Digital Diplomacy 2.0

Friday, December 27 2013

"We have not heard from our Ambassador in Spain for two years. If we do not hear from him this year, let us write him a letter." – Thomas Jefferson to his Secretary of State.

The evolution of communication technology has had a direct impact on diplomacy. The US and the UK have led the way in its use of social media in foreign services.


20131222-FTA-DIGITAL-DIPLOMACY-COMMUNICATION-telephone-pole355In diplomacy, the means of communication have evolved from letters and diplomatic pouches to the telegram and diplomatic cables, later to the telephone and traditional means of communication such as the television, radio and press until where it has landed today – digital media.

We have gone from communicating in ways that were one-directional, "from one to many" (printed word); private, "one-to-one" (telephone and telegraph); to massive, public communication "from many-to-many" (digital media).

"We have not heard from our Ambassador in Spain for two years. If we do not hear from him this year, let us write him a letter" – Thomas Jefferson to his Secretary of State

In the 1840s the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Palmerston notoriously exclaimed "By God, this is the end of diplomacy!" when he received his first telegram. Throughout the history of diplomacy technological changes always cause dread and mistrust. When the telegram first came about it created quite the stir which eventually settled and, has since made it the primary means of communication in foreign services to this day.

In the twentieth century, a competent diplomat could reach hundreds or possibly thousands of individuals through external communication techniques. Only few are able to reach thousands or millions of people via newspapers, radio and TV on occasion, but these require the intervention of "gatekeepers", or controllers of the flow of information.

"The digital content you leave behind, talks about you as a diplomat."  – Tom Fletcher

Social networks have changed this old system. The US has been one of the first nations to venture into digital diplomacy; having created its own means of communication and information via channels such as Youtube, Facebbok, Twitter, blogs, webs, etc. According to Victoria Esser, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the Department of State, social media allows the government to inform and contact with others in real time with a greater reach than was ever imagined by traditional diplomacy. The diplomatic pouch has been passed over in favor of digital communication, which is characterized by immediacy, transparency, extension and universality.

One of the main functions of diplomacy is to be able to manage a country's reputation and to establish good relations with other nations. By increasing accessibility and transparency, digital communication allows diplomats to build trust directly. It has become an essential tool for foreign relations.

Modern diplomacy has to lead with digital communication. As Tom Fletcher, the British Ambassador to Lebanon says: "The digital content you leave behind, talks about you as a diplomat." He promotes the idea of the Naked Diplomat, who only needs "a smartphone, and those oldest of diplomatic attributes – thick skin and an open mind".


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