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Digital diplomacy is not the same as digital outreach

Digital diplomacy is not the same as digital outreach

Recently Jonathan McClory from UK consultancy Portland Communications, along with Facebook's government outreach manager Katie Harbath, skilfully entered the five-year long debate on the Australian Government's digital diplomacy capabilities. It's a welcome move – the more individuals and organisations involved in this debate, the more likely it will impact upon the quality of Australia's digital diplomacy efforts.

Jonathon and Katie's article in the Fairfax papers responded specifically to an op-ed of mine. In it, they made the argument that the strength of Australian soft power should not be underestimated. The article relied exclusively on the results of a Portland Communications report (also involving Facebook and research consultancy Comres) titled The Soft Power 30. It's a great report and readers of this site will certainly be interested.

But there are four central problems with Jonathan and Katie's response to my article.

First, and most importantly, my article wasn't about soft power; in fact, I didn't mention it at all. Given Australia's acclaimed natural beauty, laid-back culture, sporting prowess and collection of cute, furry marsupials, it's not surprising that Australia ranks sixth out of Portland's surveyed countries. A much-needed review of Australia's digital diplomacy capabilities would likely reveal one of the DFAT's strengths is how it uses social media to project our country's soft power assets.

But Portland's own report points out this is not always enough: [fold]

Domestic policy stances on gay marriage, migrants, indigenous affairs and the environment often run counter to the projected image of a laid back welcoming country. To counter this, Australia would do well to redouble their diplomatic efforts and work harder in engaging on the global stage. A cuddly koala will only get you so far.

Second, as I said above, the response relies exclusively on the findings from their own report, which published a ranking of 15% of the world's countries into an index measuring soft power. The ranking included many of the world's top digital diplomacy innovators, but it missed many as well. Australia is ranked 5/30 overall in the area of 'digital' soft power. Metrics used to measure this include things like internet users per 100 inhabitants, mobile broadband subscriptions and Facebook followers for a country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and head of state. Jonathan and Katie explain that, based on this data, Australia does well on digital outreach. This is a good point and it is heartening to hear that on digital outreach, Australia is much nearer to the top than the bottom of the surveyed 30 countries.

But digital diplomacy is not the same as digital outreach, and it is not limited to Facebook.

My focus in this debate has been on the need for DFAT to develop and exploit online influence, not to critique its online reach. I agree with DFAT's own definition that diplomacy is less about popularity and more about persuasion. Australia's ability to use digital tools to persuade or influence populations was not assessed in the Portland report. The Government has not struggled to open social media accounts, but there is no plan in place on how to best engage and influence people once you have established online access to them. DFAT's social media accounts are rarely used to position, explain and advocate for the Government's policy choices. That's why I have argued that the Government has developed an 'all gum, no teeth' style of online engagement.

Third — and this is key — Jonathan and Katie's article (and the associated Portland report) fail to take into consideration what Australia's foreign policy objectives are, and hence are not able to make an assessment of whether the Government has the right digital tools, platforms and expertise in place to help achieve these objectives. So while the Portland report is incredibly useful, particularly for those researching and thinking about soft power, we are no closer to knowing how effective the Government is in using online and mobile technologies to advance Australia's foreign policy objectives.

Finally, the arguments put forward fail to take into account the breadth of research examining Australian digital diplomacy, which I have consistently relied on as evidence to support my arguments. Reading beyond my op-ed one would unearth a valuable compilation, five years in the making, encompassing evidence and arguments contained in policy papers, journal articles, parliamentary inquiresinterviews with experts, books, blogs, op-eds and countless social media posts, much of which has been published at the Lowy Institute.

The author's advice that we should 'coax further improvements' on national digital diplomacy through 'encouragement to do better' is reminiscent of puppy pre-school. DFAT is one of Australia's most important, experienced and resilient foreign policy actors, it will always feature in international policy debates. Such advice also underestimates the influence of the public policy discourse in Australia, of which Jonathan and Katie are now a part. And it vastly overestimates the historical appetite and willingness in Canberra to integrate digital and emerging technologies (not just social media) into foreign policy making (despite plenty of coaxing).

It is one thing to allow embassies, ambassadors and thematic areas of DFAT to open up Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts and to use these to post announcements and soft power images of Australia. It is an entirely different thing to allow the diplomats using these accounts to project, advocate for and defend Australia's policy positions. The first is public relations and the second is digital diplomacy. Both are very important and Australia is doing only one well.

Jonathan's and Katie's op-ed again illustrates that deeper analysis of Australia's digital diplomacy capabilities is absolutely essential. As I have argued before, without an expert independent review that can be used to inform a forward-looking strategy, the Government doesn't know the usefulness or impact of its digital diplomacy efforts. And without attracting the right mix of expertise into both DFAT and the Foreign Minister's office, it is hard to see how the Government will progress past its broadcast mode, which the Portland report describes like this:

The use of the technology (by Foreign Ministries) is restricted too often to amplifying offline events, rather than making a real impact on audiences online...The record of two diplomats shaking hands in front of an oil painting or of an exhibition of an approved artist is not digital diplomacy. It is simply a concession to modernity without the risk that greater engagement or transparency entails.

The Foreign Minister's unique emoji diplomacy shows the Government's ability to take advantage of low-risk, high-payoff gains in digital diplomacy. There are plenty of other inexpensive and low-resource options: what about a central DFAT blog so diplomats can better communicate with and engage stakeholders, crowdsourcing public opinion to inform better policy development, or investing in an app game to further promote Australia's koala diplomacy (surely a guaranteed hit with our major trading partners)?

The Australian public and overseas audiences will, no doubt, have plenty of other ideas about how the Government can improve the way it engages and influences them online. DFAT's digital reach, due to its growing collection of social media accounts, presents the perfect opportunity for the Government to start tapping into them. 

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