Chief Officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania Communication and Cultural Diplomacy Department Public Information Division, who is responsible for MFA’s digital communication on different social media platforms.
At the beginning of 2021, when we talk about the year 2020, when we even (dare to) remember the year that passed not so long ago we tend to think about it in a bad way. Well apparently most of us do. We watch video reviews about how the year was the worst in a century or spend an evening sitting on a sofa and watch a full movie on Netflix that also covers the topic of how bad the year was. We read articles, listen to podcasts, hear them from our friends and family, etc. No wonder that so many people have no other option but to simply share the same idea, agree to it, that 2020 was truly bad. Even if they had some positive moments throughout the year. It is like a trend on Twitter. Or like a viral hashtag that we attach to our posts on social media. But was this year truly all but good? I do not agree. And I will not be the only one, there are lots of people thinking like me. I am not ousting the global pandemic, natural catastrophes, and other similarly bad things that happened. I will simply cover one of the more exciting things (at least for me) that happened in the year 2020 and laid a more solid foundation for all of the years to come.
Lithuania’s digital diplomacy started to evolve from the year 2010 when a Twitter channel was opened to empower the country’s public diplomacy and to more effectively adapt to the modern age of digital communications. After a couple of years, a Facebook page was also opened, followed by LinkedIn (only) in 2018. These are the three most important branches at the center of this digital universe (not to mention the other digital channels like YouTube, Flickr, and podcasts). And they cover, in my view, the three most important fields: effective communication with foreign audiences, a vivid connection with Lithuanians living in the country and abroad, and creating a network of professionals and experts. And of course, we forgot to mention diplomatic representations abroad that all those years also evolved alongside the central digital structure of the MFA, their active digital presence is gaining more importance every single day. There are many important details about this historic transition into the sphere of digital communications, but for the sake of the length of this blog post, I will only mention one thing. The most important shift in the last ten years happened when people in charge of the development of Lithuania’s digital diplomacy decided to create a more centralized structure, not a loose one, which established an effective back-and-forth connection. When Lithuania’s digital diplomacy went from sporadic communications to strategic and campaign based. And this led to a positive change that is still active and important up to this day.
So finally after this “short” prologue, we can go straight to the most important part of this blog post – the positive changes 2020 brought to Lithuania’s digital diplomacy.
Information sharing – from emails to interactive platforms
Traditionally information sharing that happens between the “center”, meaning the MFA, and the “field operatives”, meaning the embassies/missions/representations, is still centered around emails. Of course, we have phones, messenger apps, but emails still play the most important role here. There are some good things about this method of communication, but there are many bad ones, and I will cover both. The good thing is that we all are familiar with emails, how they are composed, how they are sent, and how to quickly get lost in all of them when they simply flood your inbox. But the bad things are just that – you usually get hundreds of them throughout the day and it is sometimes hard to keep focused to truly understand what is written and what reaction is needed from you. So when the pandemic hit Europe and the entire world, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to act, as well as our diplomatic representations abroad. The main goal was to help Lithuanians in need wherever they were so that they could return home or at least get the best instructions on how they should act in the country they were present at that moment. Lithuania MFA had to have updated, fact-checked, and concise information about the situation around the world and our embassies were the most important players in this situation. So the staff members of the embassies had to report back to the center (MFA) on the situation in their location so that recommendations and specific travel alerts could be prepared and communicated to the wider public. So what happens in a crisis situation when countries around the world start to impose hard restrictions and close the borders and this information has to be delivered swiftly from around sixty embassies? With emails, it is called a “full inbox”. I am talking about the lack of a centralized system, even though there were responsible people who had to somehow manage this flow of information. We had a huge crisis and an issue with our information delivery and reception, but we soon found a simple answer that was in front of our eyes – Google Spreadsheets and Disc. It is basically a free tool-platform, which can easily be used to create a centralized system for information sharing and storing, also it allows quick access for the vast amount of people from the MFA’s diplomatic-consular system. So after spending a day creating a workable environment, preparing specific active spreadsheets, and finishing some guidelines – we finally had a better solution that changed the system of emails for this specific cause. For months our embassies gathered valuable information, accessed the platform, and updated specific active spreadsheets and folders. Then the right people at the MFA could quickly prepare social media posts, press releases, and travel alerts for thousands of Lithuanians who needed to be informed. Embassies could, and also, did check information from their peers and people from the MFA updated information about the situation back home. I could say a win-win situation. And yes possibly there are better platforms for this specific type of internal communication, but the situation was drastic in many ways and a quick response was needed. So what was the positive change in this case? The adaptation of an online platform for information sharing did not put email communication to rest, but it presented a valuable case for our future that clearly states – there are many positive solutions for vast improvements of internal or external communications. The mindset of people working in Lithuania’s diplomatic system has changed (at least a bit), hopefully leading to more positive prospects in the future.
Automated chatbots and the perspectives of AI
Information sharing was just the beginning of positive changes that happened throughout the year because as the global pandemic finally took shape as a long-lasting crisis, decisions on how to quickly improve our way of work had to be made swiftly. The MFA and diplomatic representations around the world have to cope with tens, hundreds, or even thousands of inquiries from Lithuanians (and foreigners) who either live abroad, travel abroad, or are simply generally interested in everything. From mid-March, the amount of these inquiries went up by 5 to 10 times, a huge amount for the same number of people who generally deal with them. During that difficult time decisions were made to reassign people from other divisions and departments so that they could form a specialized task force and communicate with the public 24/7. But this was not enough because there was a general understanding that at least 70 percent of these inquiries are basically asking no more than the same 7-10 unique questions that repeated every single day. In the past people at the MFA’s Communications department were thinking about various automated chatbot systems, which could be integrated into MFA’s Facebook and website, but finally, in March the golden opportunity came and quick decisions were made. In a couple of weeks, a fully working chatbot (Chatfuel) was integrated into the MFA’s Facebook page, covering Lithuanians, and a second one (IBM Watson Assistant) was then integrated into the English language section of MFA’s website and covered foreign nationals. At first, both chatbots needed lots of attention, constant updating and adding new functions to them, analyzing the user activities, but in due time it became easier to do the maintenance part. Now we have a single chatbot that covers both languages and all of the audiences, and the results are astonishing in my view – more than 15 thousand answered inquires. This does not mean that all of the inquirers were fully satisfied with the answers they got, but we always left an option for people the get a more detailed answer via phone or email. Some of the key diplomatic representations also started using this specific chatbot platform and the results are very satisfying. All in all this chatbot is working having no rest 24/7 and only requires an internet connection and some attention (every week) from a human being. A positive change indeed considering that the skills of some people can now be used in other important fields that require creative thinking. What else could be automated?
A snowball effect of accepting the Digital.
The year 2020 took a lot of people by surprise when they understood that now they had to use digital platforms constantly throughout the day to ensure their personal and work lives are as normal as they could be. And this also reached different MFA’s around the world when diplomats and civil servants finally realized that they need to adapt to this new form of reality, and the most important thing of all – accept it. Traditional in-person meetings, cultural events, concerts, and official dinners, even simple corridor conversations, everything suddenly had to change. At first, it was hard to accept this new reality and simply to understand how to use these different new tools that have emerged so that we could continue with our work (and personal) lives without many interruptions. But human beings are intelligent and curious. We managed to adapt from being hunter-gatherers to being citizens of large cities with a set of rules, we also managed to adapt in these peculiar times. Lithuanian MFA and its embassies started going online and transformed those traditional in-person gatherings into sophisticated online assemblies. With some struggles at first, briefing and instructions, experimentation, and some failures, but the adaptation happened and there is no way back now. Even if we return to normal life at some point in the future, these digital meetings, concerts, spectacles, webinars, you name it, we will still be able to use these new platforms at any convenient time. The benefits of it are quite extensive as normal in-person meetings with real “offline” people, which provide the ability to see and feel the person that you are standing close by. But digital platforms enable us to reach far wider audiences in a blink of an eye, reducing many costs and enabling interactive presentations. I do believe that these improvements will only get better and more appealing in the future.
Another important thing I should mention about his digital snowball effect is that a lot of people in Lithuania’s diplomatic system got the feeling of excitement using digital tools and platforms. Personally, I have had conversations with many people who are asking about the tools that are on the market, ways how to use them and what digital trends are now at the forefront. More and more staff members of the embassies now use chatbots, visual design programs, social media analysis tools, and this is precisely the 2020 digital snowball effect that I am talking about. Many could argue that this was inevitable, but I believe that 2020 was the catalyst in this long perspective of progress. But it is very important that the right people at the right time will present to give advice or simply to encourage this desire for betterment.
In different periods of human history, there were times of success and prosperity, and there were times of crisis and downfall. I do believe that the most important thing is to not get entangled in those periods when we are simply surrounded by bad things that are constantly happening around us. We should find the bright and positive aspects, even if they are still small, and do not present a way to quick success and work on them. Because this could lead to a positive change right away and you could be at the front of many much-needed victories in those harder times. Especially MFA’s and digital diplomats around the globe, because stagnation in this quickly developing world could mean serious consequences for this, in my view, greatly needed profession. So let us work on these positive changes, and most importantly of all, share our ideas and achievements with our fellow digital diplomats around the world.