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DFAT & digital diplomacy: In denial and in need of review

DFAT & digital diplomacy: In denial and in need of review

In 2010 former Lowy Institute research fellow Fergus Hanson published a forward-looking policy brief urging Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to catch up to the rest of the world, join the 21st century and get online. Social media, he argued, is only one aspect of digital diplomacy. By looking at the capabilities of the US, UK and Canada in 2010, Hanson outlined how DFAT could use tools including mobile apps, podcasts, diaspora networking sites, blogs and cloud computing to better achieve diplomatic objectives.

Five years on, DFAT is yet to use many of the tools recommended in Fergus' report. And while gains have certainly been made, these are not substantial when compared with those made by other countries. The Department is yet to create a dedicated digital diplomacy unit or develop a strategy that involves public (and, importantly, online) consultation. However, unlike in 2010, DFAT is now on social media. It has a sizeable following on Facebook and Twitter, and is launching on Instagram and LinkedIn. This is good news.

What is not good news is the type of online presence DFAT is cultivating, a presence I described as 'all gum and no teeth' in an op-ed in The Age last week.

I argued that, with the exception of a small number of embassies and ambassadors, Australia's digital diplomacy is stuck in broadcast mode, rarely progressing beyond posting official releases and promoting Australia through light-hearted uploads that seldom engage with the reality of Australian foreign policy (for some exceptions, see Indonesia and the ambassadors in Russia, Lebanon, the UN and Israel; the last also has a blog). But DFAT is arguing differently. It updated its list of social media accounts and responded to the op-ed with a news release titled A Digital DFAT. This was accompanied by a Twitter campaign to promote this release and draw attention to its collection of social media accounts.

It is fantastic to see the Department engage in online debate; it should do so far more often. But unfortunately, the Digital DFAT release only emphasised how much the Department is struggling with the very concept it is seeking to defend. [fold]

The release was riddled with inaccuracies. It claimed that if digital diplomacy were simply about numbers, the Department would be a world leader, with the @dfat Twitter account (41,400 followers) more popular than its Canadian, French and Japanese counterparts. But the Japanese Foreign Ministry has 136,000 Twitter followers (more if you add its duplicate English account). And unlike DFAT, Canada's Foreign Ministry has split its departmental presence on Twitter into four areas — public diplomacy, foreign policy activities, trade and development — the sum audience of which is over 200,000 followers (not including duplicate French accounts).

France was an especially poorly chosen comparison. France's Foreign Ministry has a huge 677,000 followers via its @francediplo account, which is also replicated in Arabic, Spanish and English for a total of 822,000 followers. In fact, France's single Foreign Ministry Twitter account has more followers than all DFAT's 48 Twitter accounts combined.

The assertion in the release that this tweet by Australia's Ambassador in Indonesia — one of Australia's more tech-savvy diplomats – actually 'reached 28 million users' is also incorrect. The fact Indonesia has about that number of Twitter users in total should have been an enormous red flag. While the Ambassador's tweet was re-tweeted an impressive 259 times, it reached nowhere near every Twitter user in the country. Governments should be cautious not to mix up the dubious social media metric of 'potential exposure' (possibly millions) with 'actual reach' (more likely thousands). An adequately resourced digital diplomacy unit and a senior tech advisor in the Foreign Minister's office would have picked up the above mistakes (and others) immediately.

Most disappointingly, the news release failed to take the opportunity to outline the Department's intended direction, point to a strategy or promote future plans. Who is the Department trying to engage and influence with its social media accounts? Is it learning from and working with other countries that are well ahead of Australia in this space? Do staff have access to adequate training to build their online skills? Where is the evidence DFAT is actually engaging with overseas audiences on issues that interest them, and should that be the only aim? Has research been commissioned (as Finland and many others have done) to better inform Australia's digital diplomacy efforts? 

I agree with DFAT's definition that diplomacy is less about popularity and more about persuasion, which is why only a single sentence in my 1000-word op-ed referred to popularity. The real problem here is that DFAT's growing collection of social media accounts are predominantly used only to promote Australia and the Department's media releases. Rarely are they used to advocate for or defend the Australian Government's international policies. Therefore, the capability the Department has developed over the last five years is less digital diplomacy and more public relations. This week's news release only highlights the difficulties DFAT is having in exerting online influence and explaining to the public what it is doing online.

This struggle will continue unless a review is commissioned into the type of digital diplomacy the Australian Government needs to meet its international ambitions. An independent review should address resourcing levels and examine what outside expertise the Department needs to complement what it already has. Such a review could use lessons learned by those diplomats and embassies excelling within DFAT, to help guide those who are not. It should look closely at what other countries are doing and highlight potential areas for collaboration. It should assess whether it is in Australia's interests for the online presence of the Australian aid program to remain idle (particularly given the public's preference). Canada's tactic of separating out core functions online might help DFAT better target and engage with audiences with various interests. The review could collect and crowdsource opinion from the Australian public and embassy audiences, as well as stakeholders from the business and NGO sector.

Until the Government is willing to hold up a mirror and review its current digital diplomacy efforts, Australia will continue to lag behind the rest of the world and be unsure of whether its digital diplomacy is changing minds. Will this be good enough for the most digitally savvy prime minister Australia has ever had?

Photo by Flickr user Rosa Menkman.

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