“Good afternoon Mr Puffles”

Summary

Magic dragon takes London’s diplomatic community by storm…OK, not quite. Some thoughts on the European Parliament’s #LondonThink event.

This gathering covered many things digital diplomacy. For those of you interested in the background on this, have a look here.

I had taken Puffles along to the first in this series organised by the European Parliament’s Office (which they share with the European Commission’s representation in London – ironically the old Tory party HQ in London).

“Yeah – who’s that bloke with Puffles?” – Are we too dependent on Twitter?

It’s sort of a reflection of how Twitter-orientated the event was that I met a number of people for the first time who were more than familiar with Puffles. This was picked up by FutureConscience’s blogpost here. While Twitter works extremely well for me, it doesn’t for many other people. My main observation with Twitter is that it works well for specific niches; politics, journalism, diplomacy, celeb-watching and the like. Observers noted the importance of Facebook in a number of case studies, as well as alternative social media platforms for non-English users – in particular the Far East.

As far as world diplomacy is concerned, the risk (just as 100 years ago) is that mindsets can become US-Euro-centric. While the imperial powers of old may have gotten away with this a century ago, this is far less the case now with the rise of new great powers that with their economic muscle alone are challenging Western hegemony.

Nation states using social and new media to bypass the corporate media

Perhaps it’s because we take the BBC for granted, but in recent years, other nation states have launched their own ‘global’ news channels – ones that find their way into the corporate hotel rooms of international travellers. The big four for me that come to mind are Russia’s RT, Al Jazeera, France’s France24 and Iran’s Press TV. Ditto with their use of Twitter and other social media. I keep tabs on France24‘s English language Twitter feed, as well as reciprocating Sara Firth’s following of Puffles – Sara working for Russia Today. There are also a number of London embassies that use social media to bypass Fleet Street’s non-coverage of their press releases – a couple of delegates mentioning the Russian Embassy in London as a good example.

This in one sense is a reflection of people’s shift away from single or a handful of sources of media towards one where people are able to personalise their own news feeds. Puffles’ Twitter feed is my news feed. Institutions aside, the people whose tweets appear most often on Puffles’ Twitter feed are those from women. Over the past 18 months I’ve noticed a subtle but noticeable difference in what they consider as news compared with what the UK corporate media (whether newspapers or TV) consider as news. Perhaps it’s a case of needing to see an alternative to notice what sort of agenda traditional news sources have.

The evolution of/relations between ambassadors, embassies, foreign ministers and heads of state/government

There’s a big book sitting on the bookshelf above me containing a history of the UK Foreign Office. Hundreds of years ago, ambassadors accredited to the Court of St James (the traditional name for the royal court of the UK) would have a significant level of autonomy from the heads of state they represented – simply because of the time it took to communicate messages. During my travels across Europe in my 20s, I stumbled across a number of consulates and embassies based in grand historical buildings. The UK consulate-general in Istanbul (the former Embassy to the Ottoman Empire – one of the plum diplomatic postings of times gone by) and the French Embassy in Vienna are two that stand out for me.

Yet as improved methods of communications developed, so embassies declined in their ‘policy-making’ importance. In times gone by, an ambassador would be sent by a monarch to secure a treaty. These days, while a huge amount of detail can be done by officials, international travel and communications allow heads of government to deal with each other directly. This, as a number of delegates pointed out reduced the function of embassy communications’ feeds to that of passing on messages rather than making policy, as they would have done say 200 years ago. Mr Noriyuki Shikata of the Embassy of Japan in London made the point that from a social media perspective, it’s the policy-making organisation that is of interest – ie the foreign ministries, rather than the embassies that are likely to be of interest. Furthermore, he spoke of his background in the Japanese Prime Minister’s Global Communications Unit – a unit similar to the UK Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Unit (that became very influential in Tony Blair’s years). With the growing importance of international political relationships in recent decades (as  opposed to royals marrying off their offspring to each other centuries ago), what role for foreign embassies?

Foreign embassies in the 21st Century

For a start, Magic Dragon Puffles is now being followed by the Twitter accounts of three of them! That aside, there are parallels between embassies reaching out directly to the people in the countries they are based in as with civil service policy units engaging with audiences far beyond traditional policy circles. (For more on the latter, see Four professors and a dragon fairy on civil service policy units engaging with academia). For example, can embassies reach out directly to sixth form and university students directly through social media? This could be either as embassies or through their cultural units (such as Institut Français du Royaume-Uni attached to the French embassy in London).

The reason for this suggestion is that in the grand scheme of things, the growing importance of international institutions, the growing pressure for co-operation from a range of countries (not just bilaterally) along with improved communications has perhaps diminished the roles previously played by embassies all those years ago. Or has it? I’m thinking aloud here. Which are the conversations that matter? Take for example the EU or NATO. There are any number of various discussions going on in a range of cities by a range of diplomats. Which is the conversation that counts? The ones going on between diplomats in Brussels? Or London? Or Paris? Berlin? How do you keep track of who is saying what? To what extent are conversations, research and analysis being duplicated? Can digital and social media help institutions scythe through this duplication?

“Hey Pooffles, why do you want to sack lots of diplomats?!?” / “Yay Puffles! We like the sound of shredding those beancounters on the Brussels’ gravy train – get stuck in!!!”

Actually, it’s neither of the above. 

I come back to the point about nations setting up their own broadcast, social and digital media operations to bypass traditional barriers – such as lack of access to broadcast to domestic TV audiences. Iran’s Press TV found this out the hard way when OfCom removed its licencenot without controversy in some academic circles. The broadcaster gave a TV platform for a number of far-left activists that they would otherwise not get on mainstream UK television. The same could be said for other non-Western international broadcasters. UK/US corporate news networks no longer have a monopoly on English language broadcasting. That’s before I’ve even mentioned the alternative online operations that have sprung up such as Democracy Now!

Command and control, privacy and harmonising laws of nation states

Privacy as an issue was noticeable by its relative absence in discussions. This cuts across issues of harmonising laws of nation states (and in whose favour such laws are being harmonised). It was a point I put to Lynne Platt, Press Counsellor at the US Embassy in London. My point to her was that the big name social media platforms are based in the US, but have collided with EU laws on data protection, which are significantly tighter than those in the US. How do you go about resolving issues on things like privacy where a firm is multinational but where laws and cultures relating to something like privacy are very different?

There is no firm answer to that question other than it’s something that will have to be resolved in the coming years. Even within the EU though, there are differences on who has what privacy – for example on the issue of tax returns. Lynne also touched on tensions within the United States around intellectual property. There is a strong lobby seeking to protect and monetise intellectual property that is at odds with the creative commons movement. It is the latter that is more at ease in a world of the free movement of information. How to you handle that political hot potato?

On command and control, I’m steering away from all things undermining dictatorships and rather looking at a possible long term impact of countries – embassies in particular but also the wider citizenship & civil society organisations engaging directly with the people of the nation they are based in. To what extent could it mobilise groups of people to take an interest in (and mount political pressure on politicians) on individual aspects of foreign policy? Because what the political and diplomatic bubble sees as being important in foreign policy terms may not be what people on the street see as being important. Different parts of the country and different communities may have completely different priorities – who then may protest in a manner that makes it difficult to ignore (but not easy to resolve at the same time). What do you do when several thousand people from a group that are ‘not your usual street protestors’ start blocking major roads in Central London?

And finally…senior managers that don’t like or understand this new digital world

As I say on my workshops and seminars, it is not compulsory to sign up for social media accounts or to even like it. But for senior managers, what matters is that you understand the impact people’s use of it is having on your organisations, and that you ensure there is sufficient capacity and skills within your organisations to both deal with the risks and seize the opportunities. Lynne Platt gave a number of examples of where ‘digital natives’ had been brought into US embassies to meet this need. As far as the UK civil service is concerned, will social and digital media skills soon become a core requirement for those entering the senior civil service?

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