Head of the Public Diplomacy Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia
First of all, I hope that you are all well, that these strange, sometimes even scary times marked by COVID-19 have not been too harsh on you, that you and your close ones are all doing well, and that we shall soon have an opportunity to meet in person to do a proper EDDE (European Digital Diplomacy Exchange … I like all these words, but my favourite one has become exchange, in the sense of a proper, in-person chat—the EDDE has always been an invaluable forum for me because of our lively, informal conversations and the fresh light your input would shed on my old dilemmas).
I must admit it is somewhat strange to be writing rather than talking to you … for talking to you in person meant getting lost in a number of digressions (apologies!), not necessarily wanting to find my way back to the beginning, because you would help me, along the way, to stumble upon some answers I didn’t even know I was looking for—however much I miss this, I find myself to be more formal via Zoom, which does not strike me as a particularly digression-friendly platform. Maybe it is just me having prejudice against the platform …
Although I’m already somewhat tired of mostly seeing peoples’ faces reduced to those little boxes on Zoom, I remembered thinking last year, when we were all forced to switch to the digital environment, that it could potentially be a good thing. When the pandemic pandemonium started, I ended up treating it as a professional opportunity (partly because I was trying so hard to find a silver lining during the sudden chaos). Digital diplomacy could make a valuable contribution towards solving the crisis, I thought, thereby proving itself to be more than just a nuisance in the eyes of many old-school diplomats (yes, a point still sorely needing to be made where I come from). Indeed, with so many of our citizens stranded all over the world, the fast and concise ways of digital diplomatic communication, seen by traditionalists as its shortcomings, proved to be invaluable assets.
I wish I could share a major breakthrough like Mykolas has—congratulations to Lithuania on seizing the opportunity to develop digital tools and on managing to do it amidst a crisis. We were pushed in a different direction by the sheer urgency and volume of the task at hand (under different circumstances, I would have been glad to discover that our tour agents have such a rich palette of off-the-beaten-track tourism offers … well, under very different circumstances indeed). The process of obtaining and organizing the data pouring into our HQ from all over the world was mainly in the capable hands of the unsung heroes of our Consular Service—our job was to help them filtrate initial citizens’ queries and later distill the legalese they operate in and feel comfortable with into a user-friendly commoners’ Serbian for our website. We would update our website at least once a day with all the latest official information from all over the world (the idea of real-time online updates had to be abandoned because, while the workload was increasing, our workforce was decreasing due to the virus).
All of our 100+ representations served as hubs for gathering information on citizens eager to return to the country. Some of our colleagues soon realized that the usual means of communication would not suffice when it came to organizing a quick retreat (we were barely managing the influx of emails in Belgrade), so they created Viber and WhatsApp groups in order to be as accessible and efficient as necessary (in Asia, for example, a vast number of small groups of tourists dispersed all over the continent needed guidance to the nearest airport which was least likely to close down within the next 72 hours—in this case, using phone apps proved to be crucial for successful problem-solving). Some of our colleagues at major European airports, where they were sent to help organise transfers of big waves of our students returning from the US, adopted the same practice, realizing that the word about it spread quickly among the student population and that students would keep coming as their campuses close, often at a very short notice, without any idea of how they would reach Serbia, but checking social networks (rather than websites) regularly to learn about the experience of those who had already made it.
When, later that year, the decision to create the official Twitter account of our Ministry was taken, our diplomats, aware of its potential worth, greeted it with relief.
Digital is not an end of diplomacy … merely a tectonic change
If you think that the general opposition to digital diplomacy among our diplomats has decreased significantly … well, you are mistaken. And I would lie if I told you that the same colleagues who greeted the launch of our Ministry’s official Twitter account greeted our instruction to create their embassies’ accounts with the same enthusiasm. In order to try and infuse them with confidence, I have been trying to figure out where their reluctance stems from. Please be warned that what is to ensue is a series of my rumblings concerning the subject, shared with you in the hope that you will be your usual insightful selves and help me out of the proverbial woods with your thoughts and experiences.
My guess is that most reservations are voiced by diplomats who cannot comfortably communicate in ways so different (and much less defined) than the ones they have been trained in. But then again, at least no one is shouting: „My God, this is the end of diplomacy!“ like lord Palmerston, British PM and Foreign Secretary, reportedly did upon receiving the first telegraph message. Historically, each new medium sent shivers down diplomatic community’s spine. Diplomacy is suspicious of changes, as any trade that old would be, I guess, viewing them as a potential threat to its core: the fine art of negotiation, restricted to a small circle of people, all trained in the same trade and the same language code. However, diplomacy has not only survived the emergence of the telephone, the radio, and the TV, yet it has even managed to make them work to its advantage along the way. The same is happening with digital, although, unlike previous technological revolutions, this one is „altering the DNA of diplomacy“, as someone wrote, encapsulating the magnitude of change it brings to the life of a diplomat.
While the first technological revolutions changed how we communicate and later ones gradually widened the circle of those we can address including the general public, this is the first one that fundamentally cha(lle)nges the rules of the game—now, the general public can address us, too. The emergence of social networks meant that, for the first time and practically overnight, we are to enter a conversation far more loosely defined than the one we are used to, in a language code that we speak, but are not always comfortable with. This may not be such a challenge in big MFAs, with a large number of PD experts and specialized staff in each representation managing their social networks—in our case, however, with a small team in Belgrade both planning and overseeing the entire operation, it’s all doom and gloom unless practically all of our senior diplomats are comfortable with being autonomous Twitterati.
If you consider that with this new tool “our message must be clear and strong enough to be able to undergo the direct checks by thousands and thousands of individuals that are not familiar with diplomatic etiquette and say it as they see it”, as former Italian FM Giulio Terzi said in his address at the conference Twiplomacy: Diplomacy in the Twitter Age, everything becomes a bit more understandable. I still feel frustrated when I see that the great work (and the amount of work) done by our diplomats and the level of communicativeness of some of them do not come across on their social networks. Then, I remember that the notion of “clear and strong”, as Mr Terzi put it, is counter-intuitive to people with experience in diplomacy, where creative ambiguities are your friend and mild expression is practically a must. Suddenly, the way we communicate, which our community has been perfecting over centuries, the very core of our trade, has to be altered if we are to be heard. It will take time and training, a lot of it. It shall also bring a lot of benefits if we do it right.
Of course, we could choose to remain in our comfort zone, talk to the same old circles in the same old diplospeak (as I am sure you have heard journalists refer to the way we speak, fairly remote from their own practice), only on new platforms … but wouldn’t that turn our social media accounts into simple vanity projects, lartpourlartism of a sort? More importantly, wouldn’t it mean missing a great opportunity to do what diplomacy does best—resolve differences and further understanding—and practically betraying its mission? Although this may sound a bit too ambitious, I can’t help but think that we need to take advantage of the opportunity we have now. If only we could move from the presentational to the conversational style … even if it is, at the beginning, just to say thanks when someone praises us online (I forwarded someone’s tweet of praise to an ambassador of ours for a presentation he did, hoping he would venture out into thanking that person on Twitter … he thanked me instead for drawing his attention to it). Also, it would be great if we could somehow divorce the term official (yes, every like you give from your account, although for less formal things than those that we do, is still Serbia’s official stance, we keep telling our Twitterati) from the term formal (no, your language does not need to be as formal as usual to make an official stance online).
It is a passionate belief of mine that we need to be more ambitious about digital diplomacy, i.e. that particular part of it that enables us to converse with the public or “speak human” (that is how the unexpected, last-minute victory of Ed Miliband over his much more popular brother David in the UK Labour Party leadership election was explained—Ed, apparently, could “speak human”). The thing is that it gives us the opportunity to show that we are good listeners, too, that we care, and that we can be trusted. The clearer and stronger our message, the more engaging our role in a certain conversation, the greater our chance to keep public’s wondering eye from straying towards less reliable sources. In the era of fake news and disinformation, “speaking human” engagingly to reinforce trust in our institutions is not an option, it is practically a must.
Is it only friends we should listen to?
“I tell all our ambassadors: remember, you only have one mouth, but you have two ears, so use this as a way of not just communicating with the citizens of the country where you are serving, but also of understanding the point of view of people who may not be sitting at a mahogany table inside the embassy,” Alec Ross once said.
Indeed, we are involved in a business of gathering information, but it is confusing, however theoretically valuable, to now gather information from all possible online sources, when we are used to dealing with people sitting inside embassies. The communication code used outside these offices, while not terra incognita, is certainly not considered to be terra firma in diplomatic circles. Yes, of course we are aware of the world around us and its peculiarities, but are we really taking into consideration all the information it has to offer? Trained to work with facts (or at least rumours we can cross-check against other rumours), we are now required to consider the world of perceptions as well.
Where once only the credibility of our source mattered, now its popularity matters, too. It is not only the truth that may go viral, as the pandemic has reminded us. If someone could potentially mobilize huge crowds, shouldn’t we listen to them online, regardless of how wrong or how distant from our natural habitat they appear to be? Isn’t that the biggest lesson of the Arab Spring for online “listeners”? Disregarding potential sources for seeming “not serious or official enough” would mean losing out on potentially crucial information. A bit like, in analogue terms, not devouring The Sun ahead of UK general elections simply because it is a tabloid.
Long story short: although somewhat counter-intuitive, direct communication with the public and, above all, the possibility of listening to it, friends and foes alike, is a resource too valuable on various fronts not to risk some discomfort and leave the confines of the communication code we know. We can always stick to our circle online, and it will take proper, well-devised training to leave it behind … but not leaving it would mean losing (potential) friends and alienating people. The sooner we start making the effort (no, having an account is not enough!), the sooner we shall cross that bridge. Crossing bridges and bringing different sides together is what we do best, after all. That, too, is our tradition.