A few days ago, I was at the excellent PdfEU conference , and pulling together the notes for the wittering I was asked to do meant that I had to do the very useful and healthy process of pottering round the digital estate of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and working out the successes, and otherwise, of our social media work in particular.
In truth, we’re still learning about social media as you always should be, given the pace of change but, in government terms, we’re doing pretty well on the likes of Facebook and Twitter , and we’re trying out things on iTunes and rationalising a little on YouTube But we should be old hands at blogging by now.
Since the FCO started blogging , around 3 years ago, we’ve posted over 4000 blogs, covering a huge range of topics (obviously) and in a growing range of languages, from Vietnamese to Tagalog . And in doing so, we have, perhaps even inadvertently, created the main public face to public diplomacy and digital engagement. We’ve had a rolling cast of bloggers as diplomats move from job to job (and some re-consider whether their work needs a blog as a front end), but we currently have around 50 ‘live’ bloggers who all see it as an important part of their public diplomacy. Most see it as an opportunity to explain and enlighten, perhaps nudging the reputations of themselves and their Office up a notch as they do. Some hope to engage, some want to advertise a change of service of their embassy (a different visa application process for example), or market the UK in the country they are posted . Each has a slightly different slant on what they want to do, but each has the remit of promoting the Foreign Policy Priorities , however oblique the connection might seem sometimes.
There’s no central chain of command on the blogs – we don’t sit in the centre and demand that Ambassadors and senior figures write what and when we say. They choose their own topics and their own words – although we have ‘suggested’ a topic on an occasion or two, and a healthy proportion have calmly explained why it simply wouldn’t work for their audience. So there’s no editing or commissioning – and what you get with devolved editing is the occasional post which may not be quite what you want – but there’s a long tradition of presumed competence in the Foreign Office which extends to digital communications too. And works, almost all of the time.
The trick now is to understand what works and to develop the platform further. That provokes all sorts of questions: Is Roller the best platform? Probably not. Should we move off it? Probably, but probably not yet. Is success measured by the number of readers? The number of comments? Or the opportunities it presents? It’s all three. Obviously we want lots of readers, and we’d like more. We like more comments and engagement too – and both those issues explain, in part, our adoption of Disqus during this month. And some ambassadors report that their new role as bloggers puts them in conversations (on and off our platform, online and in real life) with people for whom the world of international diplomacy would otherwise be closed.
It could all be worthwhile even just for that. Yet there’s work to be done – we want more people to blog, and we want them to be read by more people and we want more engagement. We’re trying to take them to new audiences and there’s plenty we need to do, editorially, technically and internally. We may not solve foreign policy issues through blogs, but we can at least explain them better.