Driving Digital Diplomacy

McKinsey (http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/six_social-media_skills_every_leader_needs?cid=other-eml-ttn-mip-mck-oth-1312) identify six types of ‘digital leader’:

– the Producer, who creates content that makes people ‘lean forward’
– the Distributor, who allows co-creation and necessary anarchy
– the Recipient, who manages information overflow
– the Orchestrator, who drives and mentors social media use
– the Architect, who creates the right infrastructure
– the Analyst, who tries to stay ahead of the curve

As this blog has argued, successful diplomats will now need to do all of this, pretty much all of the time. Foreign Ministries have to recruit and empower digital natives to whom it comes naturally; and train/equip the rest of us. There are growing threats from engagement: the smartphone with which I do core parts of my job is also the means by which terrorists track my movements. But the biggest risk is not to engage.

Good diplomats were already Producers before social media gave them a means to amplify the product on such a scale: envoys tried to create influential and interesting content long before they became e-nvoys. Traditionally this was read by a handful of fellow diplomats. Now, to have influence, we have to produce for an entirely different group (not audience). A recent FCO innovation that measures how many colleagues read our internal reports has driven many to refocus on public content – this post is openly available rather than an internal memo. There should be no set rules on how we do this – with authenticity the key, individuals need to find their own tempo and their own voice. I’ve posted elsewhere on this site ideas on how to do it. (http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/tomfletcher/2013/11/29/waves-arguments-and-cliffhangers-ten-ways-diplomats-can-communicate-better/)

The hardest of the six attributes for traditional Foreign Ministries will be the Distributor. Encouraging a ‘certain level of anarchy’ will bring out the smelling salts in corners of most civil services, designed over centuries to do precisely the opposite. But co-creation and horizontal collaboration are more straightforward for bureaucracies – traditionally even the simplest minute or telegram was co-created, in the sense of being seen and commented on by numerous, often too many, people. We’ll need to find our inner anarchists, and crowd source more policy.

Being the Recipient is already a challenge. Twenty years ago, telegrams from embassies would arrive in paper form, and pass slowly from hand to hand. When I was in Paris just ten years ago, they used to circulate at the Quai d’Orsay by trolley. Now of course many foreign ministries have enabled instantaneous communication, with multiple recipients receiving reports as soon as the author presses send. This means the average FCO diplomat now receives forty diplomatic telegrams a day, as opposed to five twenty years ago. Add to this an average of 200 internal emails and he/she is struggling to get away from the desk – even before going online where everyone else is. The person or machine who curates all this information will be increasingly influential.

Tweeting Talleyrands – Foreign Ministers such as Carl Bildt, John Kerry or William Hague – are already Orchestrators, driving up social media use by being active participants themselves. Bildt was the first Minister to make it compulsory for Ambassadors to have social media accounts. Foreign Ministries will need to integrate social media training as a core development offer for all staff, and certainly for all heads of mission.

The Architect will also be harder for foreign ministries to get their heads around. Most are broken down by geographical area – Asia Department, Africa department etc. In the last twenty years it has become more common to see functional departments – climate change, prosperity, counter proliferation, strategy. Now foreign ministries will need to decide whether digital is integrated into everything we do as part of all existing departments. Or whether there needs to be a central digital function, driving use, training and policy. The best course may be to allow digital champions to set the pace, and compel all departments to hardwire digital through their operations. The reality is that – just as we shouldn’t need detailed plans to tell us how to speak or write –  it will become unnecessary in a decade to have plans to tell us how to digitalise. We will just be digital. Or dead.  

There will still be a need for the Analyst, seeing future trends and responding to them. The most agile and effective foreign ministries will draw more heavily on outside experts who can do this, not least in managing the huge implications of big data (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/disrupting-diplomacy-five-questions-every-foreign-minister-needs-to-answer/). We increasingly have the means to understand and track opinion in unprecedented, dramatic ways. An old diplomatic report might make a judgement about public opinion on the basis of two editorials and three cocktails. Now we will be able to back up judgements with facts mined from mountains of information, freely shared. To cope, secondments will increasingly need to be to and from technology companies rather than traditional models of business or NGOs. We should have a recruitment blitz of Bletchley Park proportions, before the disruptive competition hires all the brainpower.

Two small caveats. Firstly, all of this digital engagement is the online equivalent of stripping on the metro unless it supports our core objectives of making our countries more secure and prosperous. Secondly, and I realise the irony of saying this on this blog, I don’t think other businesses spend as much time as diplomats talking about why and how they are going digital. They are just doing it. As a former SAS commander always tells us, proceed until apprehended.

The argument on digital diplomacy has been too consumed by the need to make the case to sceptics for new information management and engagement tools, for greater openness. That argument is won. It now needs to be about how we use these tools to build – or at least defend – influence, and support positive change. Power is now, in Bob Zoellick’s words, ‘easier to get, harder to use, easier to lose’. If we don’t change the way we work, we’ll continue to watch it run like sand through our fingers.

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Farewell Ferrero Rocher

We are, as everyone knows, in the Networked Century. Our ability to succeed, compete, prosper will depend more than ever before on the quality and quantity of our networks, and our ability to work them. I’ve written elsewhere about the advantage this gives outward looking countries like Britain and Lebanon.

Diplomats tend to approach networking as gifted amateurs. We don’t want to appear to be trying too hard – better to breeze through, apparently effortlessly. But we now need to take a more professional approach to this most traditional of diplomatic skills. 

The diplomatic reception is only one type of networking, and more 19th than 21st century statecraft. But it is still an important part of what we do, and of the wider effort to build useful relationships. It is also the most parodied, whether you subscribe to the misplaced but (if we’re honest) alluring idea of glamorous diplomats swapping spy stories while the champagne flows; or the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent conclusion that we’re now about ‘cheap wine, plastic cups and sponsorship by Easyjet’. 

In reality, diplomatic receptions are of course not as glittering as the popular stereotype suggests. But nor do we use plastic cups when we need to impress on behalf of the UK brand. Nor do our events “tend to degenerate into stagnant pools in which the same old carp circle round and round gazing at each other with lacklustre eyes”, as Harold Nicolson wrote in 1961. Most of the time anyway.

I asked seasoned private sector networkers, and some of our best diplomats, for their tips on how to handle these receptions in a more professional way. Here are some:

1. Don’t look desperate: don’t be the first to arrive or the last to leave, and don’t thrust your business card at people until you think they might actually keep it.

2. Be the connector, put interesting people together.

3. Look past the title, get some personal information, and find a way to remember it.

4. Have a clear sense of what you want people to be saying about you afterwards and how that builds your professional and national brand (clue – it should not just be ‘he’s very nice’).

5. It is better that others tell people why you’re of interest than that you do it yourself.

6. Engage, don’t transmit. Above all, do it with purpose. Are you building relationships that in turn build the national interest? If you’re still talking about the weather after two minutes, move on, or resign.

7. Keep moving, but never get caught looking over people’s shoulders for more productive targets.

8. Don’t just focus on the grandest people in the room. Those that do so stand out a mile, and frighten the ‘important’ people away (unless they simply want their egos buffed). You get more useful interaction from a less senior adviser who wants to talk to you than a VIP who just wants an audience.

9. Convening power is huge. Host events people want to attend not just because of you but because they know interesting people will be there. 

10. Think about both the size and quality of your network. Not just about having the most business cards or LinkedIn contacts but the depth of the relationships.

To remain competitive, relevant and necessary, diplomats need to hone the skills that help them make their countries more secure and better off. Not all of these involve a smartphone, whatever you read elsewhere on this blog. None of them, sadly, involve expensive chocolate.