean you have to be reckless. Mistakes will always happen, and that is not confined solely to the digital arena of diplomacy, but do not be afraid to push the boundary, try new things. WARNING however: see Commandment #4 above.
- Thou shall not be boring! No one wants to see just memos from your capitals or pictures of awkward handshakes with local politicians and officials. Show that you are human (if you are an Ambassador or Diplomat), have a little fun, be creative.
- Thou shall be brief! It’s great and all that Twitter has doubled your number of characters from 140 to 280. That does not mean you must use each one. Be brief, concise and to the point.
- Thou shall use visuals! Try lighten up your posts with some images, emojis or GIFs to make them more aesthetically appealing.
- Thou shall be authentic! Don’t be someone you are not. Be honest. Raw. That will come off far more credible and better allow you to connect with your audience.
- Thou shall not use digital diplomacy to replace face-to-face diplomacy. At the end of the day, digital diplomacy is just one of the array of tools in a diplomat’s kit and is meant to complement, not replace face-to-face diplomacy.
Tom Fletcher, a former British Ambassador to Lebanon and pioneer of digital diplomacy, says in the opening to his seminal book, ‘The Naked Diplomat’, “Diplomacy is Darwinian: its practitioners need to evolve to survive.”
Indeed, Fletcher is right. Today we must either embrace digital diplomacy or simply be left behind.