Lowy Institute

Debate: E-diplomacy in action

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Writing about e-diplomacy is one thing, practicing it well is another. To shed some light on the latter, below is the first of a series of email interviews with a few of the most interesting practioners in this field.

This discussion via email is with the UK's Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, John S Duncan, who has harnessed e-diplomacy tools to draw together an influential audience in his key area of responsibility.  

Q: Ambassador Duncan, some people have questioned whether blogs can really play a useful role in the hands of government officials who are constrained by what they can say. What is your view about diplomats blogging and what role do you think blogs should play as a diplomatic tool? You are also an active tweeter: what role do you see Twitter playing in your field? 

A: This is a valid point. For the UK we have a concept called 'Assumed Competence' where ambassadors are given a fair degree of latitude to express what are clearly labelled as their personal views in their blogs. In general this has worked well. Over the past four years UK Ambassadors have done something like 4000 blog posts, of which only three have caused problems. Personally I think it is important for the diplomatic community to be part of and engage with the Government 2.0 exercise, ie. the development of communication via internet based social media; not only because of the widespread use of these tools during the Arab Spring, but for wider public diplomacy reasons.

While it is generally assumed that foreign policy is only rarely a domestic vote winner, it is still important that government explain to the taxpayer what they are doing and why in foreign affairs. The 21st century world is interdependent and interconnected in a way that we have never seen before. Events overseas do impact on all of us, eg. an earthquake in Japan means you can't get spare parts for your car or HiFi. So for both reasons public diplomacy needs to be facing both ways — outwards to foreign governments and societies and inwards to our own citizens.

The technological changes that Gov2.0 bring will also inevitably entail a far greater degree of accountability. The time when the occasional OpEd would suffice to communicate the government view is rapidly becoming something of the past.

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The new digital diplomacy needs, in my view, to be seen as a new communication architecture. Blogs serve the purpose of being essentially a running and virtual OpEd to the public, but as I have suggested in my YouTube interview they also serve the purpose of the 'coffee shop' conversation with colleagues and opinion formers; something that responds to their desire to have a snapshot of one's country's policy rather than wade through  the text of a long formal speech.

Behind the blogs are the campaign webpages such as the one we have on the arms trade treaty, which gives  more detail on our arguments and views as well as links to related issues. In front of the blogs lies Twitter (and for some of my audience Facebook or LinkedIn) which serves both as an advertising mechanism for the other two — pointing people to updates and latest news — but also as a means to reach out and engage with the media and commentators. In the latter function Twitter makes it easier for journalists to access content, for example the media have often used my tweets as quotes in articles and the reach is phenomenal — literally  from Dallas to Delhi and all achieved without a press conference. But Twitter also serves as a means to pull information quickly out of the internet, be it breaking news or major think-pieces etc.

Q: How many people do you reach through your arms control and disarmament blog and do you have any examples you could share on how you were able to use it to promote UK initiatives?

A: The numbers themselves are not really the issue. They naturally tend to vary as the issues I am dealing with come to a head eg. the NPT Review Conference last year. Also multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament is a little arcane. So I am quite happy when my blog is getting hits in the 100s and as you know about 2000 followers on Twitter.

The important issue is am I reaching to the opinion formers and decision makers that we want to influence and there I think the answer is yes. In 2009 Foreign Policy voted me no. 11 in their  top 100 Foreign Policy Commentators. Serious magazines and think tanks are very much the people we want to reach out to. Third party endorsement by opinion formers is far more powerful than a set piece speech or press release. I know other diplomatic colleagues read my blog and twitter feeds as they regularly comment although not via the internet. Personal contact is still important.

The last six months have seen a drop in my blog posts due to the fact that there are few major international meetings to comment on, which is one of the reasons I moved to podcasting. My conclusion on the latter is that it is by far the most labour intensive of the social media tools and as yet it does not have the take up of the other media. This might be different for a country where people prefer to listen to the radio, eg. Africa or perhaps Australia.

It is also a very different technique to move from print to audio. In that context, short YouTube videos are much easier to do and have quite a good take up (I think well over a 1000 for one of those we did on UN First Committee). In terms of overall impact the live streaming of the Gov2.0 LA presentation I did earlier this year was by far the most impressive, with 4000 people watching my presentation live online.

Q: Excuse the antipodean directness, Ambassador, but not being from a generation that was born LOL and rarely AFK, what attracted you to using blogs and social media and would you have any advice for other non-Gen Y diplomats contemplating  a similar plunge? 

A: As you may have seen from my Gov 2.0 LA speech I have quietly been involved in the area of IT for a long time (working on mainframes helped me pay my way through college in the 70s) and in my last job I set up an internet based platform to help facilitate business between British and French companies on both sides of  the channel. But it was the idea of one of our young interns that first prompted me to start blogging. I rapidly (eg. reading the Edelman studies on the Congressional Staffer Index), saw how these new technologies could achieve a level of outreach that was unprecedented. See here and here for example. 

Advice for those entering the field: be honest and be human — a blog is not a press release. Also as with all communication be clear what it is you want to say, to whom  and why. An ambassador's blog is not an online diary nor a FaceBook to share your hobbies with friends, but an important tool for communicating. The message is King.

Photo, of a word cloud from interviews with bloggers, by Flickr user Kristina B.

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One of the most successful examples of the government use of social media has been the US Embassy in Jakarta's Facebook page, which we have profiled several times.

In this email interview, Philip Roskamp, who runs the page (and is Assistant Press Attaché at the Embassy), gives a detailed and candid look behind the page as well as offering some great insights for any foreign ministry or corporation that uses, or is looking to use, social media.

Q. Your Facebook page is legendary, now with over 310,000 fans. Can you outline some of the history of the page – why it was set up, decisions you took on style and language, and why you think its following has grown so dramatically? 

A: The page began a few years ago with my predecessor and the Embassy Jakarta Public Affairs Section staff. At that time, US Embassies and Consulates were starting to get involved with social media as a way to better connect with host country audiences, particularly youth. 

We have made the decision to post as much content in Bahasa Indonesian as possible. While we put out some English content via Twitter as part of a weekly English program, we figure the best way to connect with Indonesians is through their language — Bahasa Indonesian.   

I think we have enjoyed success for a few key reasons: availability of hardware, popularity of software platforms, President Obama's close ties to Indonesia, and a focus on generating user-relevant content.

Indonesia has around 15% Internet penetration according to most survey data, and like most countries connectivity drops outside major cities. However, Indonesia has one of the most robust mobile markets in the world, and we have heard from local contacts possibly as many as half of Indonesian internet users access through mobile phones. A local mobile media company estimates 80% of mobile phones in use are 'WAP-enabled,' or can view graphics. Over time, costs for WAP-enabled phones, smart phones, and data plans have dropped, making the internet more affordable and accessible for millions of people.

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Those Indonesians active online already have decided Twitter and Facebook are tools they want to use — we don't have to convince them. Indonesia has the second-largest Facebook community worldwide, the highest Twitter penetration, and there are more than 2.7 million blogs. In other Asian countries, for example, some governments do not allow free access to these tools, some countries lack a culture of free expression, and other user communities might use an entirely different set of online platforms. Each diplomatic mission, or company for that matter, has to research what platforms are the most popular in a particular country.   

Never before has the United States had a President with such close ties to Indonesia as we do now. President Obama lived in Indonesia for four years as a young child, which has captured the imagination of the Indonesian people and provided us with a unique opportunity to deepen the bilateral relationship. There seems to be real curiosity and interest in the United States.   

One of our maxims when generating content is to recognise we can't change the way Indonesians use Facebook; instead, we have to find a way to be relevant to Indonesian users on their terms. Approximately 89% of Indonesian Facebook users are under the age of 35, and 65% under the age of 25. Our content, therefore, reflects these demographics. We don't think this 89% demographic uses Facebook to read serious messaging from a foreign government.

Personally speaking, I'm not on Facebook to read serious messaging from a foreign government and don't expect other to be either. I’m on to have fun, read something interesting, and keep in touch with friends. What does this mean for our content? For example, we don't post press releases or official statements on Facebook because we are realistic about what kind of interaction and engagement those sorts of postings would generate. For a page to be successful, users should drive content generation, and not the other way around. Content generated without regard for users will be irrelevant. The trifecta of Facebook metrics — impressions, likes, and comments — are very helpful ways to see if you are hitting the mark with the user community.     

Q: Now that you have over 300,000 fans, what does the Facebook page enable the US Embassy in Jakarta to do that it couldn’t do previously? And what do you see as the core role for the page?

A: Social media offers several advantages over traditional media: you have the potential to connect with many more people since online content can be shared more easily than an interview on a particular TV station or a hard copy article in a daily newspaper, people can respond to content they like or don't like and have their comments read by others, individual members of an online community can engage in discussions with each other, and anyone can take part in the discussion.

In contrast, TV — to use one example — usually doesn't offer common people a chance to voice their opinions, individual TV viewers don't interact with each other about particular programs unless they are in the same room watching together, and very few programs offer viewers the chance to comment on content directly and in real time. Having a larger Facebook or Twitter following magnifies all of these advantages. Instead of say 50,000 people interacting with a posting on the greenest cities in Indonesia, we have 311,000 who can post responses and start a dialogue with friends and total strangers. 

An additional benefit to a large following is reflected in Indonesian geography: there are 240 million people in Indonesia spread out over 17,000 islands. We have US diplomatic representation in Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan, and a consular officer in Bali. We can't be everywhere at once, but our messaging can. The bigger the following, the more likely it is — we hope — we are reaching other areas and people.

The core roles for the page are the following: let Indonesians know what America stands for and its values, generate discussion about topics as light as favorite American foods and as heady as what steps we can take in our daily lives to protect the environment and fight climate change, provide forums through which Indonesians can connect with each other, and share information about education opportunities in America.       

Q: How do you find Indonesians engage with the page and how do you engage with them? Is engagement the key, or do you see it as something else?

A: For us, success on any given day is measured by coming up with a daily posting that generates significant fan engagement. If we post something only a few people see or interact with, we feel like we got something wrong. The resonance of any particular message is directly linked to engagement. For me, the best metaphor for social media success is, 'If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall?' If you post content that generates no interaction, you might as well not have posted anything. Therefore, a posting that leads to a high number of impressions — people actually taking the time to view a posting — increases the chance for likes and comments and people actually taking the time to interact with a posting. Conversely, fewer impressions create a lower likelihood of fan interaction.

It's important to understand membership in a social media community is totally voluntary and users can opt out. A press release or Embassy statement, for example, might be unpopular but important to make on policy, moral, or other grounds. Except in rare cases, you won't know the public reaction to this kind of traditional diplomatic messaging. With respect to social media platforms, however, if users don't like the content, you'll know right away: a posting won't generate fan interaction and, worse, fans can leave. Diplomatic missions, therefore, face hard choices about content and have to do a cost-benefit analysis, based on experience and analytics, of what makes the most sense for the overall health of a page. 

This doesn't always sit well with people who see social media as a 'panacea', so to speak, for any type of diplomatic messaging. We constantly hear, 'Put it on Facebook. Tweet about it'. As a result, we spend considerable time doing what I call 'in-reach', explaining to Embassy colleagues why some content is appropriate for social media and other not, and how to best package messaging. Sometimes it's hard for people to understand using social media tools to keep up with friends and family is quite different than developing and implementing a public affairs strategy to keep and maintain a robust following of total strangers. 

For example, if a friend posts something that's objectionable to me or makes a bad decision in his life, I likely won’t 'unlike' him on Facebook. We have a relationship external to and beyond Facebook. With respect to the US Embassy page, however, if we post boring content, content that offends, or someone decides they don't like the United States because of events external to our Facebook page, turning us off is just one click away.   

My advice is for governments to see social media as one tool out of many possible public diplomacy options. At the end of the day, person-to-person diplomacy is still the best way to build relationships between two countries. Beyond person-to-person interaction, the public diplomacy toolbox is filled with different options: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and social media. People shouldn't get caught up on the tools — ultimately, the message is still the most important aspect of connecting with foreign audiences.   

Q: Do you have any specific examples you could share of how the Facebook page has contributed towards US objectives in Indonesia?

 A: One example is the campaign we used to prepare for President Obama's November 2010 visit to Indonesia, which was an historic moment for our two countries. We prepared a comprehensive campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and through local online websites to generate enthusiasm among Indonesians. Through a welcome message contest, Facebook and online ads, and contests with ticket giveaways to President Obama's public speech at the University of Indonesia, we were able to create an online buzz for the visit that generated huge increases in Facebook fans and Twitter followers. At one level, the first challenge was to capture more of the Facebook user market, and the second was to keep them as fans after the visit ended. Thus far, we have been successful on both accounts.     

Q: Have there been any specific learning experiences you’ve had along the way that might be helpful for others using social media for similar purposes?

A: There are a few helpful and important tips I would give to social media managers. First, you should know your users. Are they young or old? Men or women? Online in the morning or night? What do users like to do on Facebook and Twitter? This is not a perfect science, but you have to make your best guesses for content based on who is part of the online community and what they are doing. 

Second, managers have to plan content. We develop a Facebook plan for the month, a daily Twitter schedule, and special campaigns weeks or months in advance. So much happens in the world of public affairs — and social media is only one of our many responsibilities — that failing to plan ahead could mean missing the moment for effective messaging. 

Third, tracking online interactions will help you determine what types of content your community does and does not like. Failing to track this data, particularly when it's easy to do through Facebook analytical data and lots of Twitter programs like Hootsuite, will leave you guessing about what constitutes effective content. Luckily, there are lots of free websites out there willing to grade a page's influence, reach, and online 'clout'. Some sites tell you exactly how many fans you gain and lose based on particular tweets. These types of analytics are very helpful for planning purposes. 

Fourth, although these are digital tools, you need to invest the time to meet your host country's online influencers. They will tell you what they like and don’t like about your page, let you know who is doing it right, and inform you of online trends. All of these are important aspects of managing content in a rapidly changing online environment. 

Last, determine what works best for you and your user community. As much as possible, don't let the home office or someone else tell you what is best or drive your content. Who knows better what your users want: you, or the home office?

Q: Finally, could you summarise your own view of what e-diplomacy is about?

A: At the US State Department, Secretary Clinton has helped create and champion '21st Century Statecraft,' which she defines as 'the complementing of traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.' 

What this means to me and my team as content generators and community managers is that advances in online media and communications technologies have given us opportunities to interact with people like never before. People can get our daily English idiom posted to Twitter, for example, anywhere they have mobile reception — they don't even have to be sitting in front of a computer; our fans can comment on content and ask us questions in real time whether they are stuck in Jakarta traffic or on lunch break at a school thousands of miles away; and we can hear from fans — of any ethnicity, gender, age, economic class, or religion — about issues that are most important to them, rather than simply pushing out messaging. 

Maybe one meaning for the 'e' in e-diplomacy is evolution. I feel like I have been part of a generation of first adopters of social media tools for government public diplomacy and have been doing a lot of things for the first time. Five years from now, I imagine the digital diplomacy landscape will be completely different, both in terms of the technology available and the level of collective digital know-how among diplomats. On the technical side, for example, one only needs to look at the manner in which over the course of a few years Facebook totally eclipsed Friendster as the most popular social media platform in Southeast Asia to see how quickly things can change. If we don't evolve, too, we'll miss out on fantastic opportunities to connect with foreign audiences.

Photo by Flickr user FindYourSearch.

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Koreans are legendary for their embrace of technology. Not surprisingly, the State Department, via e-diplomat Ambassador Kathleen Stephens and her team, has had a lot of success with digital initiatives in Korea. One particularly interesting example is Café USA.

To look at this platform in detail, I conducted this email interview with Aaron Tarver, Press Attaché at the US Embassy in Korea. 

Q: For our non-Korean readers, could you explain what Café USA is about and how the concept originated?

A: Café USA is the Mission's official online community created in October 2004 to facilitate direct communication between the Embassy and Korea's internet-savvy general public. The café is hosted on DAUM, one of the two major internet portals in Korea. Currently, Café USA boasts over 11,000 registered members and has around 500 daily visits, with messages posted each day on various boards. The members not only read and post messages on web-boards regularly, but also participate in web chats to share their views on bilateral relations.  

Q: What sorts of issues get raised in Café USA and how does Café USA contribute towards the work of the US Embassy in Korea?

A: One of the popular features of Café USA is the consular/visa Q&A section. Whenever there is a question on consular matters, the Consular Office answers the questions under the Consul General’s name and gets them posted on Café USA. Members also ask the Ambassador various questions, especially about her blog entries. The Ambassador answers them as time and circumstances permit. Café USA acts as a venue for dialogue and communication between Koreans and the Mission.

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Q: Why the focus on Café USA rather than say Facebook, which I notice you also use?

A: As social networking sites are the focus in today's new media era, we place equal importance both on Café USA and Facebook, but for different purposes. We upload the Ambassador's blog entries and longer posts on Café USA, and post shorter and more concise drafts on the Embassy's Facebook and Twitter accounts. These accounts in turn are linked to our websites, YouTube account, photo galleries etc. It really is a full integration of social media.

Q: Do you have any tips for other foreign ministries that are considering engaging people using e-diplomacy platforms?

A: If you have started using social networking sites to reach out to a wider audience, we recommend conducting two-way communication, engaging with them in dialogue as much as possible. The transformative aspect of social media to communication is its interactive effect; thus, simply sending out missives one-way may not achieve the desired result.

To that end, if possible, implementing strategies that ask for broader, more active participation both internally in your institution and externally in dialogue with your audience, strategies that keep the content and face of your online presence fresh and up-to-date, and that engage online members through the latest cutting-edge technology, will strengthen the impact of your e-diplomacy efforts.  

Q: Finally, could you summarise your own view of what e-diplomacy is about? 

A: New methods and modes of conducting business and communication are becoming the norm, with the help of the internet, information and communication technologies. E-diplomacy is a way of utilising those methods and modes of communication as a new platform from which to enhance the public affairs programs that you have already created and to engage entirely new audiences in a different and much more immediate and personal way.

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Jimmy Leach is Head of Digital Diplomacy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he leads one of the world's most dynamic e-diplomacy teams. He was good enough to do an email interview as part of this series on e-diplomacy. You can follow him on Twitter here, or on his blog.   

Q: The FCO has been one of the leaders in e-diplomacy. Now that you've had some time to experiment with the different platforms, which ones do you think have been most successful and useful for the FCO?

A: It's not really about the platform, it's about the message — and the aim is to get messages which carry well across a variety of platforms and media. But I realise that's dodging the question. But to dodge it even more —  it depends on getting the message and the platform right. We have our platform, of course, which is the right place for corporate-style communications, but for the distribution of messages, we need to tailor messages and platform to audience. Established social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook are handy (and cheap) but real breakthroughs can sometimes come with proper segmentation.

One small example of that is the work done by diplomats in Beijing for the Royal Wedding (a classic soft power opportunity). They teamed up with Chinese media organisation Sina for wedding coverage, and produced some fantastic results. Their activities not only got us great visibility with some extremely impressive stats (including, notably, 23,886 views of the See Britain Through My Eyes, 1.5 million visits to their Wishes page and 90,000 new followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent) but also some excellent comments that show receipt of our key messages, for example, 'This video (See Britain) is absolutely right. [UK is] decent, confident, respectful, open-minded, dynamic and creative.'

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Q: Not every foreign ministry has embraced e-diplomacy in the same way the FCO has. Do you think it is inevitable that other foreign ministries will have to embrace these new digital tools or is e-diplomacy an optional extra?

A: I think there'll be a tipping point where this stuff will suddenly seem natural. I'm not talking about a generational shift in diplomatic circles — I expect that a growing awareness that the audiences for public diplomacy are increasingly digital will dovetail with the realisation that an understanding of foreign policy issues on the ground can be improved by placing ourselves in the right networks. The role of social media in the Arab Spring has perhaps been over-stated, but the level of understanding that listening and being involved in those conversations brings will not be an optional extra.

Q: How integrated has e-diplomacy become within the FCO?

A: We're still a little way from digital by default, but we're integrating digital into the communications work across our networks. That integration is quickening, driven, unsurprisingly, by the continuing events in the Middle East and North Africa. The need to understand, to know who the authors of revolution were and what their plans might be has driven digital to the centre — monitoring and contributing to events as they happen. Decluttering the noise and understanding where to make the connections and the contributions is a new skill in the armoury of the digital diplomat, and is part of creating a broader view of communications, that goes beyond the press release of old-style public diplomacy into the determined embedding in conversations far and wide.

Q: Looking into the future, what impact do you think e-diplomacy will have on foreign ministries? 

A: I think it will become a natural part of diplomacy, as people recognise that digital doesn't change the rules of diplomacy, it just changes some of the mechanics. Greater connectivity ought to give greater understanding which ought, logically, to smooth some diplomatic paths, as well as impacting more and more on policy-making, broadening the remit of the consultation process. Diplomacy will also become more visible as more practitioners see that, as in most fields, a public profile is helpful is persuading others of the power of their policy stances. Perhaps the quickest inroads will be made in consular activity where the need for pro and reactive messages targeted at particular situations is most acute.

Photo by Flickr user Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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India is famous for its IT industry and, not surprisingly, its foreign ministry sees a bright future for e-diplomacy. Navideep Suri is Joint Secretary for Public Diplomacy in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and oversees its new e-diplomacy push. He was kind enough to do an email interview on India's recent initiative in this space. 

Q: India has been active in the e-diplomacy space. What are some of the initiatives you’ve been working on and what platforms have you found most effective so far and for what purposes?

A: We entered the e-diplomacy space last July when we started our Twitter account. We followed it up with a Facebook page and a YouTube channel and also started using online publishing sites like Scribd and Issuu for some of our publications. We also started our Public Diplomacy website which, curiously, was the first in our government to be based on a Web 2.0 platform.

When we started our journey on the e-diplomacy path, our own systems and regulations were loaded against our initiatives and so we were, in a sense, the first in our government to start using social media. 

But despite the initial hurdles, I have to say that our experience has been very positive. The fact that the public diplomacy division has won two awards for most innovative use of social media in government has also helped us underscore the larger context in which our efforts are situated.

As we gain experience with social media, we are starting to recognise the importance of each individual platform on its own merits. 

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On Twitter, we are inching close to the 11,000 followers mark and we see quite a few of our communications get re-tweeted by multiple individuals. Our experience with Twitter during the evacuation of our nationals from Libya was a real eye-opener. We used it to put out timely information about the evacuation schedule, we received invaluable information from the ground about the requirements of our nationals in distant parts of Libya, and we got large dollops of appreciation from tweeple who appreciated the effort that we were making in using new media. In the process, we also picked up quite a few additional followers and friends.

To me, frankly, the one specific case of listening to an individual in Chennai about the plight of his father and other Indians in Misratah was all the feedback that I needed to highlight the importance of listening in our public diplomacy efforts. The fact that real time feedback helped us with our evacuation efforts was a huge bonus.

On Facebook, we are trying to build a narrative about our soft power and create communities of Friends of India. We've had remarkable initial feedback on our ITEC page on Facebook which brings together individuals who have come to India under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme. Visit and you will get a flavour.

We have also asked our embassies and consulates to establish their own presence on Facebook and I am happy that in the month or so since we sent our communication to them, some 35 of them have already come online. I see this trend accelerating rapidly over the next few months in a way that it becomes part of a coherent and mutually supportive presence.

On YouTube, we are trying a somewhat different track. Our public diplomacy division has been commissioning documentary films on different facets of India for the last three decades. But during the last few months, we started the process of uploading shorter, tightly edited versions on YouTube and we have already received over 70,000 views. This is mostly due to the unexpected, runaway success of a short, quirky little film called 'The Musalman' (see above) that we commissioned last year. It is about the world's last handwritten Urdu language daily, published out of Chennai. The newspaper is really a labour of love and we've been stunned to see that as of today, the 2nd of June 2011, it has received over 40,000 views in barely three weeks since we uploaded it! This shows the power of the medium if we can provide intelligent content in an accessible format.

We hope that in the next few months we can integrate all platforms in a way that all our content is digital. We've created a Digital Diplomacy section as a starting point and I am sure that it will gather momentum in the coming months. But at present, this has limitations because I only speak for the public diplomacy division of the Ministry of External Affairs and not for the entire Ministry.

Q: What level of support does e-diplomacy enjoy within the Indian Foreign Ministry? Are there plans to expand the number of staff working in this area and to integrate e-diplomacy across the ministry?

A: We have been fortunate in getting strong support from Mrs Nirupama Rao, our Foreign Secretary. Her leadership has helped us steer many of our initiatives to the point that we have reached at present. But we also suffer from a major constraint because the broader responsibility for putting out all official information presently rests with our External Publicity division and not with us in the Public Diplomacy division. We are working towards a much closer integration so that we can make better use of all of the information available with us as an institution. We have to work towards getting out of our silos and presenting a much more comprehensive picture that respects the active interest of our audience and engages with them.

We will definitely need more staff. At present, we have the somewhat ridiculous situation of me and my colleague Abhay being a one-and-a-half man team trying to run our digital diplomacy initiatives. And I would be the first to concede that I have a lot of other issues on my plate even though my instinct says that we will get the most bang for the buck if we concentrate our limited resources on new media. 

But I do worry that we are raising expectations amongst our friends, followers and viewers without an effective back-end that can provide the kind of timely and substantive responses that we should gear ourselves to provide.

Q: In the US, in particular, IT corporations have worked closely with the State Department to develop various e-diplomacy tools. Has there been any similar collaboration in India with your own IT sector?

A: I sincerely hope that we too can leverage the formidable, world class capabilities of our private IT companies. In our public diplomacy efforts, we have been most effective where we have partnered with credible and competent private actors. I hope that we will soon be able to extend this to our e-diplomacy presence as well. We will obviously have to do this in a way that we can marry the needs for transparency and financial propriety with a model that enables us to leverage the best available talent and resources in our private sector. 

Q: What do you see as the future of e-diplomacy in the Indian MFA?

A: Well, to start with, let's call it the MEA instead of MFA since we are the Ministry of External Affairs. I feel that we have taken the difficult first steps that break traditional mindsets, establish an e-diplomacy platform and open the way for others to build upon it. I am particularly encouraged by the fact that so many of our colleagues, especially some of our younger diplomats, have been quick to seize the opportunity that we are creating. My gut instinct tells me that if we can unleash their creativity and innovation, we will soon see our e-diplomacy efforts move in directions that our bureaucracy may not even be able to envisage. That's the future of e-diplomacy and I am confident that we are going to be a fairly significant part of it. So watch this space and let's visit it again in a few months.

Do keep in mind that we still haven't celebrated our first birthday in terms of our presence in new media. That will happen in July! I do hope that by the end of this year, we will be counted amongst the top ten practitioners of e-diplomacy.

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