Digital diplomacy is still in its infancy. Its evolution thus far has risen out of improvised adaptation to new technology, however our public service, and our diplomats in particular, are still waiting for some new tools to be incorporated into how we conduct public diplomacy. I see an ad hoc approach towards social media in public diplomacy.
It is common for many foreign ministers, ambassadors, and embassies to maintain official social media accounts. Larger diplomatic institutions, such as DFATD and the U.S. Department of State, have Facebook pages, however these cases all tend to lack any meaningful form of dialogue.
Following many of these accounts, I generally see travel advisories and other news updates, but no meaningful Q&A or spontaneous commentary that engages the public. The twitter accounts of Cabinet Ministers (both new and old) have been dominated exclusively by their election campaigns lately, while foreign embassies, and their ambassadors, generally minimize risk by keeping digital communications mundane, at least for now until mandates are restructured to prioritize (and optimize) the use of digital diplomacy.
So how does Canada’s new government restructure our digital diplomacy strategy?
I like to use a case study from the Canadian Embassy in China, as it underscores how innovative use of digital diplomacy can advance Canadian interests. In 2011, the Canadian Embassy in Beijing demonstrated that Weibo, a twitter-like tool, could become an extremely effective channel for meaningful dialogue with Chinese netizens.
Conventional diplomacy at the government level can only advance a nation’s interests in a foreign country up to a certain point, however Weibo became the tool for Canada to open up and appeal to individuals within China. Overcoming aggressive internet censorship within China, digital exposure helped to grow a larger demand for Canadian products, while simultaneously promoting Canada’s reputation as an attractive destination for students and tourists alike.
However, despite its success, the progress of Canada’s ‘Weiplomacy’ is equally demonstrative of how our government has not yet embraced a digital approach to diplomacy.
In this instance, the idea to harness social media came from within the embassy, and was initially used at great risk. David Mulroney, former Ambassador of Canada to China, has noted the risk he took on in approving the initial posts without approval from headquarters. It was a loophole in a directive, not encouragement from Ottawa, that made this social experiment possible. By posting in Chinese, rather than English or French, the Embassy was able to open a dialogue with Chinese netizens without requiring constant approval from headquarters.
Change is often met with skepticism, and many are not yet sold on digital diplomacy for the same reason that many diplomats within the Embassy were initially unconvinced of the Weibo experiment. We don’t fully understand how social media or other tools will ultimately complement or enhance Canadian diplomacy. For many, using social media as a tool for diplomacy likely comes across as a foreign concept, a tedious task that might complicate things.
The current structure of DFATD has constrained Canadian diplomats’ engagement in social media projects. While the hierarchical structure serves a purpose of maintaining unity and organization, it is ineffective for social media type programs which require quick and nimble response. Public diplomacy has become digital diplomacy, and our new government needs to understand this. According to a Canadian diplomat based in Beijing, “in public diplomacy, you have to go where the audience is.” Ambassador Mulroney placed great trust in his staff to pioneer something at significant risk of reprimand; but what if our government placed that trust in each Canadian embassy?
Justin Trudeau has said that the greatest strength of his leadership style is that he has surrounded himself with qualified individuals, who will be trusted and empowered to provide their own expertise in the decision making process. Similarly, newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion has already demonstrated he intends to do things a little differently. It’s too early to tell, but its easy to get excited about the possibility that much needed changes could be just around the corner.
Trudeau’s approach contrasts somewhat to that of Stephen Harper, which relied far more on his own experience and a close relationship with the PMO. Harper’s smaller sphere of influence adeptly oversaw the execution of many foreign policy initiatives (a significant number of FTAs come to mind), however this style preempted the level of empowerment required in order to launch a comprehensive digital diplomacy strategy.
This transition of government is about more than a change in parties, it represents a change in leadership styles which may allow digital diplomacy to flourish.
As we live in an increasingly connected world, our government should ensure that we are adapting to remain relevant. To borrow the words of former diplomat Daryl Copeland, “innovative, even radical, approaches to representation and communication will have to be identified and implemented if governments are to stay on as players in an ever-changing game.”
Whether this means that new training is offered or that new positions or even divisions must be created to manage digital components of diplomacy, there is certainly much which can be done to pursue and improve future forms of ‘Weiplomacy’. I just hope this is one small part of the ‘Real Change’ that Mr. Trudeau has been talking about.