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Stephen Hale

Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London

Digital diplomacy briefing

Posted 29 May 2010 by Stephen Hale  

So, we have a new government, a new Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office ministers, and new foreign policy priorities.

The Foreign Secretary has talked about an "ingenious and more energetic" approach to 21st century foreign policy. He may not have been thinking about digital diplomacy when he said that, but ingenious digital engagement should continue to play an important role in diplomacy.

I've used this blog before to explain what we mean by "digital diplomacy". I've even had a go at distilling what I do to a single sentence. But I'm always conscious that digital diplomacy is still a new concept, and we need to continue to explain what we mean by it, and describe what we do.

When asked (and often without being asked) this is what I say we do in the FCO Digital Diplomacy Group:

In digital diplomacy group we use the web to help solve foreign policy problems.

That means running our official Foreign Office websites and digital channels - we run 250 sites in 45 languages, providing our news and travel advice in close-to-real time, to international audiences.

And running digital diplomacy campaigns, making use of global internet culture to help deliver our policy objectives.

Our web presence and our digital campaigns give us huge potential reach and influence around the world. We aren't limited by geographical boundaries or even language barriers. We can reach audiences who want or need our content, irrespective of the news cycle or the editorial decisions of broadcasters or editors.

We use our digital channels to communicate directly with public audiences, as well as other governments and influential individuals. And importantly, the web allows us to engage in conversations with our audiences, not just deliver information.

We often find that there is a natural fit between what our diplomats are trying to achieve offline, and what is possible online. 

Our new ministers are already using the tools of digital engagement, from the Flickr galleries showing the first few days in the office, the Foreign Secretary's tweets, the Minister for Europe's blog and Alistair Burt's YouTube video on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. I'll continue to use this blog to highlight our efforts to help solve foreign policy problems through digital engagement.

Stephen Hale
29 May 2010

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Digital diplomacy in Vietnam - guest blog from Rory Cellan-Jones

Posted 03 November 2009 by Stephen Hale  

One of the most interesting things I do in my job is talk to people from other governments to compare notes about what we're trying to do online.

I was in Vietnam last week to take part in a digital diplomacy event organised by the Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the British Embassy in Hanoi.

Online culture in Vietnam is clearly very different from the UK, but we have a lot in common too. I didn't know how our stories about crowd sourcing ideas and blogging ambassadors would go down in Hanoi. But it seemed to me that there was a real appetite to understand how changing online culture will impact the lives of citizens and the work of government.

Among the other speakers at the event was Rory Cellan-Jones and he kindly agreed to share his account of the trip as a guest blog:

Rory Cellan-Jones is the BBC's Technology Correspondent but is writing in a personal capacity. His views here do not represent those of the BBC, the British Embassy in Vietnam or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Rory Cellan JonesIt was one of the most daunting audiences I've ever faced. They sat in formal suits ranged behind tables in the windowless conference room of a Hanoi hotel and as I began my presentation I was not quite sure just how I'd ended up there or whether anyone wanted to hear what I had to say. But a quick trick I've used on audiences ranging from schoolchildren to business leaders seemed to relax everyone.

I got out my mobile phone and took a picture of the audience encouraging them to wave at me and just a few minutes later I was able to show them that a photo featuring some of the cream of the Vietnamese civil service had been posted on the social networking site Twitter, where they were now waving to the world.

The event was the Digital Diplomacy Workshop organised by the British Embassy and Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I had been invited to come and speak. As I explained to my audience, I am neither a diplomat nor a politician, but a journalist - so in fact it's my job to be as undiplomatic as I can manage without getting into trouble.

But I did feel that we had something in common in that my world as a BBC reporter had been turned upside down by technology in recent years, and theirs was undergoing a similar revolution. My presentation was entitled "Learning To Talk", and my message was that in a world where just about anyone can get their voice heard there is no alternative to joining the global conversation.

When I started in broadcasting more than a quarter of a century ago, news editors thought they knew what was good for the millions who tuned in to our TV and radio news bulletins  - and those audiences had few alternatives but to sit back and accept what they were given. Similarly, politicians and diplomats in the analogue age were able to talk for hours, and the world had to listen, or at least fall asleep quietly.

Now the internet has given just about everyone the chance to talk back at journalists, politicians and diplomats - whether though blogs, through YouTube videos or most likely through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The reaction of those who used to be in charge of the conversation was at first uncertain, but now mainstream journalists, governments, corporations, governments and diplomats are plunging in, writing blogs, recording YouTube videos, tweeting and Facebooking as if it were going out of fashion - which may indeed happen once something new comes along.

My message to my Hanoi audience was to embrace this new world - but be aware that there are new rules, and just because you are keen to talk it doesn't mean the world wants to listen. So I showed them one  blog from a big pharmaceuticals business which had attracted no comments at all - and a YouTube video from the same company where comments were disabled.  Not much of a conversation there.

And I warned them that they might find it difficult to walk the hazy line between the personal and the professional which is an essential feature of blogging and social networking.

When it came to question time, I was pleased to discover that the audience was keen to engage. They'd already shown that they were not shy about cutting through to the essentials, putting Stephen Hale from the UK Foreign Office on the spot about the cost of digital diplomacy.

But   it was that issue of personal and professional  which was the focus of many of the questions to me - and the other speakers. How could institutions trust individuals to blog - or tweet - without strict supervision so that they did not make up policy on their own? We  explained that this was an issue of trust - my employer expects me to be as impartial in my blogs or social networking activity as I am when broadcasting, and the Foreign Office trusts its ambassadors to behave as cautiously in the digital sphere as they do elsewhere.

Still, there was already widespread familiarity at the workshop with Facebook, Twitter and other aspects of modern web culture and everyone seemed keen to plunge into digital diplomacy - as long as it could be done within existing departmental budgets. There was, however,  an elephant in the room - the question of free speech in a society where the government has not been tolerant of bloggers and journalists considered to have acted against the interests of the state.  Before the workshop, someone had sent me on Twitter a link to an article in The Economist about the recent arrests of three people who had written critically online about Vietnam-China relations.

At various stages during the workshop, I attempted to steer our debate towards the free speech issue, stressing that once you plunge into the digital conversation you can expect to hear plenty of views you may find annoying, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. But I detected some reluctance, not just amongst the Vietnamese officials but also from two overseas online businesses working in Vietnam, to confront this issue.

That evening, I did get another chance. At a British Embassy reception, I found myself talking to the  spokeswoman for Vietnam's foreign ministry and, plucking up courage, I asked her why her country had chosen to arrest bloggers for expressing their views. Politely, but firmly, she corrected me, insisting that it was  not what they had written that had got the bloggers into trouble but their involvement in other public protests. Amidst the hubbub of the embassy party, I found it difficult be quite clear exactly what they had done  but one message did come through loud and clear - don't try and tell a country where memories of the war with the United States are  still fresh that it does not have the right to impose limits on what can and cannot be said.

To this first-time visitor, Vietnam appeared to be a country making rapid strides into the technological future - from the young people answering their mobile phones from speeding motor scooters, to civil servants working out how to use the web to promote their country's interests,  to the bloggers testing the limits of their government's patience. It will be fascinating to see just how Vietnam adapts to a world where everyone seems to want to be part of the conversation.

Update: If you speak Vietnamese, this blog also appears on the BBC Vietnamese website, and you can read Mark Kent's account of the day on his Vietnamese language blog.

Stephen Hale
03 November 2009

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Digital diplomacy website

Posted 15 October 2009 by Stephen Hale  

We all revert to the tools we know. So it's probably not very surprising that the Foreign Office Digital Diplomacy Group run a website about digital diplomacy.

The site describes what we do, why we do it, and how.

This is not new. The FCO has been using the web to share guidance and best practice with our network of devolved editors for ages. It has tended to sit on intranets or behind passwords, but that's not really in the spirit of the transparent approach we're trying take to our digital diplomacy work. So we've removed all the barriers to access, and made (pretty much) everything public.

The site is really a set of resources for FCO staff,  containing policies, guidance, case studies and help. But it's now also close to a statement of intent for digital diplomacy, describing our ambition as well as our method.

The content is aimed at people inside the Foreign Office network. Much of it is too specific to be useful for a wider audience. But if you're interested in reading the Foreign Office social media policy and guidance, or learning more about our agreement with devolved editors, or our approach to video, you can do it now on the digital diplomacy website.

(We'd welcome any feedback on the site, either by commenting on this blog or by sending an email to Debbie, our Head of Comms.)

Stephen Hale
15 October 2009

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An interview with digital diplomat, episode II

Posted 10 July 2009 by Stephen Hale  

Mark Kent is the British Ambassador to Vietnam. He is also a blogger (in Vietnamese), and an avid web user. 

He was in London this week, so I took the chance to ask him a few questions. He talks about his blog, getting Dizzee Rascal to answer questions from the Vietnamese public, and the role of digital diplomacy.



My role 

Mark Kent: I'm the Ambassador to Vietnam. The context of our relationship with Vietnam it's developing very quickly. The  UK hasn't traditionally been a major partner with Vietnam, so what I'm trying to do is get the message out about where we can cooperate with Vietnam. For example, in the area of education bringing more Vietnamese students to the UK, trade and investment, and international issues - Vietnam is on the Security Council and is a major player in ASEAN.

My blog

It's part of engaging - especially with a younger generation in Vietnam who are very technologically literate. Something like 65% of the population are under 30 and the blogging scene there is very active. So it helps getting some of my messages across, but also getting feedback from them about the kind of issues that they're interested in, climate change for example something that's been really high on the agenda there.


We were really lucky in meeting up with Yoosk because Tim Hood who runs Yoosk is actually based in Vietnam. And the Yoosk project is about promoting interaction between celebrities, well known people, and the general population who send in comments and questions. So we ran a trial of that in Vietnam with a range of people involved from Dizzee Rascal to Mark Lynas on climate change, to celebrity footballers from the premier league.

Using the web

I've become very avid as my wife would point out to me,  looking at other blogs, both in Vietnamese, from other government and FCO bloggers, and internationally. In fact over time my own reading habits have changed so that a more of what I read is direct off the net rather then through publications or magazines and newspapers.

Finding the time

You can do a lot of this in down time, whether it's in an airport, in the back of the car, or just when I come home in the evening when  I'm perhaps having a beer, writing down some of the main thoughts from the day. So it doesn't take a lot of time I've found.


First of all it's a reaction of surprise and novelty, because they're not used to ambassadors doing it. But there's been an underlying interest which has carried on. Part of the challenge for me is to ensure that the material on the blog is relevant, of interest, and sometimes slightly counter intuitive. So we've mixed it up quite a lot from having for example Sir Alex Ferguson and David Miliband on there to having videos of Bill Rammell talking about climate change and the effect that's likely to have in Vietnam.

Other tools

To get the full value out of my blog I need to ensure that it's promoted through more traditional outlets such as press conferences, contact with the press, articles etc. I think there will come a point where increasingly digital diplomacy is becoming traditional diplomacy. We have to move with the times and make the most of the tools that we've got at our disposal.

Stephen Hale
10 July 2009

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An interview with a real digital diplomat

Posted 17 June 2009 by Stephen Hale  

If our digital diplomacy project is to really succeed, we need to demonstrate that diplomats and policy officials can use the tools of digital engagement to help deliver foreign policy objectives. 

We won't have succeeded if all we achieve is the clever integration of the latest social media tools into nice looking web content.

That's why I often cite John Duncan as our best example of digital diplomacy in action. John is the UK Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament, and he uses digital engagement tools to help him do his job. He blogs (and microblogs) about his work, and he is an active social media consumer.

John has been in London this week, to take part in an Arms Trade Treaty event. I took the opportunity to ask him about his experiences as a digital diplomat. Here's the video:


Stephen Hale: I am here in King Charles Street with John Duncan. He has agreed to talk to me about being a digital diplomat. John is an an ambassador. He does a serious job. But he writes a blog. He updates his Twitter followers using his iPhone, and I want to find out why.

Caption: What do you do? 

John Duncan:  I'm the UK Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament, based in Geneva. But it's roving ambassador role so I work right across the world from Dublin to Wellington to New York. And so I've used digital diplomacy as an addition to what we do in a traditional sense and found it to be a real multiplier.

Caption: Does this replace traditional diplomacy?

JD: Well I think that there are things that we would do normally. I'll give you an example. In multilateral diplomacy there's a lot of coffee shop diplomacy, where people will go and ask: "what's the UK position?" and they want it quietly, not in the public speeches that may last 10 or 20 minutes, they want a quick snapshot. And what I've used the blog for is to actually have that conversation virtually. So people have become used to going to the blog to find out what is a snapshot of the UK view in the way that we might have a coffee shop conversation. So it's replacing something that we actually do, and I probably have less coffee shop conversations as a result, but I think that's quite productive.

Caption: Do diplomats read blogs?

JD: I think now people are much more familiar with this sort of technology. It's true that there are some traditionalists who would still prefer to have that coffee shop conversation. But I don't think it replaces the working lunch longer conversation. It's a very quick snapshot: what is the UK thinking on this particular issue?

Caption: Who reads your blog?

JD: Well it's always difficult to get a feel for that. It's interesting that it's being used as a public information tool by people rather than for comments. There are the cognoscenti who come in and ask very detailed and complex questions. But most of the readers I'm aware of are colleagues, both in the Foreign Office but also in multilateral communities. I'm aware that many delegations from Iran to Ireland are reading it regularly. And if I get something wrong they will pick it up and say "you didn't get that right" so they are using it as a public information tool.

Caption: Do you read other blogs?

JD: Well I certainly read the comments, although I said there aren't that many - its much more a push factor rather than a pull factor. And yes I do read other blogs and I've used Twitter as a way of finding through into people who are saying interesting things on the issues that I'm following professionally.

Caption: Is Twitter appropriate for diplomacy?

JD: Well it's a very new tool and I think it's finding it's own way. There are people who seem to spend their time explaining what they're doing like "I'm stuck in a lift". I'm not sure that's a particularly useful use of the medium. What I've used it for is as a marketing tool for the blog and it's been spectacularly effective in terms of going into the press. I've had press interviews as a direct result of that, I've had media comment which is quoting Twitter, worldwide. So as a media tool and a marketing tool for the blog, then yes I think it is effective.

Caption: How do you find the time?

JD: Well I think we all have moments of the day when we have down time. It can be when you're in the car or on the train. Or even when I'm in my meetings or listening to speeches - of course many of these are written and I can read a speech in 5 minutes and it probably takes 20 to speak. And then what am I doing? Well I can use that time. I can go on to my laptop or the iPhone and find out what other people are saying and also comment on the issues that interest us. So I'm using the down time more productively than I could do otherwise.

Caption: How can we help others do this?

JD: Well I think we have presumed competence as ambassadors, but I think that we do need to get some training on this. I'm quite prepared to take risks and explore this with the digital diplomacy team. But I'm very conscious that it's easy to make mistakes, particularly easy to make mistakes if one is using Twitter because it's much shorter and snappier. And you have to preserve that authority of an ambassador, you can't undermine it. So I think some training on mistakes and things to do and how to actually use this new medium in a productive way, I think that's the best thing the Foreign Office can do.

Stephen Hale
17 June 2009

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An event: bringing digital diplomacy home

Posted 26 March 2009 by Stephen Hale  

We hosted a digital diplomacy event in King Charles Street today: an invited audience, a panel of digital diplomats including John Duncan, Mark Kent, Philip Barclay, Allex Ellis, David Warren and me, and Rory Cellan Jones chairing.

Others have already written about it elsewhere - and you can watch clips on our Bringing Foreign Policy Home rolling record - so I won't describe it here.

I really like the idea of running physical events for digital champions and bloggers. Bloggers often welcome the opportunity to move from the virtual to the physical. And of course, if you invite a load of bloggers to an event, you do so in the knowledge that they are likely to blog about it soon afterwards. So the event doesn't really feel over when people leave the room.

One of the lessons we've learned during the last 2 years, is that digital engagement has to happen in almost-real-time if it's going to have any impact. But it's a lesson I really didn't need to share today. If our guests were allowed to bring mobile devices into the Foreign Office building, I'm sure the event would have been covered in actual-real-time. As it was, Rory posted an audio blog as soon as he got his phone back, and tweets and blogs appeared soon after.


I hope the people there got something out of it. Personally it was just great for me to see so many of our global bloggers in the same place, sharing their contrasting experiences. But I'm also aware that we've by no means mastered digital diplomacy, and we need to listen to and learn from others. So it was good to hear what people outside the Foreign Office network make of what we're trying to do.

Some other reflections:

Stephen Hale
26 March 2009

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Why would a diplomat blog - some theory and the future

Posted 19 November 2008 by Stephen Hale  

Back to blogs, and why diplomats should use them.

A large part of what we do offline in the Foreign Office is engage and influence audiences in support of UK foreign policy goals.  Diplomacy is not just about states talking to states. And often the issues we work on (like climate change or counter terrorism) can't be solved by 1 state talking to another.

The internet provides us with the means to engage and influence audiences all around the world. And blogs are 1 tool that diplomats can use to talk informally with their target audience about specific foreign policy issues.

The culture of blogging helps us to talk about our work in new ways. We don't want to use blogs to make policy announcements or deliver official messages (we have other online places to do that). But blogs do allow us to:

  • open up issues for wider discussion when we don't necessarily have all the answers
  • add depth, context and a personal angle to the issues we're working on
  • engage in conversations that we know are taking place elsewhere on the web

So that's the theory.

I think that our blogs are delivering some of the above now. But here are some of the things we'll be prioritising in the next few months to use our blogs better:

1. Encourage a wider range of voices on our blogs. Because we want to use blogs to talk about our work in different ways, and with different styles and tones of voice.

2. More niche blogs, with well defined objectives, linked to specific projects or campaigns. Because the web is about niches, and it's within niches that blogs can have real value. We want our bloggers to reach their particular target audiences (rather than to generate general-interest traffic).

3. Blogs that are integrated into active online debates. Because we're more likely to engage in a way that is useful to us on issues that people are already talking about online.

4. More blogs in languages other than English. Because if we want to influence local audiences, it makes sense to do it in the language they speak.

The other thing we need to do of course, is learn from others. So I'd be interested to hear what you think, particularly if you think there should be a 5th or 6th priority that we've missed.

Stephen Hale
19 November 2008

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Digital diplomacy - what's that then?

Posted 23 October 2008 by Stephen Hale  

It's the title of a book that I haven't read, but probably should. It's the label the State Department have been using for a while to describe their digital outreach work. And it's quite difficult to say in a hurry.

Digital diplomacy is also the phrase we're using in the Foreign Office to describe our work on the web. 

You can see digital diplomacy happening on our department website, on our network of embassy websites, on our blogs, and increasingly on websites and platforms that we don't run ourselves.

To be honest, we're still working out what we can achieve through digital diplomacy. We do have a plan. And we've given ourselves 2 years to deliver it. But what's exciting about this work is that we really don't know how it's it going to play out. 

That's what this blog will be about. It's is an official blog about digital diplomacy and web engagement. So I won't be talking about my hobbies (unless they have a direct impact on web engagement), I won't be pitching for work, and I won't be posting photos from my holidays. 

I realise that I'll be blogging about a pretty niche subject with a limited audience, but that's as it should be.

I've spent a lot of the last year persuading diplomats, ministers and officials that effective use of web engagement tools like blogs could be an integral part of their work. So I'm feeling the pressure to do this well. I promise to post regularly, and I'll read and respond to your comments.

There's more about me and what this blog is for on my about page.

Stephen Hale
23 October 2008

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