- You are here:
- › Stephen Hale
Stephen HaleHead of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London
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.
It 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.
Share this with:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Share this with:
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:
Share this with:
Thanks for your comments on my last post. It's been an interesting week for our blogs - they've had wider attention than usual, and some may have questioned our approach as a result.
I said I'd make the case for why diplomats should blog. So, here's a quick history of Foreign Office blogs to start:
We launched our blogging platform in September 2007 by commissioning 6 bloggers who represented a good cross section of Foreign Office work.
We wanted our bloggers to tell stories, using a personal, engaging tone of voice, reaching out to new audiences, bypassing traditional media, inviting and responding to comments.
We've had a steady turnover of bloggers since then. The Hansard Society have evaluated our approach. And having proved the concept within the Foreign Office, we opened up the blogs over the summer so that any member of staff with a valid business reason could start an official blog.
We do have some rules, and we provide guidance. So we insist that our bloggers think hard about what they are trying to achieve and who their target audience is before they begin. And we ask them to commit to posting regularly and moderating comments every day. We don't tell people how to write - I don't think there's a right way to blog - but we do offer tips on effective use of the medium.
We've learned lessons from the blogs that haven't really worked. But some of our blogs have been fascinating: Sherard Cowper Coles set the tone, filming video blogs from the mountains of Afghanistan, our blogs from Zimbabwe are always interesting, and Mark Kent is demonstrating how to use blogs to engage a local audience in Vietnam.
Having demonstrated the potential value of blogs, my sense is that we now need to do more to integrate our blogs into the process of diplomacy. I'll return to how I think we can do this.