Last Friday, I joined a panel discussion at the Young Australians in International Affairs Future 21 conference. The YAIIA is a great organisation, and if you have any interest in international affairs, you should check it out. Future21 was its first national conference and had a stellar line up of speakers covering the waterfront of international issues. I was on a panel with Sam Roggeveen, Lowy Institute's director of digital, Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer from Griffith University, and Rob Tranter, head of DFAT’s Public Diplomacy Division.
Despite feeling extremely old, I really enjoyed the session. Why? Because we were discussing using digital technology in diplomacy, or digital diplomacy to give it its working title. My career so far has had two distinct streams: communications and foreign policy. Digital diplomacy is where both of these come together and I am fascinated by it.
During the discussion, one question stood out. Sam asked each of the panel for an example of where digital diplomacy had delivered a policy change or, as I interpreted it, what was the point of digital diplomacy? It was a great question. And it reminded me that in all the fuss created around ‘digital’, we can sometimes lose focus on why we are doing it.
We can get hung up on the number of social media accounts a foreign ministry has, how many likes a tweet received, or how many followers we have. These numbers are great: they are easily measured; they boost egos; and they can be spun as demonstrating successful digital engagement. But they don’t go to the heart of Sam’s question: What difference has it made? In the end, as public servants, we need to demonstrate to taxpayers why it is worth investing in digital.
The comforting news for digital diplomats is that we are not alone. The public relations profession has struggle for many years to measure its value. For decades, PR used 'advertising value equivalent' as the main evaluation measurement. This gave a monetary value to the coverage a particular issue received in the media based on how much it would cost to buy the equivalent coverage as advertising. It was a poor measurement and didn’t consider anything other than column inches gained. As a result, the PR profession developed the Barcelona Principles. These set out how PR can measure effectiveness rather than chase coverage or ‘likes’.
Digital diplomacy needs to follow a similar path if we are to continue justifying future investment. And like PR, we need to acknowledge that in many cases, we are playing a long game. Digital engagement won’t always deliver immediate benefits. And it can’t be viewed in isolation, it will normally be part of a diplomatic campaign that employs traditional tools as well.
The naysayers dismiss digital diplomacy as a fad that distracts from the real business of diplomacy. Others say digital will replace the role of the traditional diplomat and embassies. I don’t agree with either of these extremes. There are opportunities and there are risks. But as we move onto the next phase of digital technology, the profession of diplomacy needs to think big, and we need to focus on creating value.
The challenge for foreign ministries is to drive a cultural change within, one that gives diplomats the skills, knowledge and confidence to integrate digital into all things foreign policy.
And by the way, for those of you interesting in what example I gave Sam. It was the UK’s Ending Sexual Violence Campaign: a global diplomatic campaign with digital engagement at its heart. And it is still making a difference.
Illustration: Malte Mueller via Getty