Time for a Blueprint for Canadian Digital Diplomacy

DFATD's online presence is exploding. What's missing is a comprehensive strategy to manage it.
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* For the French version of this article, click here.

As of the middle of April, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development’s new page listing social media accounts included 33 Facebook and 39 Twitter accounts for Canadian missions abroad. This is clearly an incomplete list as we are aware of additional accounts maintained at missions. Many of these accounts have suddenly been opened within the last six weeks.

The timing of this sudden explosion of DFATD’s online presence follows Foreign Minister (FM) Baird’s speech in Silicon Valley on February 9 and his “Canadian Diplomacy for the 21st Century” address to DFATD employees on March 27.  In the latter speech, Baird said that, “Diplomacy is increasingly about public advocacy.” These developments beg the question, is there real change afoot from a government that has been devoutly controlling in its approach to public communications?

While the existence of these social media accounts suggests a new departure for DFATD, no comprehensive strategy for the use of social media or the development of digital diplomacy has been announced. The incompleteness of the list itself does not inspire confidence in the management and sincerity of this effort, yet it is an effort well worth making.

Canada remains a clear laggard in realizing the potential of new technologies and the social interactions that they enable, often packaged as “digital diplomacy.”

Digital Diplomacy around the World

Globally, the championing of digital diplomacy by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton in 2009 initiated through the “21st Century Statecraft” program marked the official beginning for a push into digital realms by foreign services and diplomats. Notably, this is much later than the discussion of e-government more broadly, though digital diplomacy goes beyond the use of digital technologies as communication channels to reconsider the audiences and stakeholders of diplomacy.

Following the United States’ lead, other important foreign services have enthusiastically embraced digital diplomacy. The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office adopted its social media policy in early 2013. French diplomats blog about “diplomatie numérique.” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt—whom FM Baird recently described as “one of most thoughtful and effective FMs I'm privileged to work with” in a tweet—also hosted the Stockholm Initiative for Digital Diplomacy in January 2014. In Asia, India’s public diplomacy Twitter account, @IndianDiplomacy, has over 160,000 followers and has tweeted nearly 5,000 times since July 2010.

All of these initiatives recognize that information technologies are changing the world. In the course of this change, the nature of diplomacy is changing radically. From a world that was hidden behind very large and heavy doors, diplomacy is now observed and often conducted by many new stakeholders outside of government. NGOs are frequently involved in foreign policy fora, and businesses may well be more often on the frontline of representing Canada than DFATD’s missions. The amalgamation of CIDA and the merging of development and other strategic aims into DFATD offer a great opportunity for a comprehensive strategy at stakeholder engagement.

Among the varied aims of engaging in digital diplomacy is acknowledgement of the involvement of non-state actors, collaboration with these actors on formulating policy through mechanisms akin to crowd-sourcing, and attempts at persuading stakeholders of the value of policies that have been adopted. While these aims may be anathema to parts of the Harper government who appear to be obsessed with information control, recent moves by FM Baird and the political leadership of DFATD seem to signal a recognition that the control of information detracts from the benefits of engagement.

Look to Weibo Experiment in Guiding DFATD Strategy

To maximize benefits and minimize risks, an explicit digital diplomacy strategy should be formulated for DFATD. Its authors may well turn to some of the experiments on engagement that have been conducted by Canadian officials already. Probably the most sustained and prominent Canadian experiment with digital diplomacy has been the Weibo account maintained by the Canadian embassy to the People’s Republic of China.

The embassy’s Weibo account was spearheaded by then-Head of Public Affairs Mark McDowell and approved by then-Ambassador David Mulroney in June 2011. Weibo was and continues to be one of the largest social media platforms used in China. It is a micro-blogging site roughly similar to Twitter with over 500 million accounts. However, much more substance can be fit into a 140-character in character-based scripts than in alphabets.

Other foreign missions in Beijing had already established and were operating Weibo accounts for almost 18 months before Canadaweibo was created. This put the Canadian embassy under competitive pressure. Looking at the account’s pattern of activities, we see a lot of consistency and thus infer that procedures for posting and engaging have been established locally.

We have analysed Weibo posts over the past three years and have focused specifically on the first two months of 2014. From this analysis, a number of patterns emerge: All posts are in Chinese and are clearly addressing a local Chinese audience. Tweets generally fall in the following substantive categories: Canadian news, education, events in China, visa and immigration procedures, tourism to Canada, Canadian culture including French culture in Canada, Canadian food, and, finally, short biographies of people working at the embassy. Posts number from one to six per day with more activities on weekdays. Some of them refer to online sources such as government websites, though often to Chinese-language sites. The account occasionally reposts content from other users.

As of early April 2014 the account is followed by nearly 570,000 followers. In the nearly three years of operation, almost 4,000 posts have been transmitted. The account is only following about 130 users, most of which have verified accounts but represent an eclectic mix of NGO and business users, including the Chengdu #2 People’s Hospital. Canadaweibo follows this hospital since the Canadian embassy had done a large public diplomacy campaign highlighting the historical connection between Canadian missionaries and Sichuan schools and hospitals which still exist to this day. In other words, many of the accounts that the embassy followed have a Canada connection, despite the eclectic mix.

Looking more specifically at recent activities, there were 103 posts in January and 88 in February 2014 or slightly more than three posts per day. These were “liked” a total of 4,807 times, reposted 78,584 times, and commented on 24,937 times. These figures add up to almost 110,000 actions taken by followers in the space of two months.

The post that generated by far the most actions was an announcement of a contest for prizes from Roots Canada on January 27, receiving over 52,000 reposts and almost 18,000 comments, accounting for two-thirds of all the actions taken by users in these two months. This is clearly an outlier in the general pattern of posts. While the contest does not constitute digital diplomacy except for in a very broad sense, the numbers of actions taken in response to the contest announcement hint at the large number of followers who are actually reading the content of embassy posts.

Comparing foreign embassies in Beijing, the Canadian Weibo account has fared extremely well. It is currently second only to the United States (864,000 followers) and compares favourably with other G20 countries like the United Kingdom (345,000), Korea (306,000), Japan (269,000), France (229,000), Australia (114,000), and India (18,000).

These numbers demonstrate that the embassy’s Weibo account certainly seems to have been successful as an alternative way to broadcast information about Canada to a local audience. Of course, these numbers hide ghost accounts and also do not allow us to distinguish followers who may be following for a very specific, often self-interested reason, as opposed to foreign policy stakeholders that an engagement strategy might be targeting.

It appears that the maintenance of a successful Weibo broadcast presence requires enough resources of the embassy that there are few opportunities to actively engage followers. Consequently, the posts rarely receive insightful comments and the embassy in turn rarely replies to any comments.

Even when the Weibo account primarily broadcasts information, some of this has a significant impact on perceptions of Canada. The most prominent example of this impact that received widespread attention was a December 2011 posting of a photo of the Canadian ambassador’s official car, a Toyota Camry Hybrid. This was perceived to be an extremely modest choice of car for a high-ranking official and prompted a local debate about cars driven by Chinese officials.

Overall, the Beijing embassy’s Weibo experiment seems to have been successful in building an audience and adapting to local media conditions. This has created a channel to engage local stakeholders that could easily be activated in the future when deepened engagement is integrated into digital diplomacy aims for Canada. Curiously, the Beijing embassy appears to have pursued a digital diplomacy strategy long before Foreign Minister Baird adopted this as a goal for diplomats.

Recommendations for Canadian Digital Diplomacy

We welcome Foreign Minister Baird’s recent endorsements of digital diplomacy. However, more concrete action than a few speeches is needed quickly. Formulating a coherent and strategically motivated engagement agenda is an important step toward the adoption of a social media policy akin to the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s. Such a strategy should explain the purposes of engagement, lay out concrete policies for diplomats’ actions, and acknowledge the potential pitfalls in opening up to the world in a significant way.

FM Baird needs to acknowledge that digital diplomacy is networked, not centrally-organized. There is no spider in this web. Decentralization brings risks of incoherence, rogue action, negative publicity, and misunderstanding and a digital diplomacy strategy needs to acknowledge these risks and accept them in the name of a more nimble, responsive, and transparent Foreign Service. This acceptance is predicated on confidence in professional diplomats—even if the Harper government cannot quite bring itself to trust DFATD. A well-developed strategy should also offer steps toward a mitigation of the afore-mentioned risks by spelling out reasonable procedures for engagement by individuals. Canadaweibo worked because the local mission essentially drove the experiment with no input from Ottawa. If the accounts sprouting up abroad are all led by HQ and not spearheaded locally, one can only wonder what will happen.

Clearly, learning still needs to occur in the coming months and years. Local language skills as well as social media savviness are essential for engagement and digital diplomacy. One shortcut to developing resources in this area for DFATD may be to consider recent U.S. initiatives to explicitly involve universities in digital diplomacy. The U.S. Diplomacy Lab thus challenges scholars and students to address complex problems that pose themselves in U.S. foreign policy. Many Canadian academics and students would certainly bring significant skills and experience to collaborations with DFTAD in developing a specifically Canadian digital diplomacy.

A move toward an engaged diplomacy that interacts with and is influenced by stakeholders outside of the government cannot be accomplished overnight. Social media engagement faces many pitfalls that come with its nimbleness. Benefits to an engagement strategy may not materialize immediately. Stakeholders who are told that they are to be engaged, but then ignored will be unhappy. The sooner DFATD (and possibly other ministries, too) enters into a strategic process aiming at social media engagement, the sooner this path can be explored.