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Stephen HaleHead of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London
British embassies are increasingly using social media to help reach and influence local audiences around the world.
Our diplomats aren't using social media because it's cool, or because they think it will change the nature of diplomacy. They're using it because it helps them to do things that they couldn't already do.
In digital diplomacy group we provide permission, and we offer advice and coaching. But we don't do it for them. It wouldn't work if we did.
So what are they doing?
Our bloggers use their blogs differently, and for different reasons. But they are all doing it because, in their judgement, it makes them more effective in their jobs.
Many of our embassies have official Twitter channels, like our embassy in Washington. And there are channels for particular audiences, like British Abroad. Some of our staff run official personal Twitter channels, like our Ambassador to Iran, using them to ask and answer questions.
Many of our embassies are also running Facebook pages like our High Commission in Pakistan. Most have lively conversations, with embassy staff taking part by answering questions and sharing links.Some of our pages are based around particular issues, like the FCO Burma page, used most recently to gather birthday messages for Aung San Suu Kyi. Some are using Facebook more creatively. Like the Speed Sisters page, run alongside the official UK in Jerusalem channel - through these pages our team in Jerusalem are able to have meaningful conversations with over 2000 young Palestinians who were previously out of their reach.
Some of our Facebook pages are for particular communities, like the official Chevening scholarships page. And sometimes we provide more exclusive communities, like the one for our Chevening Alumni network.
Social media is sometimes about increasing our reach - half a billion Facebook users is a big potential audience. But more often it's about increasing the depth and quality of engagement with particular audiences, and learning from others.
And it's not all Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. We're most impressed when our embassies identify communities or platforms that are more widely used locally, or by particular groups.
There are lists of official FCO social media channels on the FCO website:
- Foreign Office on Twitter
- Foreign Office on Facebook
- Foreign Office on YouTube
- Foreign Office bloggers
And our social media guidance is available on the digital diplomacy website:
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It's been fascinating to watch the UK government Twitter guidance story play out in the press.
"Official publishes thorough guidance document" doesn't seem like a story that should attract popular attention. Nor does the subject - corporate Twitter channels - really represent new or novel opportunities for government digital engagement.
We published a Views on News blog about the evolution of the Foreign Office approach to Twitter so I won't repeat what we said there. If you're interested in how the Foreign Office is using Twitter now, you can follow us on one of our channels.
Corporate Twitter channels are fine, but I think it's more interesting to see how individuals (like John Duncan) are embracing the medium for their own benefit, using Twitter to engage in conversations with niche communities of interest.
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I might have been part of a ethnomethodological study last week. I was part of a panel at the Gov2Gov event at Canada House, talking with a flock of geeks about how social media is changing society, government and international relations.
It was the hashtag (#g2g) that made me feel a bit like I was part of an experiment. Participants were encouraged to use the hashtag to talk about the event online before, after, and particularly during the event, and the live tweets were projected onto a huge screen in the room during the discussions.
But from where I was sitting, I couldn't see the live coverage. So as I spoke I was aware that some of the audience were providing live commentary to the web, and some were following the commentary as it was projected behind me, rather than my wise words as I spoke.
Now I reckon that speaking to a room full of people can be difficult enough. But people being amusing and clever in real time - literally behind your back - could make a man paranoid.
Reading them now, the tweets from the event make unremarkable reading. But the experience made me think about the difference between what people say, and what people say on the social web.
There's no doubt that some tools can embolden the author. That's almost certainly true of Twitter, particularly if the author posts anonymously (or without it being clearly apparent who the author is).
It's also made me think about when digital can augment physical engagement (by queuing questions, rebroadcasting, or offering an alternative opinion in this case), when it is just a fun sideshow, and when the choice of digital tools could alienate a wider audience.
For the record, I am not active on Twitter. I decided that the always-on, 10-opinions-a-day nature of Twitter suits my objectives and my personality less well than other tools. I think the macro blog suits me better than the micro.
I do realise that we may already have passed the point at which Twitter is an essential business (as well as personal) tool. I might already be missing out on conversations that aren't taking place anywhere else. But for the moment I use search.twitter more than I use www.twitter. I'm a Twitter lurker. I keep my micro-thoughts to myself.
Having said that, I do like to micro-blog. We're using Yammer in the Foreign Office, and I'm loving it. Private micro-blogging tools like Yammer seem to me to be a perfect tool for medium sized (and distributed) networks like Digital Diplomacy Group. Email is no good for informal knowledge sharing; Yammer seems to solve a problem we didn't realise we had.
One of the things I like about Yammer, is that it is all clearly attributed. So it fits with the Foreign Office model for digital engagement, in which we always try to be open and transparent, and explicitly clear about who is talking.
Attribution is often less clear on Twitter. People don't always say who they are (and sometimes they appear to, but aren't). That's why I'm more excited about John Duncan's use of Twitter - which is clearly attributed and seems to be providing useful opportunities for real engagement - than I am by our corporate channels, which we largely use to broadcast (even though I know that a corporate Twitter channel is unlikely to heckle me as I speak).
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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.
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There's been a lot of chatter about the new Skittles website in the last few days. You can read about it in detail elsewhere. But in a nutshell, Skittles replaced their corporate website with a simple widget that directs readers to relevant user generated content on leading social media sites, including Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr.
You would have to have been a real Skittles enthusiast to have visited the official website before. I really don't know what you'd expect to find on the corporate website for a packet of sweets. So on this level the makers of Skittles have delivered a public relations triumph: They've done something novel > lots of people are talking about Skittles > more people will probably buy some Skittles.
But there's something more interesting in this if the makers of Skittles have decided that there's no longer any point delivering official lines on a shiny corporate website.
Of course, we all know that people don't respond well to marketese on the web. And that web users often value the opinions of other web users far more highly than the opinions of corporately employed web editors. eBay and Amazon recognised this ages ago and put user generated content at the heart of their web content.
What Skittles appear to have done is go a step further and do away with almost all their corporately edited content, relying entirely on user generated content to present information about their product.
This may just be a PR stunt (or a clever market research tool), but I think it highlights some interesting challenges to the way we think about corporate websites and digital campaigns.
In the Foreign Office - as elsewhere - we have recognised that user generated content often has more value that officially drafted and cleared content. That's why we've partnered with Yoosk on our London Summit campaign, it's why our bloggers encourage comments, and it's why all of our digital campaigns involve an element of reaching out beyond our own content.
But the Skittles approach suggests that maybe we don't need a web platform at all to deliver digital campaigns. And that we may not need to employ any of our own web editors. After all, content has always been king, and maybe the most engaging and accurate content is being provided by amateur authors, using whatever social media they find most convenient.
If our "editors" can use the combined content management systems of Wikipedia, YouTube and Delicious, then maybe we don't need to invest in content management systems of our own.
And maybe we don't need to host and manage our own websites at all any more in order to deliver digital campaigns. This could solve the UK government innovation v domain rationalisation debate. As well as putting a few digital agencies out of business.
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A quick update on social media adoption by the government of Ukraine: Viktor Yushchenko started tweeting yesterday.
My Ukrainian isn't up to much but it looks like it's regularly updated, and being used to promote content on the official website. Good stuff.
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I met a delegation of Ukrainian government officials the other day to talk about digital diplomacy. It's one of the perks of my job that people outside the UK are interested in what we do. They provide a challenge that I don't necessarily get from my peers in the UK digital community. (Who else is going to tell me that Twitter won't work as a tool in Ukraine - because you only get about 3 Ukrainian words for 140 characters?)
We talked about the online campaigns that we've run recently in the Foreign Office, the way we manage and present web content, and some of the tools we've been using for digital engagement. I think I surprised them (and myself) by how excited I got when they asked how we evaluate our work in Digital Diplomacy Group. But the fact is I am very excited about proving that digital engagement works. And more than that: I think we have a responsibility to measure the actual impact of digital campaigns, rather than get carried away with the ease with which we can develop new tools.
Of course, web practitioners are notoriously lazy about evaluation because everything we do on the web produces numbers. Stats are almost always interesting, and it's easy to present them as evaluation. But they're not enough. The Foreign Office web platform had 2.5 million unique visitors in January. But so what? I know that I could significantly drive up traffic to the Foreign Office YouTube channel by posting a film of 150 ambassadors line dancing (I'm sure they'd be up for it). But traffic doesn't deliver foreign policy objectives. It just delivers traffic.
Our approach to evaluation was developed by Liam King, who is even more excited than I am about evaluation. It's not complicated - this is what we aim to do:
1. Insist on setting objectives and identifying target audiences for everything we do on the web.
2. Pick something that we can measure that will give us an indication of how well we met our objectives and and reached our target audience.
3. Measure it.
We do use stats, and we welcome independent evaluation (the Hansard Society are evaluating our blogs and our London Summit campaign at the moment), but we concentrate on providing evidence that tells us something about what we set out to achieve. This approach means that all the evaluation we do is useful for the people we're working with (because we are very clear about expectations right at the start), and it's useful for us (because we can use it to improve what we do).
I've pasted below the objectives and performance indicators that Liam and Paul set Digital Diplomacy Group in January for our work on the London Summit website. Our approach will develop, and we'll measure KPIs for each of our engagement exercises over the next 6 weeks. But the original performance indicators won't change - once the summit is over we'll be able to say with authority whether we delivered what we set out to.
London Summit website objectives and performance indicators:
1. The focal point for engaging and shaping global opinions
2. Authoritative provision of in-depth briefings on Summit
- all unclassified policy papers accessible from londonsummit.go.uk in web friendly form
- only the highest-quality content goes on the site based on the content guidelines. If it doesn't help to achieve an objective is doesn't go on
- at least four expert bloggers providing authoritative real time content for London Summit
3. Effective operational functions for 2,000 journalists
- Media centre regarded by journalists as most respected government media site ever
- live streaming of all press conferences/keynote speeches
- the site is reliable (minimal down time) and meets AA accessibility at all times
4. Respected Platform for discussion and debate
- seamless integration with all partner engagement sites
- clear evidence of link between pre-summit web debate and post-summit outcomes
- visitors return to the site, go to other areas of our London Summit web presence or subscribe to feeds/emails
- the site (and related wider web-presence) becomes a best-in-class example of digital engagement
I'll report back on how we did against these in April.
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I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't at the annual UK government web barcamp
on Saturday. But my colleague Shane Dillon was there, representing the
Foreign Office. This is Shane's account of the day and the sessions he
took part in:
Barcamp or should it be called #UKGC09? Such is the influence of Twitter on this event that by midday #UKGC09 was appearing on Twitters trending topics. Will a day come when an event can dispense with an official title and just go with their proposed Twitter hashtag?
Twitter was the subject of a lively talk which drew together three perspectives on how to use Twitter in a corporate environment. The three Twitties (and not in follower number order) were Communities UK , No 10 and Foreign Office.
The talk raised some interesting topics; one I found interesting was the importance of voice for a Twitter channel. Can a corporate Twitter find a voice? By devolving your Twitter channel to other teams in your organisation you can generate more varied content to tweet. But do you need an editorial voice that receives content and then tweets this in a unique and consistent voice?
A interesting debate developed around whether a corporate Twitter merely broadcasts to an audience instead of building a relationship. Of course, building relationships, following, tweeting and retweeting takes a lot more effort than just using Twitter to broadcast messages.
What was refreshing was how we each came to use Twitter, not via some grand strategy but as an experiment. Having done the experiment, where to now? Well I sensed a feeling that government can be more ambitious with their use of Twitter. What is refreshing is that Twitter is no longer a nerdy exotic, but a tool to be considered alongside macro blogs and other engagement tools - an important part of the digital engagement jigsaw.
From micro blogs to macro blogs: Julia from DFID gave a great talk about her experience of government blogging, and she kindly allowed me to speak a bit about our FCO blogs. Government blogging is thankfully not a uniform effort. Each blog is distinctive, with its own style and audience. But DFID and FCO did coordinate our blogging efforts last year in support of Blog Action Day. There must be other opportunities to coordinate government blogs around a common cause (and not just in central government - some of the most interesting work on digital engagement is coming our of local government (eg Kent and Coventry )
My favourite talk though was that given by Tim Hood from Yoosk which allows users to post questions to politicians and public figures. These are ranked by users and answers are delivered back on Yoosk. Does this bring politicians closer to the people? Does it give a sense or deliver real participation? The documentary Us Now reflects well on this issue. While Yoosk allows users to rank questions Help a London Park allows users to vote online to choose which parks get a makeover. Democracy brought closer to the people or decisions made by the wisdom of one particular crowd?
Barcamp 09 was a good meeting point of ideas and great for networking. The format makes it impossible to do everything but the conversation continues. I don't plan to wait until Barcamp 2010 to continue the conversation.
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It was really interesting to see how the internet became part of the action during the crisis in Mumbai. There's been lots written and said elsewhere about how Twitter was used to break news, and how people used their Blackberrys to build social networks while barricaded in their hotel rooms.
In the Foreign Office we provided information via our corporate website and our UK in India site. And we did also post news to our Twitter channel, although we didn't use it to provide ongoing commentary.
But there are some lessons for the Foreign Office here. When the web becomes integral to a crisis we need to decide whether we are part of that conversation. Or if not, how we reflect it.
Our travel advice is a trusted source of information throughout the world, and we don't want to dilute that trust. But if people are coming to the Foreign Office for information, then shouldn't we find a way reflect what's being said elsewhere online as well as publishing official statements and travel advice?
Whether we do that by aggregating what's being said elsewhere and surfacing it alongside our authoritative statements, or engaging directly in the conversation wherever it takes place, I'm not sure.
There are interesting conversations taking place elsewhere about how government can engage with the microblogging community. I'm not sure any of us have quite worked it out yet.