29th November 2013 Beirut, Lebanon
Waves, Arguments and Cliffhangers: Ten Ways Diplomats Can Communicate Better
French diplomat Jules Cambon saw the dangers of diplomatic openness in 1931, complaining that ‘the activities of the press, and ignorance of a public that insists on being told everything, do not create an atmosphere favourable to prosecution of political designs’. He was right, long before
Assange and Snowden, that the media would sweep away many of the comfortable and previously impenetrable levels of secrecy surrounding our core business. But he was wrong to see this purely as a threat.
I’ve recently been asking former Downing Street Directors of Communications and media experts what diplomats can learn about comms. Here are ten ideas.
- The importance of a strong central campaign narrative. This should underpin all communications and provide a framework for individual announcements, themes and campaigns. British foreign policy is about making our country safer, creating jobs and growth, and getting help to our people when overseas. Everything else is detail.
- Understand the strengths/weaknesses of the brand. The 2012 Great campaign was a good example of this. The Olympics and Jubilee projected what Britain is about – creative, outward looking, dynamic, comfortable with its past, confident about its future.
- Identify core messages as sub sets of the central narrative. How do we promote national security? What do we do to promote prosperity? How do we protect our people? Tools such as Twitter should be the tactical expression of that message, not an end in themselves. We should seek wedge issues that align with the broad messages. Once you have those, you can set about building unusual coalitions around them, much more likely to cut through to people.
- Exercise message discipline. In government, most key communications are now projected in advance on a grid. This reduces the risk of confused messages, spaces out announcements to increase their impact, and ensures they are timed to land at moments when people will be more interested and receptive. Message discipline also means managing the messengers, and course correcting when they get it wrong. There are risks to all this, but the greater risk is to be absent from the conversation.
- Embrace the anarchy. Most political comms is reactive. However good your grid, events intervene. To avoid being blown off course, you need to anticipate and respond. You also have to accept that, as Alec Ross says, the 21st century is a tough time to be a control freak. Diplomats need to embrace their inner entrepreneur, and ride waves as they emerge.
- Highlight moments of jeopardy. The most successful campaigns create cliff hangers, more likely to get the attention of those we need to put pressure on their leaders. Of course, this carries risks – by setting up crunch points, you accept that sometimes you will fail, as we did at the Copenhagen climate summit. And there is only so often that the public can be told that a conference on agriculture or trade mission to Nowhereistan is ‘make or break’. We need to be honest about the importance – or not – of what we’re doing, while making it more relevant and urgent to people’s lives. We can’t compete with X Factor, but we can learn from it.
- Create an argument. In diplomacy, we often try hard not to offend anyone. Too many reports, as I blogged on diplomatic platitudes, note with satisfaction that ‘atmospherics were good’. Politicians on the other hand seek dividing lines, to create ‘with me or against me?’ moments, that challenge listeners to engage and to define themselves. Controversy can be the grit in the oyster.
- Comms is the tip of the iceberg. The danger is that the 24/7 news cycle destroys the ability to be strategic and makes it harder to compete for attention for the business that actually matters. The last London G20 Summit was one of the few international conferences that actually made a difference to people’s lives, but it lasted a media cycle, and was overtaken, ironically, by the resignation of a spin doctor. Any meaningful diplomatic effort should generate stories and angles that interest the media and public. But these must be underpinned by detailed work. The substance can generate a soundbite, but you can’t build substance around the soundbite.
- Strive for authenticity and openness. I’ve blogged elsewhere about the right of people to expect authentic communication from the people they pay. Cambon was wrong: by being more transparent we can become more relevant.I remember journalists telling me that our efforts to remove every inconvenient or counter-factual point when briefing a story ended up counter-productive. If the journalist feels a briefing has been sanitised, they will end up trying hard to undermine your account. There is an argument that a more open media presents greater challenges to Western global interests than those of more closed societies. Maybe in the short term. But Tim Berners Lee has done more for liberty than anyone in history. We should ensure that people have the technology to use what he created.
- Don’t forget the core business. Diplomacy is being transformed but not replaced. Twitter did not create democracy, democracy created Twitter. Effective diplomatic comms is not about over sharing: Talleyrand observed that more diplomatic disasters are caused by overactivity than underactivity. Like everyone, diplomats need to ration and pace themselves.
The media, traditional and digital, is a vital tool in contributing to the purpose of an embassy or foreign ministry, not an awkward distraction. If we’re not communicating, arguing, influencing, engaging in support of our national objectives, what are we for?