Elevating Digital Diplomacy Communities to a New Level of Thinking, by Loren Hurst

The term “digital diplomacy” is about as vague as “sustainability”. It means everything and nothing at the same time. Conceptually speaking, it’s easy to grasp the overall notion of digital diplomacy. Defining what it means in practice, however, is subject to wide interpretation. 

The concept of virtual communities is a useful context to operationally define digital public diplomacy. The pandemic has changed the nature of communities, and thus how public diplomacy teams engage with stakeholders. Remote working and virtual interaction are here to stay. While nothing can supplant in-person exchange, our experience over the past two-plus years has proven the need to think beyond virtual engagement as simple webinars and content production. The imperative is to leverage virtual interpersonal interaction to reinforce relationship-building with key stakeholders. 

Virtual community-building as a public diplomacy strategy requires an adaptable framework. As opposed to a rigid top-down editorial process, a flexible framework approach promotes the empowerment of local public diplomacy staff as they engage locally and regionally. Frameworks also give local staff the opportunity to practice and refine their virtual soft skills that are increasingly crucial in the age of Instagram and Zoom. Finally, a dedicated virtual engagement framework provides an ideal context where the Washington-based bureaus of Global Public Affairs (GPA) and Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) can better coordinate overseas support. 

A number of recent reports have noted the need for better coordination among public diplomacy offices. As in any large organization, offices get siloed and internal communications often suffer as a result. This is a big enough challenge in and of itself; combine that with resource constraints, particularly at smaller posts, and the mutual support in the interest of audience engagement simply doesn’t materialize. Yet the importance of community cohesion, internally and externally, has become imperative as competitor nations build their own soft power infrastructure and next-level digital engagement becomes standard practice. 

Virtual programming provides an excellent context to develop efficient digital frameworks for community-building. In my work, I’ve leveraged the interpersonal aspects of virtual listening sessions to build deeper relationships with overseas counterparts and gain insight into local audiences. Small-scale virtual workshops complement large global programs and are ideal for educational purposes, where intimate group settings facilitate experience transfer through stories and direct interaction. 

Many of the structures for deploying these digital public diplomacy frameworks already exist. For instance, American Spaces are ideal venues to develop digitally driven stakeholder engagement and educational efforts. With the proper support from ECA and GPA offices in Washington, these on-the-ground presences can serve key roles as local audience aggregators. Moreover, the global presence of these venues enable staff to experiment with and assess new digital engagement efforts in localized contexts, constantly improve performance, and pass on valuable lessons to counterparts in other regions.

Digital diplomacy is not about replacing in-person interactions but complementing and enhancing them. Any notion that we will somehow return to “normal” after the pandemic recedes is misguided. We have arrived at a new normal. How we reach and engage audiences and even recruit and retain workforce talent has been permanently shifted. Successful public diplomacy in the future is all about integrating and coordinating digital engagement with interpersonal interaction.  

These integrated practice communities require champions to lead them. Success depends on a cadre of public diplomats with the right digital skill sets. As such, GPA, ECA, and the Foreign Service Institute should train and establish a cadre of professionals whose primary duty is to coordinate Washington-based resources with local and regional digital diplomacy communities. Creating and pursuing practice-oriented, digital diplomacy frameworks - as opposed to rigid notions of “marching orders” - empowers diplomats and local staff to use and develop their talents. As competitors elevate their own investments in soft power capability, the U.S. diplomatic corps must think at a new level in leveraging the efficiency and interpersonal connecting power of digital tools.

Loren Hurst produces, directs, and moderates live stream and broadcast media programs in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Global Public Affairs.