International and hyperlocal – taking the message to market

Occasionally, I’m asked to do presentations and discuss what the Foreign Office does, digitally speaking. The fact I never get asked twice by the same people is something I prefer to gloss over.

What I try and get across in these explanations of strategy is that if we’re trying to communicate, we have to take the message to market, not wait for the market to come to us. Much of that is about the mechanisms of distribution – search, social media, RSS, APIsand so on. That tends to take branded content to users – messages with logos of rampant lions and unicorns in the top corner – because that brand has authority. British citizens know the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and they tend to understand the authority that comes with it.

But much of our work is overseas, obviously, where the FCO brand resonates less clearly and where users won’t subscribe, follow, like or download our content because we aren’t their government. So we have to take the label off and go where those audiences are – create content for local platforms, be they blogs, local media, local social media, wherever.

Our guiding principles are presumed competence and devolved editorial. It doesn’t always work, but we assume that diplomats at post understand their market better than we do sitting in London, and we assume that they are capable of delivering content to it. So while we have our blogging ambassadors on our own platform, they also blog on local platforms – Matthew Lodge in Finland, for example, or David Landsmann blogs in Greek. That willingness to break language barriers and to go and find the audience on their own turf is very valuable.

In China meanwhile, they’ve done plenty. They’ve done ‘soft power’ work on the massive Sina.com on the Royal Wedding which garnered views in the millions (big market, yes, but a crowded topic too), as well as on the build up to London 2012. It’s a difficult market in which to operate, for obvious reasons, and more recently they turned to the Phoenix i-Feng platform which has a smaller – but still significant – audience with a more pronounced interest in international affairs. They have managed to gain some really good exposure on this site through their willingness to debate a whole range of issues without coming out with the usual style of government-speak that I’m told Chinese ‘netizens’ find so off-putting. They recently debated the rather thorny topic of government intervention in social media through a series of (uncensored) blog posts and began to engage in proper debate.

Some of that debate was, undoubtedly, with unofficial government spokesmen, but more was with local citizens. A rare chance to engage in public diplomacy in that country. It’s a small but fascinating experiment and one which the local team will build on to get more constructive debate and build understanding. The team there deserve great credit for their work, and how it develops will be extremely instructive.

Twitter: @jimmytleach

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