Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:03 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:03 | SYDNEY

E-diplomacy in action: Interview with the UK Head of Digital Diplomacy


Fergus Hanson


This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

24 May 2011 16:02

This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Jimmy Leach is Head of Digital Diplomacy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he leads one of the world's most dynamic e-diplomacy teams. He was good enough to do an email interview as part of this series on e-diplomacy. You can follow him on Twitter here, or on his blog.   

Q: The FCO has been one of the leaders in e-diplomacy. Now that you've had some time to experiment with the different platforms, which ones do you think have been most successful and useful for the FCO?

A: It's not really about the platform, it's about the message — and the aim is to get messages which carry well across a variety of platforms and media. But I realise that's dodging the question. But to dodge it even more —  it depends on getting the message and the platform right. We have our platform, of course, which is the right place for corporate-style communications, but for the distribution of messages, we need to tailor messages and platform to audience. Established social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook are handy (and cheap) but real breakthroughs can sometimes come with proper segmentation.

One small example of that is the work done by diplomats in Beijing for the Royal Wedding (a classic soft power opportunity). They teamed up with Chinese media organisation Sina for wedding coverage, and produced some fantastic results. Their activities not only got us great visibility with some extremely impressive stats (including, notably, 23,886 views of the See Britain Through My Eyes, 1.5 million visits to their Wishes page and 90,000 new followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent) but also some excellent comments that show receipt of our key messages, for example, 'This video (See Britain) is absolutely right. [UK is] decent, confident, respectful, open-minded, dynamic and creative.'

Q: Not every foreign ministry has embraced e-diplomacy in the same way the FCO has. Do you think it is inevitable that other foreign ministries will have to embrace these new digital tools or is e-diplomacy an optional extra?

A: I think there'll be a tipping point where this stuff will suddenly seem natural. I'm not talking about a generational shift in diplomatic circles — I expect that a growing awareness that the audiences for public diplomacy are increasingly digital will dovetail with the realisation that an understanding of foreign policy issues on the ground can be improved by placing ourselves in the right networks. The role of social media in the Arab Spring has perhaps been over-stated, but the level of understanding that listening and being involved in those conversations brings will not be an optional extra.

Q: How integrated has e-diplomacy become within the FCO?

A: We're still a little way from digital by default, but we're integrating digital into the communications work across our networks. That integration is quickening, driven, unsurprisingly, by the continuing events in the Middle East and North Africa. The need to understand, to know who the authors of revolution were and what their plans might be has driven digital to the centre — monitoring and contributing to events as they happen. Decluttering the noise and understanding where to make the connections and the contributions is a new skill in the armoury of the digital diplomat, and is part of creating a broader view of communications, that goes beyond the press release of old-style public diplomacy into the determined embedding in conversations far and wide.

Q: Looking into the future, what impact do you think e-diplomacy will have on foreign ministries? 

A: I think it will become a natural part of diplomacy, as people recognise that digital doesn't change the rules of diplomacy, it just changes some of the mechanics. Greater connectivity ought to give greater understanding which ought, logically, to smooth some diplomatic paths, as well as impacting more and more on policy-making, broadening the remit of the consultation process. Diplomacy will also become more visible as more practitioners see that, as in most fields, a public profile is helpful is persuading others of the power of their policy stances. Perhaps the quickest inroads will be made in consular activity where the need for pro and reactive messages targeted at particular situations is most acute.

Photo by Flickr user Foreign and Commonwealth Office.