Policy
April 21, 2015

Time for a digital diplomacy blueprint

In April 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development listed 33 Facebook and 39 Twitter accounts for Canadian missions abroad, and many had been opened within the previous six weeks.

Almost a year later, the list includes over 100 Facebook, 137 Twitter, ten Linkedin, two Youtube and one Buzzfeed accounts, as well as Storify, Weibo, Flickr and Foursquare accounts, bringing DFATD’s digital footprint to over 100 missions worldwide. In addition to institutional accounts, diplomats were further encouraged by former Foreign Minister John Baird in November 2014 to open personal accounts with normal disclaimers regarding their views and affiliation. In fact, hundreds of them are now tweeting.

The sudden explosion of DFATD’s online presence grew out of Baird’s speech in Silicon Valley on February 9, 2014 and his “Canadian Diplomacy for the 21st Century” address to DFATD employees a month later. In the latter speech, he said that, “diplomacy is increasingly about public advocacy.”

These developments beg the question: Is there real change afoot?

While these social media accounts suggest a new direction for DFATD, no comprehensive strategy for the use of social media or the development of digital diplomacy has been announced other than a video on YouTube published in November 2014 claiming that Canada is now embracing #DigitalDiplomacy.

Canada remains a laggard in realizing the potential of new technologies and the social interactions they enable. Thus far, the social media accounts setup by DFATD more closely resemble broadcasting stations than tools of engagement.

A world view
Globally, the championing of digital diplomacy by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton in 2009 initiated through the “21st Century Statecraft” program marked the official beginning for a push into digital realms by foreign services. Following the United States’ lead, other foreign services have enthusiastically embraced digital diplomacy. The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office adopted its social media policy in early 2013. French diplomats blog about “diplomatie numérique.” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt hosted the Stockholm Initiative for Digital Diplomacy in January 2014. In Asia, India’s public diplomacy Twitter account, @IndianDiplomacy, has over 336,000 followers and has tweeted more than 7,300 times since July 2010.

All of these initiatives recognize that information technologies are changing the world, and also the nature of diplomacy. From a world that was hidden behind very solid doors, diplomacy is now observed and conducted by new stakeholders outside of government. NGOs are frequently involved in foreign policy fora, and businesses often find themselves on the frontline of representing Canada.

The varied aims of digital diplomacy include acknowledgement of non-state actors, collaboration with these actors on formulating policy through crowd-sourcing mechanisms, and attempts at persuading stakeholders of the value of policies that have been adopted. While these aims may be anathema to a government obsessed with information control, recent moves by the political leadership of DFATD seem to signal a recognition that the control of information detracts from the benefits of engagement.

The Weibo experiment
To maximize benefits and minimize risks, an explicit digital diplomacy strategy should be formulated for DFATD. Its authors should turn to the numerous ongoing experiments on engagement that have been conducted by Canadian officials already. Probably the most sustained and prominent Canadian experiment with digital diplomacy has been the Weibo account maintained by the Canadian embassy to the People’s Republic of China.

Spearheaded by then-Head of Public Affairs Mark McDowell and approved by then-Ambassador David Mulroney in June 2011, Weibo is one of the largest social media platforms in China. It is a micro-blogging site roughly similar to Twitter with over 500 million accounts. However, much more substance can be fit into a 140-character in character-based scripts than in alphabets.

We analysed Weibo posts over the past four years and have focused specifically on the first two months of 2014. A number of patterns emerge: All posts are in Chinese, clearly addressing a local audience. Tweets generally fall in the following substantive categories: Canadian news, education, events in China, visa and immigration procedures, tourism to Canada, Canadian culture including French culture in Canada, Canadian food, and, finally, short biographies of people working at the embassy. Posts number from one to six per day with more activities on weekdays. Some posts refer to online sources such as government websites, though often to Chinese-language sites. The account occasionally reposts content from other users.

As of early March 2015 the account is followed by nearly 1,126,600 followers. In the nearly four years of operation, almost 5,030 posts have been transmitted.

Looking more specifically at activities in the first two months of 2014, there were 103 posts in January and 88 in February, or slightly more than three posts per day. These were “liked” a total of 4,807 times, reposted 78,584 times, and commented on 24,937 times. These figures add up to almost 110,000 interactions with followers in the space of two months.

An announcement of a contest for prizes from Roots Canada on January 27 generated by far the most interactions, 52,000 reposts and almost 18,000 comments, accounting for two-thirds of all the interactions with users in these two months. A contest is clearly an outlier in the general pattern of posts and does not constitute digital diplomacy except for in a very broad sense.

Comparing foreign embassies in Beijing, the Canadian Weibo account has fared extremely well. It is currently first in number of followers, ahead of the United States (919,188) and compares very favourably with other G20 countries like the United Kingdom (372,202), Korea (354,690), Japan (310,256), France (241,021), Australia (122,233), and India (20,027). However, it should be noted that the absolute numbers of followers may be inflated by zombie accounts.

These numbers demonstrate that the embassy’s Weibo account seems to have been successful in broadcasting information about Canada to a local audience. It appears that the maintenance of a successful Weibo broadcast presence requires enough resources of the embassy that there are few opportunities to actively engage followers. Consequently, the posts rarely receive insightful comments and the embassy in turn rarely replies to any comments.

Even when the Weibo account primarily broadcasts information, some of this has a significant impact on perceptions of Canada. The most prominent example to receive widespread attention was a December 2011 posting of a photo of the Canadian ambassador’s official car, a Toyota Camry Hybrid. This was perceived to be an extremely modest choice of car for a high-ranking official and prompted a local debate about cars driven by Chinese officials.

Overall, the Beijing embassy’s Weibo experiment seems to have been successful in building an audience and adapting to local media conditions. This has created a channel to engage local stakeholders that could easily be activated in the future when deepened engagement is integrated into digital diplomacy aims for Canada.

A strategy
We welcome former Foreign Minister Baird’s endorsements of digital diplomacy and hope that Rob Nicholson will expand on this endorsement. Formulating a coherent and strategically motivated engagement agenda is an important step toward the adoption of a social media policy and toward learning from experiments that have been encouraged within DFATD. Such a strategy should explain the purposes of engagement, lay out concrete policies for diplomats’ actions, and acknowledge the potential pitfalls in opening up to the world in a significant way.

Digital diplomacy is networked, not centrally-organized. There is no spider in this web. Decentralization brings risks of incoherence, rogue action, negative publicity, and misunderstanding. A digital diplomacy strategy needs to acknowledge these risks and accept them in the name of a more nimble, responsive, and transparent Foreign Service.

This acceptance is predicated on confidence in professional diplomats. A well-developed strategy should also offer steps toward a mitigation of the afore-mentioned risks by spelling out reasonable procedures for engagement by individuals. Canadaweibo worked extremely well because the local mission essentially drove the experiment with virtually no input from Ottawa. If the accounts sprouting up abroad are all led by HQ and not spearheaded locally, Canada #DigitalDiplomacy will ultimately fail.

Clearly, learning still needs to occur in the coming months and years. Local language skills as well as social media savviness are essential for engagement and digital diplomacy. One shortcut to developing resources in this area for DFATD may be to consider recent U.S. initiatives to explicitly involve universities in digital diplomacy. The U.S. Diplomacy Lab thus challenges scholars and students to address complex problems that pose themselves in U.S. foreign policy. Many Canadian academics and students would certainly bring significant skills and experience to collaborations with DFTAD in developing a specifically Canadian digital diplomacy.

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