Unfortunately, I was unable to find more than a handful of examples of what could be dubbed as “digital diplomacy fails” committed at the hands of national governments – which, perhaps is the true failure (the lack of tangible engagement demonstrated by governments in this arena); but more on that later.
Instead, much more common are failures made at the hands of “non-state actors”, a term (oft-debated) used to describe individuals or organizations who participate in international relations.
Now, this may be one of the few blog posts you ever come across that implies that fashion models, Justin Bieber and beauty queens are non-state actors – but for the sake of argument, just humour me.
Ultimately, the point I want to make through this post holds constant for both governments and non-state actors alike. The two most important factors in ensuring digital diplomacy efforts are guaranteed to fail are: lack of engagement due to excessive risk-averseness, and lack of deployment of culturally, politically and economically relevant information.
In no particular order, let’s begin!
#1: The British Embassy in DC “sparks anger” for Tweet featuring White House burning
- How it could’ve been avoided: Like many of the other examples on this list, this particular fail could have been avoided by simply exercising some basic judgement, or asking a couple “locally-engaged staff” (i.e. American employees at the Embassy) for their opinion prior to posting.
- How it could’ve been avoided: Invisible Children should have consulted with more Ugandan locals to ensure the accuracy and cultural relevancy of the campaign. The campaign should have also espoused a clearer action, instead of just vaguely making “awareness” the main goal.
#3: Justin Bieber inadvertently pays his respects to Japan’s war criminals
- How it could’ve been avoided: Justin Bieber should have relied on a better, more trusted local contact to provide historical context to the monument.
#4: David Cameron’s Serious Phone Call with Obama
- How it could’ve been avoided: Clearly, Cameron was trying to push his personal brand as a strong, global leader responding to a serious crisis here. However, the photo ended up looking forced and farcical. Cameron’s photographer should have done a better job at putting Cameron at-ease, or better yet, captured a fully-candid shot. Many (if not most) iconic photos of world leaders going about their business are organic and not overtly-staged (see: everything from Hillary Clinton’s viral cellphone shot, to many of Princess Diana’s or JFK’s best-known photos). Putin appears to have mastered this art.
#5: Fashion Model Naomi Campbell Refers to Malala Yousafzai as “@malaria” on Instagram
- How it could’ve been avoided: By searching “malaria” on Google.
#6: Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls photo
- How it could’ve been avoided: The First Lady should have included what non-profit marketers often refer to as a “call to action” (ex: “donate to this NGO helping the girls here” or “to learn more about the situation, see what the US State Department / Mission to Nigeria is doing and how you can help”). Had this been done, perhaps FLOTUS’ post wouldn’t have been dismissed as mere “slacktivism”.
#7: What do you mean there are no giraffes in Ghana?
- How it could’ve been avoided: Delta should have Googled “national symbols of Ghana” or “famous places in Ghana”, then cross-checked their information with trusted local source.
#8: Don’t feed the Twitter trolls
- How it could’ve been avoided: Instead of arguing back-and-forth with Twitter trolls (à-la Presidential hopeful Donald Trump), leaders should stick to the following strategy: generally refrain from engaging with trolls, unless the rare event arises in which a witty comment or custom graphic could be warranted. For this, consult with one’s social media team to devise the best execution of this strategy. Accept that as more followers are amassed, more negative comments will roll in (they may vary post-to-post, but they will always be there – it’s not the end of the world and shouldn’t impede leaders from remaining active in their digital diplomacy efforts).
#9: Poorly-timed selfies
Firstly, I’d agree that Obama and Cameron’s selfie was in poor taste (also, Michelle should’ve been included – it just adds another awkward layer to this unfortunately-executed photo) given the solemn atmosphere of the event. However, I think the largest fault with the beauty pageant selfie was the lack of consistent messaging from Miss Israel and Miss Lebanon – I actually had a hard time typing that without chuckling a bit. It seems to me that critics of these two young women seem to have forgotten that the supposed purpose of beauty pageants (admittedly, oft-disputed) ranges from promoting: volunteerism, well-rounded role models for young women and well – beauty. It seems unfair at best (or just melodramatic at worst) to hold these two girls responsible for maintaining the respective views of their two states’ respective administrations while posing for an informal, friendly Instagram selfie with their fellow contestants. It’s clear neither of them were prepared for the media backlash that ensued (possibly because the photo was supposed to candidly represent four vibrant young women happily sharing a moment together, instead of a commentary on the more sensitive points of Israel-Lebanon geopolitics and diplomatic tensions). No doubt as a result of ensuing pressures from back home, both Miss Israel and Miss Lebanon ended up taking differing stances to explain the poorly-executed selfie, with Miss Lebanon insisting that Miss Israel had “photo-bombed” the original group shot and re-affirming her understanding of the two nations’ conflict.
- How it could’ve been avoided: Obama and Cameron’s selfie could’ve been avoided by executing some basic judgement for social protocol at funerals. As for the Miss Israel / Miss Lebanon selfie debacle? Well, I struggle with arguing that it should’ve been avoided at all. One of the strengths of public diplomacy (and by extension digital diplomacy) is the ability to capitalize on soft power channels to improve relations between states (and/or non-state actors). Here we have an example of two young women, for a moment, putting aside the political differences of their home countries (whether fully appreciated before the debacle or not) to share in a positive moment with their international counterparts. I wonder if that’s such a bad thing.
#10: Inactive accounts
- How it could’ve been avoided: Governments need to accept that due to the open, fast-paced nature of digital communications, some occasional slip-ups will be inevitable – this doesn’t mean that certain risks cannot be avoided, as seen from the recommendations above. However, policymakers and consular staff must be empowered to engage on the digital diplomacy stage in a timely, organic matter. This simply doesn’t jive well with the bureaucratic methods traditionally used by many governments’ communications frameworks. Thus, these methods must adapt to fit the changing digital landscape – if not, governments around the world risk being left in the dust while others (read: non-state actors) fill the gap in the conversation.