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Digital Diplomacy, Continued

BY Nick Judd | Friday, November 11 2011

Jimmy Leach, the head of digital engagement for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, writes in to say there's a difference between message and medium when it comes to officials and blogs.

Earlier this week, I wrote about an incident in which Sudan's foreign ministry expressed disapproval at a missive posted by Nicholas Kay, the British ambassador to their state, on his blog. Among other things, Kay's post — which opened with the query, "How do you celebrate World Food Day in a country where hunger stalks the land?" — appeared to have been removed a few days after the dust-up occurred. I'm told that was the result of a coincidentally timed switch to WordPress from another platform, one that may have broken URL aliases, and was not an editorial decision. At no time, Leach told me, had the post been taken down — I just couldn't access it, the victim of some technology's brief fit of pique.

But this was not the first time a diplomat's blog post has upset a government. In 2010, then-ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy caused an outcry with a post commemorating the death of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent Shi'a cleric who had also been described as connected with Hezbollah and "branded a terrorist by the US," per an Al-Jazeera report at the time. Israeli officials were not pleased; the BBC reported at the time that the Foreign Office did remove that post.

Leach wrote to me in an email that such events are uncommon and are not a function of the ease of Internet publishing. In fact, to his eye, the "hit rate" of potentially troublesome statements is no greater there than it is in any other medium:

We’ve had well over 5000 blog posts and I can count on the fingers of one hand the ‘incidents’ with what you might call editorial issues (and have fingers left over). Those have tended to be where content has been misinterpreted from what the author/diplomat intended. And that hit rate doesn’t stack up too badly against any other [forms] of communication.

The mistake to make is to extrapolate that these ‘controversies’ are problems of platform, not content. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media platforms we use are not ‘inherently risky’. The diplomats who use them are perfectly well-used to offering ‘personal insights’ on policy to conferences, journalists, other diplomats and in all sorts of public situations. As with those situations, there is a risk of an error of judgement or tone or an error in interpretation amongst the audience.

The rules (and potential problems) around social media are no different than for any other kind of public pronouncements. The mechanics (and the speed of travel) are different, of course, but we remain confident that diplomats as public communicators can be just as adept in this medium as any other and that the kudos for getting it right, as well as the potential problems of getting it wrong, are with the individual, not the medium.

On this, it seems, reasonable people can disagree.

Guy's follow-up post clarifying her remarks is still around, hosted online by the British National Archives.

"The blog was my personal attempt to offer some reflections of a figure who while controversial was also highly influential in Lebanon's history and who offered spiritual guidance to many Muslims in need," she wrote, back in 2010. "I recognise that some of my words have upset people. This was certainly not my intention."

In the post, she also noted, "The problem with diplomatic blogging is that you risk being anodyne or controversial."

Leach's point seems to be that diplomats risk being anodyne or controversial wherever they offer comment. The world of diplomacy being one of those realms where global powers' interests collide like tectonic plates — slow-acting forces of friction with occasionally dramatic results — maybe that's to be expected.

In a comment on techPresident, British Ambassador Nicholas Kay also chimed in on his own recent incident. Leach confirmed for me that it was indeed Kay.

"An Ambassador would be rash indeed," Kay wrote, "if her or his blog expressed views at odds with those of their Government."

This post has been updated.