So what defines effective digital diplomacy? For me, it’s effectively using social media to engage with foreign public with the goal of influencing that audience’s public opinion. In other words, digital diplomacy is public diplomacy on social media. And in order to be effective, it has to pursue the same objectives as social media: create conversations, build relationships and communities, and connect with the audience. Most experts agree that social media “is not just a broadcast channel or a sales and marketing tool.” Unfortunately, that’s what most of Canada’s present digital diplomacy efforts consist of.
A cursory look at any DFATD social media page shows mostly one-way broadcast messages where audiences are rarely engaged to respond or interact. Many tweets feature links to official statements, press releases, or government websites, effectively using Twitter as a broadcast conduit as opposed to a forum for dialogue.
By comparison, the UK Foreign Service’s digital diplomacy is far more nimble and invites participants to constantly interact. Here are a few tweets from @UK_in_Canada inviting followers to weigh in on restaurant recommendations and join in a Beatles walking tour.
The UK is hardly alone in being one of the leader states in digital diplomacy. The United States is also a frontrunner, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton championing “21st Century Statecraft”, a new American diplomatic strategy that encompasses and prioritizes social media interactions. But arguably, the most early and thorough adopter of digital diplomacy has been Sweden, whose Stockholm Initiative for Digital Diplomacy was led by former Prime Minister Carl Bildt, a veritable digital diplomacy superstar known for being one of the first to tweet to other international leaders and foreign audiences.
By comparison, Canada’s digital diplomacy efforts are not guided by a central strategy, resulting in wholly different approaches to digital diplomacy on varied accounts. Of note is the particular difference of tone with official digital diplomacy accounts based in Ottawa, which undergo a far longer approval process than social media at missions, and are often drafted and planned weeks in advance in order to accommodate long approval processing times. Not only does this corporate language seem out of place juxtaposed next to Twitter’s traditionally informal style, but the content of the posts themselves are no different than a press release.
How else could Canada learn from the UK FCO’s Digital Diplomacy efforts? For starters, Canada could use social media to further increase transparency in ministerial approaches to foreign policy, international trade and development aid. For example, the UK FCO produces regular blogs which gives an inside perspective of what the FCO is doing, lessons learned, and new projects. Here’s a surprisingly frank example where a staff member shares the difficulties and challenges of trying to create a consular appointment booking service. At the end, the author signs off with “I’d welcome comments below if you have similar experiences to share” inviting readers to contribute and help improve government efforts and find solutions. This level of interaction and participation with government is virtually unheard of in Canada where citizens are rarely consulted to provide solutions to governmental problems and challenges. Each UK FCO blog features a “reply” box at the bottom where anyone can leave a response and literally engage with the Foreign Service.
If Canada’s new government is to follow its campaign promises to increase transparency and engage in dialogue with its audiences, it will have to fully embrace social media to not only talk at its audiences, but also to listen. This can be done not only by creating content that invites participation and interaction with an inviting and accessible tone, but also by offering a more frank and honest perspective and providing tools for the public to talk back in order to promote a more transparent and open foreign service.