Conceptualising public diplomacy listening on social media

Just published in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. Read the full article (Abstract below).

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Abstract

Public diplomacy consists of the public and interactive dimensions of diplomacy. Although listening is one of its core activities, public diplomacy scholarship has not yet engaged with listening theory. This paper connects public diplomacy scholarship with a new wave of literature that has argued that listening is a critical and previously neglected component of dialogic engagement. By reviewing this literature, this paper develops a framework for the ‘spectrum of listening’ and categorises five types of public diplomacy listening on social media. The review is followed by a descriptive profile of each type of listening. Using this spectrum, this paper endorses active listening and the embedded concept of dialogic engagement as a concrete yardstick by which to assess successful public diplomacy listening on social media. Listening could be narrowly interpreted as a way to implement and readjust a national strategy, or more broadly and ambitiously as an activity that aims to advance international understanding. The paper considers listening to be a representational force: a public and active response to publics who are increasingly demanding not only to participate, but also to be listened to.

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Typologies of social media accounts in public diplomacy

Public diplomacy actors are those who contribute to the projection of a country’s positive international image as a part of the national public diplomacy strategy. These actors are not always strictly diplomats since they may not be explicitly part of the diplomatic organisation. This introduces a differentiation between diplomatic social media accounts which are managed by diplomatic staff, and public diplomacy accounts which are usually accounts that support public diplomacy communication efforts as part of long- and short-term initiatives and international events.

The typology of diplomatic actors on social media can be defined according to the diplomatic organisation and the potential actors and topics they are most likely to engage with. Therefore, diplomatic actors on social media can be categorised as leaders, ministers and ministries of foreign affairs, thematic accounts, embassies and consulates.

Typologies of diplomatic Twitter account

Diplomatic social media accounts Actors to engage with Listening topics
Leaders Predominately domestic, but also international Political
Ministers of foreign affairs Domestic and International Political and foreign affairs
Ministries of foreign affairs Domestic and International Foreign affairs
Thematic/Initiative Domestic and International Specific
Embassies Diaspora and foreigners Consular services, bilateral relations, foreign affairs
Consulates Diaspora and foreigners Consular services and bilateral relations

Leadersaccounts are those belonging to heads of state/government, who can post as political leaders and representatives of the government. They are likely to post content about all kinds of political issues, but predominately about domestic political debates. These are usually personal accounts (for example @realDonaldTrump), as distinct from official position accounts (@POTUS) or organisational accounts (for example @WhiteHouse), which are intended to represent the views of the executive in a more institutional manner. Despite the fact that many studies in digital diplomacy have been focusing on leaders’ accounts, the activity on those accounts, while quite significant in terms of the political projection of a country abroad, represents only a small segment of public diplomacy activities on social media. Moreover, leaders’ accounts usually do not show direct signs of ‘listening’ to users because of the large number of followers they attract, and if listening activities do take place, they are usually delegated.

Another type of public diplomacy actor is ministers and ministries of foreign affairs. The difference between the two is that while ministers probably engage more with the domestic political debate and with a more personal approach, ministries’ accounts tend tofocus more on international affairs and use a more cautious and institutional communicational approach.

Then, there are many thematic accounts, focusing on specific issues. This type of account is usually managed directly by diplomats or staff at departments of foreign affairs. An example of the former would be the Australian DFAT’s (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) Twitter account @NewColomboPlan on its New Colombo Plan programme or @FarnesinaVerde on the Italian foreign ministry’s environmental sustainability initiatives. In this case the content and audience are strictly confined to the theme of the account, which may target both domestic and foreign audiences. Sometimes these accounts are managed by external service providers, especially for national branding initiatives, as is for example @AusUnlimited. Temporary accounts can also be created as part of a one-off social media campaign and deleted or abandoned after they have fulfilled their purpose.

Finally, embassies and consulates mainly target a country’s diaspora and the citizens of the host country, with the difference that embassies focus more in bilateral ties with the host country and listening to the citizens of the host country, while consulates concentrate more on listening to the diaspora community and on visa-services seekers.

There are also myriad accounts that can be part of a national public diplomacy strategy and that can fulfil a temporary purpose in relation to international events, such as an Expo or a national branding campaign (for example @UKPavilion2020). These accounts are not managed by diplomats nor are they directly related to foreign office activities, but they still play an important role in the projection of a positive national image abroad. They can be promoted and economically supported by other government departments and can focus on national branding, international trade and deals, culture, student exchange or aid programs and other international initiatives. Moreover, local governments and cities are increasingly active internationally, and they are becoming a central focus in place-branding studies.

The growing number of social media accounts that can fulfil public diplomacy activities complicates the coordination and consistent projection of the national image abroad. The creation of temporal thematic accounts is becoming a common practice in public diplomacy communication on social media. However, the fact that these types of accounts require so much effort to attract users and listen to them, while they may draw attention away from other accounts managed by ministries of foreign affairs and governmental agencies, begs questions about their effectiveness (refer to Cassidy and Manor 2016, 8).

There is a general tendency of increasing the number of social media accounts and embracing new platforms in public diplomacy practices. This might amplify the messages of foreign affairs ministries online in terms of volume, but this does not assure that social media users are paying attention to such messages. Although the inclusion of social media in diplomacy seems to have become mainstream practice, it remains unclear whether the growing number of diplomatic social media accounts contributes to the advancement of one country’s foreign policies and the creation of spaces for international dialog with NGO’s and citizens, as Shaun Riordan has pointed out in his blog.

Italian diaspora diplomacy: Italianness, political participation and international broadcasting

The “continuing history”  of Italian emigration to Europe, North and South America and Oceania has formed large Italian diaspora communities around the world. The Italian diaspora has developed according to a “spontaneous and independent process” driven by personal, political and economic reasons, resulting in an every-increasing number of Italians citizens living abroad – approximately 5,4 million Italian citizens according to recent figures.

In the last decades, the Italian government has integrated the diasporic communities as part of the “Promotion of the Italian Economic System” and the overall public diplomacy strategy.

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Italian economic diplomacy: an integrated strategy.

 

One of the peculiarity of the Italian diaspora diplomacy is that, unlike many countries, expatriate Italians nominate their own representatives in both houses of Parliament. Since 2003 when the law enabling this ability was passed, the Italian government has demonstrated strong commitment towards maintaining ties with Italians abroad.

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Goodbye

The Italian government has also constituted institutions that encourage political participation among Italians abroad. Besides the traditional network of consulates and embassies, Italian law has established the election of the Committees of Italians Abroad (Com.It.Es) for each consular jurisdiction in the world. This has produced vibrant communities that still engage with Italian domestic politics.

By creating the Ministry of Italians Abroad in 2005, the diaspora communities “were transformed from a history of loss and exile into a source of pride and economic power”,  increasingly conceived as “business communities”. In other words, Italians abroad were integrated into the “Promotion of the Italian Economic System” strategy, both as a policy justification for domestic political debate largely driven by the conservative party Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), and incorporating the diasporic communities into Italian economic diplomacy.

From a public diplomacy point of view, the “Italians abroad” policy framework is also reflected in the peculiarities of Italian international broadcasting, conceived as a “conduit between Italy and Italians abroad”, especially in the last three decades . Indeed, since 1940, Italy has been providing discontinuous international broadcasting in regions such as Europe, the Americas and North Africa, with news programs and entrainment provided in Italian and other languages. In particular, the agreements between the Italian government and Italian public broadcaster RAI included a certain amount of non-Italian language contents. These activities were conducted through the transmission of Italian programs by other local broadcasters. Videotapes were usually distributed thought the consular network and transmitted by local broadcasters.

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Rai International is now called Rai Italia.

It was only in the 1990’s that RAI received a mandate from the Italian government to directly broadcast internationally using satellite technology under the name RAI International. The channel currently broadcasts only in Italian a mix “of what are believed to be the most important Italian assets: religion, soccer, music, food, and general entertainment” . This decision has transformed Italian international broadcasting from a public diplomacy instrument to a public service to Italians abroad. Indeed, the choice of broadcasting in Italian indicated an imaginary audience, which is to say Italian expatriates only.

Since the Italian diaspora is considered by the Italian government as a resource for promoting the “Italian Economic System”, Italian broadcasting and the encouragement of political participation among expatriates aim to cultivate national identity. The Italianità (Italianness) thus becomes a prerequisite for Italians abroad becoming a central and “authoritative” asset for the promotion of economic diplomacy abroad. The international broadcasting service aims to bridge the differences that inevitably emerge between the governmental projection of Italian culture and spontaneous articulations produced by the Italian diasporic cultures. For example, linguists have studied the evolution of the Italian language and dialects by Italians abroad and the creative mix of dialect, Italian and English in Australia which creates new linguistic entities that differ from the evolution of the language at home.

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Italianità (Italianness)

This approach to diaspora diplomacy risks to simplistically represents the Italian communities abroad as homogeneous, “fostering unequivocal notions of national identity”. The Italian case can be considered an example of what Ien Ang defines “an attempt to capitalise on the history of mobility of populations across national borders for national purposes” in the contemporary globalised world. The incorporation of the Italian diasporic communities within the “Promotion of the Italian Economic System” ignores the permanent “tension between freedom and belonging, embrace of the new and fidelity to the old”  that expatriates experience. This risks creating an “illusion of community” when the Italian government considers expatriates as an homogeneous “state category” and an “illusion of continuity” of the nation state – when the Italian abroad policy is justified at home.

Perhaps the introduction of social media in public diplomacy represents an opportunity for the Italian government to enhance new forms of dialog with diasporic communities and reconsider the current policy. Satellite broadcasting is only one way to reach expatriates. The internet affords a variety of channel to access content in their mother tongue and enables dialogic forms of communication. New technologies and a renewed policy framework could include the variety of expatriates’ experience, of their old and new identities, and could become an innovative tool for public diplomacy.

The Australian DFAT Digital Media Strategy and Public Diplomacy listening on social media

On the 5th of December 2016 the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published the Digital Media Strategy 2016-18. This follows the previous Public Diplomacy Strategy 2014–16 published in 2014 and updated in the last few years. This move has been encouraged by the Minister Julie Bishop –  considered the inventor of the emoji diplomacy – who is now leading the Australian diplomacy from the prudence of the 2014-16 strategy to a more consistent digital planning.

The main goals of the new digital strategy are to equip, listen, explain, engage and influence.

The creation of a timeline of milestones allows both citizens and the government to assess the advancements in the implementation of the strategy.

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Major milestones implementation timeline

The plan still employs some buzzwords that the literature on Public Diplomacy has recognised as problematic, especially in the case of the word “engagement” that requires more clarifications (for example Matthew Wallin).

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Words cloud of the Digital Media Strategy 2016-18

The Australian focus on listening recognises and gives importance to an activity that has been agreed as pivotal in the New Public Diplomacy (p.18) . According to the Strategy, “Parliamentary and Media Branch will manage a range of high-level web and social media reporting and analytics tools that will identify influential groups and conversations, track sentiment towards Australian policy, measure the department’s global social reach and enable centralised reporting on the progress of major campaigns”. These monitoring activities can be categorised as “instrumental listening” (Macnamara, 2015, p.10), since they seem to answer to “self-serving questions that organizations want to ask”.

Finally, the strategy refers to “tools for social media managers” without specifying the characteristic of these tools. There is an ongoing critical discussion on social media analytics and the process of capturing, analysing and visualising data, recognising that “data should be understood as a mode of politics itself” (Johnson, 2015). One of the epistemological concerns regards the supposed neutrality of digital data, since the coldness of numbers gives a perception of objectivity or a sort of “hitherto unobtainable empirical truth” (Rossiter, 2014, p. 225)

The DFAT Digital Strategy is an important step toward an effective use of social media in the Australian Diplomacy. However, the potential of these tools should be accompanied by a critical reflection about the implications in the use of social media data in Digital Diplomacy. As the CPD discussion paper Social Media Analytics for Digital Advocacy Campaigns: Five Common Challenges   has pointed out, we need “to advance a more rigorous, structured approach to social media analytics and their role in strategic planning” (p.1). The underlying characteristics of social media analytics drive the modalities digital listening is understood and articulated, which implies a series of epistemological considerations that digital diplomacy scholars and practitioners need to address.