After 5 years of public diplomacy 2.0, we have learned many valuable lessons. Yet we still don’t know if it works.
The rise of Web 2.0 tools created a new, easy-to-use channel for diplomats and public diplomacy bureaus to reach far-flung publics. Many foreign ministries adopted the new technology almost immediately, creating a field called public diplomacy 2.0. New problems appeared quickly though. Social media’s all-in participation creates an environment where messages cannot be controlled as they are framed and re-framed by the twittering masses. And just being in broadcast mode is as likely to create snarky backlash as it is to create an audience of curious on-lookers. Public diplomacy 2.0 was supposed to be the ultimate engagement device, but commentating on commentary is not a conversation and posting digital posters is not effective messaging.
We now know that social media is not a public diplomacy panacea. In-person interactions remain the most important tool in building relationships and shaping perceptions, because social media is easily criticized as being “more interested in the appearance of dialogue than actual conversations.” In other words, operationalized engagement (the creation of the “environment”) undercuts the concept’s ideals. Comer & Bean compare American public diplomacy to a corporation that “welcomes consumer feedback on its branding efforts but not its role in global warming.” They explain Web 2.0 as a new way of marketing via the Internet: it creates the perception of user empowerment that in reality works as a way for companies to refine their personalized branding and utilize user-generated content as cost-free labor. Therefore, public diplomacy 2.0 could be considered not as talking and listening but the marketing of a dialogue to create credibility.
Then there is the whole evaluation problem. A message-receiver using Web 2.0 tools is not the same as a receiver at the end of person-to-person engagement. Data that analyzes usage or viewers via the Internet does not equate to engagement. A receiver may “follow” or “like” a program without ever being exposed to the message. So how are we supposed to measure effectiveness? Public diplomacy programs are aimed at foreign publics, especially those with an unfavorable view of the host government. Surveying these populations appropriately is difficult. The researcher would need to survey the receiving population before and after the program to gauge whether the receivers changed their perception of the host government from negative to positive. That “after” is a particularly significant problem within a slew of other problems. When is a suitable amount of time for a public diplomacy program to take effect? And how do you even appropriately collect that information?
It is arguable whether public diplomacy programs, 1.0 or 2.0, can be properly evaluated at all. It is not a science, and perceptions—the target of all public diplomacy programs—are fluid. External factors also play significant roles. A government’s public diplomacy program may be significantly effective, but if that government simultaneously enacts other negatively perceived programs, the former’s effectiveness is nullified. But how can public diplomacy programs be evaluated in a vacuum? These are theoretical problems that still affect public diplomacy 1.0. So what are we to do with the much, much wider net of public diplomacy 2.0?
Then, of course, there is the macro-argument. I’ll quote James Thomas Snyder wholesale for this, because, well, he is much smarter than me. (Though this is U.S.-centric, the lessons apply to all.)
No doubt the Internet has brought about a revolution in communications as well as a communication of revolution. It has been hailed and harnessed widely as a social media tool for public diplomacy, too. But its immediate access, instant gratification and supernumerary analytics have masked a stupidly expensive, massively oversold and extraordinarily anemic Rube Goldberg device for global communications. Politically speaking, the Internet is largely a system of the democratic haves texting feverishly to themselves. The undemocratic have-nots are left to something else, and those numbers are staggering: fully 4.6 billion people on the planet lack access to the Internet. A concurrent or additional 1.3 billion lack a reliable source of electricity that enable power-hungry computers and mobile phones to access the Internet. Then there are countries like North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Belarus and China – another additional or concurrent 1.45 billion – that control, censor or “intra-net” their networks, turning them into mechanisms of political control rather than a means of communication, education and liberation. Instead of congratulating ourselves for the newest new thing, or the State Department’s number of followers or friends, we should be pouring resources into connecting, forcing open, and communicating with—in the best way possible—those countries and benighted populations.
Not all is lost though. With five years under the belt, a whole mess of trial-and-error programs, and case study after case study of “here is where this went wrong,” foreign ministries have transitioned to public diplomacy 2.1. We’ve learned lessons: Communicating within this new public sphere should only be done strategically, targeted and with genuine concern. Self-serving, blanket statements will not reach audiences anymore. But despite this focused approach, practitioners must realize that communities on the Internet are not walled off. Any directed messages are available for scrutiny by all publics, and therefore should be written with that in mind. Furthermore, this increased scrutiny means that the messaging must also be done in a truthful manner. Misinformation and hyperbole can cause significant and perhaps irreparable damage to an organization’s image.
In addition, practitioners of public diplomacy 2.1 need to be part of community of interests and find ways to be a service to them rather than just market policies. This means communicating to the desired audiences in their own language using the site’s dominant practices. In addition, it is more beneficial to be seen as empowering a network to speak for itself rather than speaking for them. Strict advocacy and message control are habits of the past; public diplomacy 2.1 requires flexible and open two-way communication.
There is a concept missing in that last sentence. (And those lessons sound a lot like the operationalized engagement that I warned about a few paragraphs ago, don’t they?) As any good public relations theorist can tell you, two-way symmetrical communication is the ultimate goal. It predicates that both sides of the table are not only leaning in but also willing to change, or at the very least, to adjust. It’s a negotiation as much as it is a conversation. Presumably, public diplomacy 2.whatever has not given up on that ideal. But does anyone really expect Twitter replies to change how a government enacts a foreign policy? Will a YouTube comment really force a foreign ministry to reconsider its official stance on an issue? Probably not. So, what is the point of all this online public diplomacizing other than the marketing of a smiley, manufactured government brand?
Could the answer be that it is for the public diplomats, themselves? Public diplomacy 2.0 practitioners are exposed to more information and viewpoints than thought humanly possible just a decade or two ago. Everyday, people from all over the world are sharing their responses, ideas and perceptions, and governments are paying very close attention to them. (Arguably, too close.) Public diplomats that monitor the world through a series of fast-moving bits and bytes cannot—and most certainly should not—be unaffected by the enormous amount of new information. Could the greatest use of public diplomacy 2.0 be not as a tool for governments to reach and mold foreign public perception, but for foreign publics to reach and mold government perception?
This may just be wishful thinking. Even if an online exchange does manage to persuade an individual bureaucrat enough to alter his or her perception, is it possible for that individual to be a domino? Yes, I would argue, it is possible. And, it should be noted, the amount of individuals that make up a government is much less than the amount of individuals that make up a country’s public. So, statistically, there is a better chance of changing a government than an entire public. That all depends on just how effective public diplomacy 2.0 is though. Perhaps we should start measuring—or, I should say, attempting to measure—in both directions. You know, in a two-way symmetrical manner.