The Spectrum of Listening

It is generally agreed that listening is a critical component of any successful public diplomacy initiative. Listening has become particularly relevant with the introduction of social media platforms in public diplomacy, which has created new possibilities for governments to listen to and communicate with domestic and international audiences. In particular, data-driven approachesprovide diplomats with new opportunities to conduct large-scale listening. Social media analytics and big data analysis are becoming key methods for monitoring social media conversations. The question of method is itself integral to listening in public diplomacy. This is why Damien Spry and Timothy Dwyer in a CPD blogpost have argued that data-driven approaches can be found beyond big data analysis. They suggest a distinction between big data and small – or ‘deep data’ – which refers to approaches such as interviews or case studies.

3 reasons why active listening is a must have skill_940x485

Along with the questions related to listening as a method, listening is also a communication act. As Nicholas J. Cullargues in his latest book, “listening in public diplomacy has double value. It is of particular value when it leads to a responsive and effective policy and/ or approach to a foreign public. It also helps when it is seen to be done”. In my recent article, I expand on this concept to argue that the “interconnected sphere” created by public internet communication requires that both scholars and practitioners move beyond questions of message, strategy and information gathering, to rethinking the act of listening in a fundamental way. Listening is also a representational force, a public response to those non-governmental actors and citizens who are now increasingly requesting not only to participate, but also to be listened to. Since social media likes, follows, retweets and replies are all forms and indicators of listening – being seen to listen is now itself an act of public engagement.

I reconceptualise listening as a spectrum of practices that reflect a range of both methodological and communicational options available to public diplomacy actors. By connecting public diplomacy with other fields in public communication, I define five types of listening.

Type of listening Engagement Goal Listening approach
Active listening Dialogic and relation-building engagement. Creates spaces for listening. Long-term strategy implementation and adjustment. Promotes trust and understanding. Combination of qualitative and quantitative methods.
Tactical

listening

Instrumental and reactive engagement. Correct misconceptions and pursue short-term sub-goals. Monitoring to identify issues and actors of concern.
Listening in Unidirectional engagement. Assessment of message reach. Measuring outcomes or metrics based on impact.
Background/casuallistening Casual engagement. Information gathering. Scrolling, unsystematic and/or accidental encounter of content.
Surreptitiouslistening No signs of engagement. Spying/

Surveillance.

Unethical/illegal acquisition of private data.

 

  1. Active listening

Listening is “active” when a public diplomacy actor is “seen” to be listening. Active listening operates in the long-term because it promotes trust and understanding by showing “signs” of listening. As active listening requires moving from mere measurement of message reach to full and “deep” understanding of the types of engagement, it requires a combination of big and small data approaches.

  1. Tactical listening

“Tactical” listening works to implement and readjust public diplomacy messages and correct misconceptions. A tactical listener pursues short-term goals and tactical listening is practically undertaken by identifying issues and actors of concern.

  1. Listening in

“Listening in” focuses on measuring message reach, since it based on social media metrics (such as views, likes, retweets, etc.).

  1. Background or casual listening

“Background” or “casual” listening is an unsystematic but recurring form of listening in which public diplomacy actors scroll social media content in order to find sources of information for diplomatic reporting.

  1. Surreptitious listening

“Surreptitious” listening refers to spying and surveillance online. It is usually unethical or illegal acquisition of private data or, in the context of cyberwar, is used by government intelligence for espionage or for sabotage through digital infrastructures.

The spectrum suggests that the definition of listening is not straightforward and, as a practice and method, can be articulated in very different ways. At the same time, listening also becomes a communication act when publics see that are listened to. This is why active – visible – listening is a concrete yardstick by which to assess successful public diplomacy listening on social media. In this sense, public diplomacy is a communication process that involves the interplay of listening and speaking.

The evaluation of public diplomacy, intended as the interactive dimension of diplomacy, as defined by theby the CPD, cannot be limited to the measurement of the message’s dissemination (voice); instead, it needs to explore how the combination of listening and speaking can support the advancement, the legitimisation and implementation of a state’s foreign policy by “fostering mutual trust and productive relationships”.

The spectrum of listening can facilitate comparative research among different countries’ listening approaches, as well as being used as a model for evaluating a country’s listening activities.

 

This blog was first published in the Center on Public Diplomacy Blog
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Conceptualising public diplomacy listening on social media

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

social-media-listening.jpg

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.

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.

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.

timeline
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).

untitled
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.

Cross-platform communication and Digital Methods: an example

Here’s the abstract and the slides of my presentation at the Anzca Conference 2016 in Newcastle.

Click here for the slides Cross-platform communication and context: assessing social media engagement in Public Diplomacy

Abstract

The new computational tools developed in digital methods are really powerful on mapping Twitter conversations related to a particular topic. Nevertheless, there are still several limitations in the collection and in the analysis of the data. These methodological challenges are addressed in my research project, which aims to explore the growing of Public Diplomacy activities on social media. Indeed, according to the Twiplomacy Study (2016), 90 percent of all UN member states have a presence on Twitter.

Yet, the study of Public Diplomacy on social media is still struggling to find an appropriate research method that is able to capture the complexity of the social media communication and assess engagement and participation. Particularly, these tasks have become challenging due to the new phenomenon of the cross-platform communication. Indeed, nowadays users share and comment news on social media, while traditional media, like TV channels and newspapers often report back what has been discussed on social media.

By analysing the Twitter data collected during the G20 2014 in Brisbane, I will describe some aspects of my methodological approach for the study of Public Diplomacy on Twitter. The paper will suggest that we need a mixed approach to comprehend the context and the cross-platform communication. To do so, tweets should be understood as units of information related to each other and visualised in the form of networks. Once key actors are found and relations among the different nodes visualised, a count of the URLs in our dataset will provide interesting information in terms of contents shared in the conversation. By manually looking at the information shared, the context of the conversation will emerge. In this sense, large datasets should be first visualised as whole and then analysed by zooming in the dataset and selecting particular interesting units, which will contain clues to understand the context and the flow of information between different platforms and websites.