25 Points for Digital Diplomacy

This list of 25 points relies on experience gathered over more than 20 years of analysing new technologies in diplomacy, their hype, their sudden disappearances, and their occasional survivals. The list reflects research on digital diplomacy, quantitative analysis of digital trends, as well as discussions with practicing digital diplomats (see more).

Although many points focus on social media, the list covers an overview of different aspects of digital diplomacy (beyond social media).

The idea to prepare these points emerged after the Delhi Digital Diplomacy Day (18 October 2016). This event facilitated very vibrant discussions with the Delhi diplomatic community and representatives of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), one of the leading players in digital diplomacy. At one of the dynamic sessions, Ambassador Vikas Swarup explained India’s approach to digital diplomacy.

The 25 points are divided into six sections:

  • Organisation and management
  • Security in digital diplomacy
  • Time-timing-tempo
  • Content, context, and failures
  • Maximising knowledge and hidden resources
  • Training and support for digital diplomats

I. ORGANISATION AND MANAGEMENT

1. Top leadership must champion innovation

Digital diplomacy innovation needs support from the top leadership. This is particularly important during the pivotal first steps. Karl Bildt, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden is often quoted as the person who pushed Swedish digital diplomacy forward, through his dedicated approach. The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Estonia and Latvia also lead their ministries’ efforts by setting their own examples.

Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister of External Affairs, is an avid social media user, who often personally answers messages ranging from calls for help to suggestions about Indian diplomacy. Leaders need to show proactivity or at least reassure their staff that creativity and innovation are well seen and encouraged.

2. Avoid a grandiose digital diplomacy strategy

It is easy to slip into an attempt to create a spectacular strategy. In particular, new developments such as digital diplomacy tend to trigger calls for a strategic framework.

Although a forward-looking vision is important, the over-formalisation of a vision can be counter-productive, as it could create rigid structures that might not allow for the flexibility needed to adapt to new technologies.

The most effective digital diplomacies rely on guidelines as a softer way to manage efforts in this field. For example, the UK produced a set of social media guidelines for diplomats.

3. Digital diplomacy is much more than social media and public diplomacy

Most of the current e-diplomacy coverage focuses on public diplomacy, with social media activities of presidents or ministers contributing to the creation of a positive country brand – hence the popular term twiplomacy. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. A much broader array of digital diplomacy activities takes place in thousands of diplomatic negotiations, policy initiatives, and crisis management actions every day worldwide – and they all depend heavily on digital technologies. Although these dimensions of digital diplomacy may be less visible than public diplomacy, they are no less important.

For example, the social media network of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been used in crisis management situations in Libya and Iraq. Social media was often the most effective way to communicate with nationals and organise their evacuation from these two countries.

4. High budgets sometimes yield low impacts and low budgets sometimes yield high impacts

Money rarely solves the problems that digital diplomacy has to address, which are mostly related to changes in professional cultures, and the organisation of diplomatic services. A lot of money can trigger grand projects, ‘the right solutions for the wrong problems’ and, ultimately, failure.

Using Wikipedia is one example of a low cost – high impact public diplomacy project. Wikipedia entries often rank at the top of search engine results for your country and its diplomacy. Editing Wikipedia pages is very inexpensive and simple. Anyone can do it. If diplomatic services are well aware of how Wikipedia works and the norms that govern the platform, they can easily use Wikipedia as part of their public diplomacy efforts, through editing and shaping messages.

5. Select the most effective digital platform for your needs

Websites are the most dominant digital platform: 170 ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) have their own websites through which they communicate with the public. Twitter is the most popular social media platform among MFAs, followed by Facebook, according to a recent survey of the use of digital platforms by MFAs (source: DiploFoundation, 2016).

The selection of a digital platform will depend on many factors, including the target audience, and the availability of human resources for maintaining the ministry’s online presence on the platform.

6. Put diplomats, particularly young officials, in the driving seat

E-tools and procedures cannot be easily imposed on existing team members. They need to grow bottom-up from working diplomats. Sometimes, initiatives to use new technologies come from diplomats themselves, often those with an interest in the Internet. With a technologically-savvy young generation, this is becoming more common. Sometimes, techies should just nudge diplomats to start using certain tools. Most successful digital diplomacy projects (e.g. USA, UK, India) have been led by diplomats.

7. Encourage early adopters, but do not punish laggers

There are different speeds in the adoption of digital diplomacy, often mirroring generational differences and levels of interest in technology. While leaders in digital diplomacy should be encouraged to join in, it is extremely important to avoid a division into ‘two-track diplomatic services’. Clear, motivating efforts should be made to encourage, train, and engage ‘digital diplomacy laggers’. They may not have all of the necessary social media skills or interests, but they probably bring in extensive diplomatic knowledge and experience, including writing skills. A bit of patience and innovation can generate enormous results by involving experienced diplomats in digital diplomacy processes.

Rogers’ diffusion of innovations bell
Rogers’ diffusion of innovations bell

8. Learn from others, with necessary caution

Learning from others and being open to innovative ideas are given prerequisites for successful digital diplomacy. However, there are certain limitations on the transfer of expertise and experience from other domains.

First, learning from the business sector is limited by the specific professional culture and institutional dynamism of diplomatic services. One can learn a lot from others about how to operate a social media account or campaign. Yet, the more the discussion becomes organisational (related to motivation, procedures, risk management, etc.), the less relevant this external expertise would be.

Second, there are limits to learning from other diplomatic services. Big countries, such as the USA, UK, China, Russia, and India, have different aims, as well as different resources for digital diplomacy than smaller ones. Bigger countries also try to address a wider global public. Medium and small states have fewer resources, but usually they also have fewer demands on them. As a result, their campaigns are usually more targeted. For small countries, the experience of countries such as Estonia, Singapore, and Latvia is particularly relevant.

9. Return on investment

Traditionally, digital development costs have been associated with hardware and software. Today, these costs are minimal, which is why people often perceive social media as being ‘free’. But social media requires a lot of staff time, which is becoming a precious resource. For example, in 2012 the US Department of State had already 150 staff working exclusively on social media, as well as other staff dedicating part of their working time to social media support tasks.

Human resource expenses are the main element of investment which should be used in calculating an entity’s return on investment.

II. SECURITY

10. Cybersecurity is about risk management

Digital data is like water. Once it is released, it is naturally drawn to any possible path to leak. You must start from the assumption that you cannot construct a bullet-proof digital system. What you can do is manage the risk. Ultimately, you have to decide what level of risk your organisation can tolerate. This is particularly important in the use of social media, where openness and engagement increase cyber-risk.

Once you decide what level of cyber-risk you can tolerate, you have to implement the necessary cybersecurity measures. Technology is indispensable for cybersecurity, but it is rarely a stand-alone solution. Security breaches can usually be traced back to some kind of human error. A lot can be achieved by increasing digital hygiene, training your staff, creating smart cybersecurity procedures, and preparing mitigation procedures to ensure a rapid response when a breach does, inevitably, occur.

11. You cannot succeed without failure. Make sure that failures are contained and that lessons are learned.

The tolerance of failure is the main field of tension between diplomacy and social media cultures. Diplomacy is a risk-avoidance profession by its very nature. Social media projects have an in-built possibility for failure. Many social initiatives fail. By being prepared for failure, you can enjoy your successes even more.

III. TIME – TIMING – TEMPO

12. Be aware of the time needed: one day – one month – one year dynamics.

Digital diplomacy has a very low entry point; i.e. one can learn how to use Twitter or Facebook in just one day. However, at the same time, new users face a considerable challenge in communicating effectively using social media.

It takes at least a month to start using these tools in a reasonably effective way (learning to listen and follow, acquiring the cultural context, developing a unique social media voice).

Even more time, at least one year, is needed for an institution to effectively integrate social media into its operations. Social media use requires a change in communication habits, and an organised daily routine. Such changes require time and patience. Paradoxically, the patience needed to effectively integrate social media does not correspond to the perception of immediacy that surrounds social media and the Internet world.

The aspect of the time investment needed for digital diplomacy is often counter-intuitive. Digital and social media carry the implicit idea of the dominance of the ‘now and immediate’. Yet the time needed to make an impact is often underestimated.

13. Experiment and try to be among the early adopters, but also occasionally benefit from a delayed start

Technologies change very fast. New tools emerge and new communities appear. You need to be aware of these changes. Over time, you can also develop an understanding of whether a new technology is just more hype, or if it something that is here to stay.

Following the latest technological developments is very important, but it takes time and resources. Diplomats, in particular from small diplomatic teams, could, however, benefit from a delayed start in using new digital tools. On the condition that the start is scheduled at the point when the new technology begins moving to the so-called ‘plateau of productivity’ – so that no resources are wasted on ineffective uses of the technology.

IV. CONTENT, CONTEXT, AND FAILURES

14. Content is king in an era where context is content

Constant engagement and timely content attract followers and make your online presence vibrant. It can be in the form of a good tweet, a blog post, or a video clip. Content – and easy ways to navigate through it – is needed for a clear, engaging, and user-friendly website.

Context is another ‘king’ or at least a ‘prince’. Ultimately what matters is the context in which the content is presented. Effective contextualised content showcases the immediate objective of the message (e.g. an event, a state visit, follow-up, a topical discussion), its audience, and its timing.

15. Be aware of different audiences

Social media reaches a wide variety of audiences. You have to be aware of the predominant audiences of the platform through which you send your message. Different platforms usually attract slightly different followers. It is also crucial to bear in mind the purpose of the message – which in turn redefines its intended audience, and is reflected in the tone and language of the message. Typically, Instagram and Snapchat are used by a younger population. Facebook is a more ‘mainstream’ platform. Linkedin is mostly followed by professional communities. The popularity and demographics of each social media platform vary from country to country as well.

16. Try to separate official from informal communication channels

Diplomacy and social media contain inherent tensions. Diplomacy is an official profession very often presented in long and not particularly engaging documents. Press releases are issued, treaties are signed, and notes verbales are exchanged. Their distribution is valuable for the media, and for others who follow national diplomacies. Yet, it is difficult to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the general public through this type of documents.

The most effective solution to avoid miscommunication and confusion is to separate formal and informal communications.

For example, the Indian MEA achieved this separation by creating an official channel for official announcements, and a public diplomacy channel for more creative and informal engagement with its social media audience. You can find official announcements at @MEAIndia and more informal public diplomacy content at @IndianDiplomacy.

17. Try to separate professional from private communication in the digital space

Separating professional from private communication is probably the main challenge for, and a potential weakness of, digital diplomacy. Diplomacy is often more than a profession. Practicing diplomacy does not end at the end of the working day. Diplomats represent their countries 24/7. The dividing line between their professional and private lives therefore hardly exists.

The Clinton e-mail crisis is another prominent example of the difficulty in separating professional from private communication in digital spaces.

Indian diplomacy insists on separating professional from private digital communication. The successes and failures in this policy could offer more relevant lessons for other diplomatic services.

18. You cannot control the message in social media, and sometimes the medium is the message

Traditionally, diplomatic services have tended to control the interpretation of the message by domestic and foreign publics (selection of media, reducing ambiguity, etc.). In the social media space, it is almost impossible to control the interpretation of messages. Diplomatic services should be aware of this risk.

19. Prepare for difficulties in advance, during ‘sunny days’

Crises and difficulties will come sooner or later in your digital diplomacy efforts. Prepare in advance. The best preparation consists of building and maintaining your credibility within the community that follows you. Credibility requires time and effort. Once you are exposed to criticism, the best insurance policy you have is your followers and your social media community.

V. MAXIMISE KNOWLEDGE AND HIDDEN RESOURCES

20. The most important digital diplomacy resource is found in the knowledge and experience of your diplomats. Make sure to use them.

Diplomatic services are rich with expertise and knowledge. These resources are usually underutilised because of the complexity and priorities of organisational and professional structures. Diplomatic services have to move from the traditional need-to-know principle to a need-to-share principle. This decision creates certain trade-offs, since the need-to-share provides access to a wider number of officials and, ultimately, increases the chances for leaks. This trade-off is worth accepting, given the importance of internal sharing of information for the efficient running of modern diplomatic services and for effective public diplomacy in particular.

21. Diplomats are writers and social media is about writing

The primary tool of diplomacy is the written language. As Italian authors Baldi and Baldocci stressed, ‘diplomats are born with a pen in their hand.’ Yes, diplomacy happens in corridors and at dinners, but ultimately, diplomatic deals have to be put onto paper, even if this has transformed into an electronic version. Within diplomatic services, the ability to write informative and concise reports is often a criterion for diplomatic professionalism and advances in career. With this centrality of writing, diplomats are already trained and prepared to begin the practice of social media and digital diplomacy.

This could explain why the Indian diplomatic service is so successful in digital diplomacy. The Indian diplomatic service has given us many prominent writers. One example is Ambassador Vikas Swarup, current spokesperson of the MEA, and leader of its digital diplomacy project. His 2005 novel ‘Q&A’ was adapted into the Oscar-winning movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

VI. TRAINING AND SUPPORT FOR DIGITAL DIPLOMATS

22. Presumed competences of digital diplomats

Diplomats should have sufficient skills and knowledge to judge what they can, and what they cannot publish on social media. They are often recruited after a very competitive selection process. The UK introduced the principle of presumed competences of their officials. If this is taken as a starting point, digital diplomacy can be introduced in simple ways. The ministry, however, still needs to train diplomats and develop crisis management mechanisms (in case something goes wrong).

23. Build learning into your digital organisation

The division between senior and junior diplomats could be a barrier, but also a great opportunity. They have a lot to offer to each other. Senior diplomats have a lot of experience and knowledge about the diplomatic profession. Junior diplomats tend to be masters of social media. If you manage this dichotomy intelligently, you can turn a potential obstacle into a great opportunity, and allow two generations to learn from each other in an interactive, productive way.

24. Social management for social media

Even the term ‘social media’ indicates a need to use a social approach in its management. This is not about technology. It is about understanding the required professional culture and dynamics. It is about dealing with the challenge social media presents to traditional hierarchies in diplomatic services. The key is to reduce the number of those who are excluded from digital diplomacy processes. Social media and digital diplomacy can create convergence and new energy within diplomatic services.

25. Training, training, training (and practice, practice, practice)

… and finally, it is important to engage in just-in-time and ongoing training programmes. India’s MEA has clearly reconfirmed our insights that training curriculums must adapt very quickly when working with innovative technologies. New technologies often have to be adopted very quickly. In addition, training must be supplemented by coaching. Social media coaches should be available to help in critical moments. Curriculum for training ranges from the ‘one day’ aspect (learning basic technical skills) to more comprehensive training. For example, at DiploFoundation, we provide a wide range of trainings, from ‘one day’ technical introduction, via two months long e-Diplomacy online course, to in-depth MA in Contemporary diplomacy where digital features prominently.

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