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E-diplomacy in action: Interview with Ambassador John Duncan

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This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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10 May 2011 13:43


This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Writing about e-diplomacy is one thing, practicing it well is another. To shed some light on the latter, below is the first of a series of email interviews with a few of the most interesting practioners in this field.

This discussion via email is with the UK's Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, John S Duncan, who has harnessed e-diplomacy tools to draw together an influential audience in his key area of responsibility.  

Q: Ambassador Duncan, some people have questioned whether blogs can really play a useful role in the hands of government officials who are constrained by what they can say. What is your view about diplomats blogging and what role do you think blogs should play as a diplomatic tool? You are also an active tweeter: what role do you see Twitter playing in your field? 

A: This is a valid point. For the UK we have a concept called 'Assumed Competence' where ambassadors are given a fair degree of latitude to express what are clearly labelled as their personal views in their blogs. In general this has worked well. Over the past four years UK Ambassadors have done something like 4000 blog posts, of which only three have caused problems. Personally I think it is important for the diplomatic community to be part of and engage with the Government 2.0 exercise, ie. the development of communication via internet based social media; not only because of the widespread use of these tools during the Arab Spring, but for wider public diplomacy reasons.

While it is generally assumed that foreign policy is only rarely a domestic vote winner, it is still important that government explain to the taxpayer what they are doing and why in foreign affairs. The 21st century world is interdependent and interconnected in a way that we have never seen before. Events overseas do impact on all of us, eg. an earthquake in Japan means you can't get spare parts for your car or HiFi. So for both reasons public diplomacy needs to be facing both ways — outwards to foreign governments and societies and inwards to our own citizens.

The technological changes that Gov2.0 bring will also inevitably entail a far greater degree of accountability. The time when the occasional OpEd would suffice to communicate the government view is rapidly becoming something of the past.

The new digital diplomacy needs, in my view, to be seen as a new communication architecture. Blogs serve the purpose of being essentially a running and virtual OpEd to the public, but as I have suggested in my YouTube interview they also serve the purpose of the 'coffee shop' conversation with colleagues and opinion formers; something that responds to their desire to have a snapshot of one's country's policy rather than wade through  the text of a long formal speech.

Behind the blogs are the campaign webpages such as the one we have on the arms trade treaty, which gives  more detail on our arguments and views as well as links to related issues. In front of the blogs lies Twitter (and for some of my audience Facebook or LinkedIn) which serves both as an advertising mechanism for the other two — pointing people to updates and latest news — but also as a means to reach out and engage with the media and commentators. In the latter function Twitter makes it easier for journalists to access content, for example the media have often used my tweets as quotes in articles and the reach is phenomenal — literally  from Dallas to Delhi and all achieved without a press conference. But Twitter also serves as a means to pull information quickly out of the internet, be it breaking news or major think-pieces etc.

Q: How many people do you reach through your arms control and disarmament blog and do you have any examples you could share on how you were able to use it to promote UK initiatives?

A: The numbers themselves are not really the issue. They naturally tend to vary as the issues I am dealing with come to a head eg. the NPT Review Conference last year. Also multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament is a little arcane. So I am quite happy when my blog is getting hits in the 100s and as you know about 2000 followers on Twitter.

The important issue is am I reaching to the opinion formers and decision makers that we want to influence and there I think the answer is yes. In 2009 Foreign Policy voted me no. 11 in their  top 100 Foreign Policy Commentators. Serious magazines and think tanks are very much the people we want to reach out to. Third party endorsement by opinion formers is far more powerful than a set piece speech or press release. I know other diplomatic colleagues read my blog and twitter feeds as they regularly comment although not via the internet. Personal contact is still important.

The last six months have seen a drop in my blog posts due to the fact that there are few major international meetings to comment on, which is one of the reasons I moved to podcasting. My conclusion on the latter is that it is by far the most labour intensive of the social media tools and as yet it does not have the take up of the other media. This might be different for a country where people prefer to listen to the radio, eg. Africa or perhaps Australia.

It is also a very different technique to move from print to audio. In that context, short YouTube videos are much easier to do and have quite a good take up (I think well over a 1000 for one of those we did on UN First Committee). In terms of overall impact the live streaming of the Gov2.0 LA presentation I did earlier this year was by far the most impressive, with 4000 people watching my presentation live online.

Q: Excuse the antipodean directness, Ambassador, but not being from a generation that was born LOL and rarely AFK, what attracted you to using blogs and social media and would you have any advice for other non-Gen Y diplomats contemplating  a similar plunge? 

A: As you may have seen from my Gov 2.0 LA speech I have quietly been involved in the area of IT for a long time (working on mainframes helped me pay my way through college in the 70s) and in my last job I set up an internet based platform to help facilitate business between British and French companies on both sides of  the channel. But it was the idea of one of our young interns that first prompted me to start blogging. I rapidly (eg. reading the Edelman studies on the Congressional Staffer Index), saw how these new technologies could achieve a level of outreach that was unprecedented. See here and here for example. 

Advice for those entering the field: be honest and be human — a blog is not a press release. Also as with all communication be clear what it is you want to say, to whom  and why. An ambassador's blog is not an online diary nor a FaceBook to share your hobbies with friends, but an important tool for communicating. The message is King.

Photo, of a word cloud from interviews with bloggers, by Flickr user Kristina B.

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