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Britain’s Blogging Diplomats

March 28, 2009

Last Wednesday, I spent the morning with a group of British diplomats at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who are experimenting with blogging (blogplomats?).

I was a bit surprised that diplomats blog at all — popular culture has them using elegantly-turned but guarded language that seems at odds with the in-your-face nature of blogging.

But there are more than 20 digital diplomats listed on the Foreign & Commonewealth Office site and I heard some interesting stories of how ambassadors are using blogs to get their jobs done.

In Vietnam, Mark Kent is finding ways of raising awareness of what Britain is really like by connnecting the local population to leading Britons. To mark the Vietnamese New Year he got David Miliband and Sir Alex Ferguson to offer greetings:

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Stephen Wordsworth, Britain’s man in Belgrade, is using blogging to influence media discussion about Serbian policies:

And in Zimbabwe, Second Secretary Philip Barclay (recently named as a Times Top100 Blogger) uses blogging in a quasi-journalistic manner to get across the real nature of life in the crisis-torn nation.

Barclay’s blog sparked a discussion of the extent to which diplomats can be entirely authentic in their views.

Tony Curzon-Price of Open Democracy suggested that diplomat blogs could only plausibly seek to influence and not perform the journalistic function of “speaking truth to power”. And at least one former diplomat is questioning the entire rationale for amabassadorial blogs.

Most of the diplomats saw Zimbabawe as an outlier and view blogging in a softer light — as a means to influence public views of Britain and its foreign policy. Someone described it as ‘branding’. Underlining the point, noone commented when the name of Craig Murray, the outspoken former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who lost his job after speaking out over human rights abuses, was mentioned.

All the diplomats appeared to agree on a couple of things:

Firstly, that blogging allows them to summarize the British position on issues in a way that the 10-page transcripts of speeches to the UN or official press releases somehow cannot, and that this is a highly efficient way of getting their message across to politicians, journalists and lobbyists.

Secondly, that since almost everyone else is doing it, not to use blogs as part of the diplomatic toolkit would make no sense. As the Foreign Office’s Head of Digital Diplomacy Stephen Hale put it, in the era of the Web “for most people in the world British foreign policy is what Google says it is.”

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