Is the Foreign Office too cool for Quora?

One of the joys of sudden web trends is the speed at which the too-cool-for-school types start to affect disdain and boredom for something that’s been popular for all of a week or so.

Take Quora.com– a US-based site which styles itself as ‘a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it’. A social media version of Yahoo! Answers, if you need it reducing still further.

It was bumbling along quite nicely til a combination of several nations’ worth of geeks bored over Christmas and the endorsement of techie evangelist Robert Scoble , made Quora officially the Next Big Thing. The tech media swiftly followed and suddenly Twitter was awash with people joining, or scorning, Quora. Plenty of people are signing up, a good few are claiming it to be the Emperor’s New Clothes and that they’re ‘so bored’ of it, already. Only time (and company strategy) will tell us who is right.

As night follows day, so the follow-up wave is the public relations industry discussing how their brands and clients might start promoting themselves and their services. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a brand, however abhorrent that sort of language might be to some, and we have, as I’ve yattered before, a duty to push our information out as widely as possible on the internet. So is Quora an option?

At first glance, no. As The Next Web found out, Quroa is yet to decide on its approach to corporate presences on the site (and I’m assuming it would view a government department as a corporate presence).

While they work that out, the FCO can happily return to one of the core principles by which it works – that of presumed competence. The presumed competence that enables the organisation to leave its staff in hundreds of locations around the world to get on with the job is being expanded to digital locations. So, as I’ve said before, FCO staff can, and do, blog, tweet, comment on Facebook and the blogosphere, publish video, and so on. And my estimable colleague Shane Dillon points out on his personal blog (we’d never allow that music taste on an official platform), there is growing scope for CEOs and leading figures within companies submitting themselves as experts and passing their opinions (and presumably their brand-advocacy) in a semi-personal manner.

So there’s the opening, we have presumed competence, we have expertise (in spades) and information that needs to be passed on, whether that’s consular information for travellers or explanations of policy or diplomatic activity. There is already an established practice of civil servants engaging in debates online. So long as they make clear their professional role, there should be no problem. So, aside from Quora’s US-centric approach (which will be diluted by time and traffic), what’s stopping us?

Well natural reticence, really. That and the fact that many people prefer to know that this is a project with longevity. No social media needs take huge amounts of time, but the equation of rewards over investment need to be balanced out, and sites with huge traffic make people feel that the rewards will be higher. Possibly – or possibly messages get swamped in the sheer scale, and it may be that now is exactly the time to get involved – the early adopters could be the sort of influencers and advocates that will help deliver information for us. Whenever you use a third party site, there are risks.

As you can probably tell, we’re dabbling in the shallow waters, trying to get to grips with how we’d use it (or some of us are at least ). Whether it becomes a pillar of our digital outreach, only time will tell, but at least the dabbling costs nothing (apart from slivers of time). I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others as to what sort of approach we might take – to this and to whatever the next Big Thing might be. In fact, I might ask the question on Quora …


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Chris Bennett

Quora was cool when only the in-the-know were on there, as in, I found it pretty rad when a Google Senior Engineer would comment on one of my answers. I don’t find much use for it day to day nor would I personally advise agencies to jump on it — unless to respond to a controversial/inaccurate question about them on there.

The winners in the Q&A space are the ones who can get the best search rankings for their questions (as Yahoo! Answers has done). Believe it or not, that’s the whole freaking reason they exist in the first place.

Sidenote: I run Ankylosing Spondylitis Answers (http://answers.ankylosing.org/), a Qhub-powered Q&A site. I created it to help people, but now like any other Q&A site operator, I focus on SEO to get traffic up and $ponsors.