Interview with Mark McDowell, Counsellor, Public Diplomacy, Embassy of Canada, Bejing
The Canadian embassy in Beijing, China, is testimony to Canada’s strong push towards the efficient use of social media in public diplomacy. Each week they get 1000+ feedback comments on their ‘weibo’ (a Chinese version of Twitter) microblog posts! Triggered by articles and Twitter discussions on the Canadian experiences, we asked Mark McDowell from Canada’s Beijing embassy to share with us some first-hand experiences of ‘weibo diplomacy’ and his thoughts on the potential of e-diplomacy.
Diplo: In 140 characters: why is e-diplomacy a must for diplomatic service today?
In public diplomacy you have to go where the audience is. Today it’s not in the agora, or sitting by a radio or TV; it’s on social media.
Diplo: From an e-diplomacy practitioner’s point of view, what are the hypes and realities of the ‘Twitter bubble’ i.e. the use of social media in diplomacy?
There are people who pooh-pooh social media and ask ‘what problem does it solve?’ But that’s not really the way innovation happens. Electricity wasn’t invented to solve the problem of how to power refrigerators: people recognised a potentially versatile resource and developed uses for it later. Many people recognise in social media a potentially powerful tool, but we really haven’t figured out the things it can do best, and that is frustrating for some.
The analogy that I would draw is with the Internet, which wasn’t developed for online shopping or making long-distance calls; that came only after a few years. And speaking of the Internet, I am sure I remember a similar period of deflation after the initial excitement of a new technology wore off. Weren’t people in 1999 saying things like ‘yeah, working with websites is fun and makes you feel tech-savvy, but what use are they?’ Now-a-days having a website is normal, if not a must.
At the embassy we are very interested in documenting specific, measurable benefits of social media. So for example we can show that we can use it to flatten out peak demand periods for visa applications, or to market education fairs more effectively and efficiently. It’s sort of plodding work doing that, but it’s important to show that we have good reason to stick with it.
Diplo: What about the other pole: overinflated expectations that social media could change the world – and diplomacy – entirely?
There were inflated expectations for the telegraph as well – so it’s not unusual. Many inventions even within my career were supposedly going to transform diplomacy entirely: 24-hour news, cheap international calls, e-mail, the Internet, so again, it’s not unique. I think all of those things have had a deep impact on diplomacy, but all were overhyped at some point. Social media and the Internet are definitely technologies that are empowering non-state actors, but really only function in a suite with cellphones and cheap telcom and videography. The proliferation of sources of opinion-making is just reinforcing the importance of public diplomacy, which itself is a function of mass prosperity and democracy.
Diplo: Where should the innovation start: at the bottom of the system (in missions and from diplomats themselves) or from the top (in headquarters and the ministry)? Is it a must to have an Alec Ross or a Ben Rowswell in a HQ to be able to innovate?
By virtue of the fact that in 100 embassies or consulates overseas you have 100 different potential experimental environments, innovation will tend to come from the bottom. But of course it is extremely important to have people in HQ who have the vision of how it can serve broader government goals. Also a lot of the ongoing innovation takes place through learning-by-doing, so of course it is the missions that will develop all of those incremental improvements.
Diplo: Diplomatic service is highly hierarchical, and communications with public requires clearance from superiors or even headquarters. The culture of social media, however, is based on personal interaction and unrestricted share of thoughts. How to reconcile the two for sake of ‘bottom up’ initiatives in e-diplomacy?
Public diplomacy through social media is – most often than not – about non-controversial issues. What is relevant for diplomats is not necessarily relevant for the wider audience. For instance, we post an average of 20–30 Weibo messages per week, and most of these cover the wide palette of China–Canada relations such as business updates, visa issues and immigration concerns, discussions about food, information about studying in Canada, ways Canada measures air pollution, etc. This is what interests our followers all across China, and where they engage in conversations with us (we get 1000+ feedback comments on our tweets every week). Therefore ‘twiplomacy’ (or ‘weiplomacy’ in our case) is rarely about problems and controversial issues; and when it is, clearance – and even assistance – from the headquarters is inevitable and most welcomed.
Diplo: Cultural differences certainly influence how missions use e-tools and communicate. What are specificities of China in e-diplomacy, how is the SM approach different (for Canadians) in such a different culture?
There are things about the Chinese social media environment that are unique and things that are common to all social media environments. One particularly interesting difference is that social media in western countries is often depicted as a land of frivolous self-indulgence and silly rumour, while the more traditional media is considered reliable. The typical view of a Chinese netizen is that the established media is homogeneous and doesn’t report much real news. You have to go on social media to find the ‘real story’ behind the official one. Of course Chinese social media is full of people documenting their lunches, but social media has become a very powerful force to break big news stories, and to shape the narrative of events. It has really challenged a homogeneous information environment.
Chinese netizens have a great appetite for news about foreign countries and that of course presents us with a great opportunity. That appetite ranges from very specific utilitarian information broader, more abstract issues like governance.
But all that said, I am a great believer in local knowledge, and think it is very important for diplomats not to think that any foreign environment is just like their own. China is different, sure, but you need a specific way of approaching social media for just about every country.
Diplo: After this success story what can we expect next in e-diplomacy from Canada? What would your suggestions for further innovations be?
Going back to your Twitter bubble issue, I think the next phase we are in may be a less heroic one, a phase of showing how social media can serve the various projects of a foreign ministry – commerce, advocacy, visa and immigration services, consular services, and so on. We have had a year or two or three of ‘isn’t this cool!’ working with social media but now we have to focus a bit on applications.
Diplo: So we can say that social media are now also slowly entering the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ phase of the E-diplomacy Hype Cycle?
I think that’s a really useful image. Some things, like CB radios, collapsed after the hype rather than rebound to the plateau. I can’t see social media going away like that. There is also a network effect here, too – the penetration of Facebook is so wide now that you really can’t get out of it. Like you can’t get out of using cellphones and go back to making your calls from a payphone if you need to.
The challenge now is to explore all the practical values of social networks, and prove it is more than fun while realising it will not suddenly change the world either. And there are some visible benefits already: with digital outreach even to the far ends of such a big country, there are significant savings – in advertising and travel, for instance.
Diplo: In 140 characters: your message to the other MFAs afraid to start with e-diplomacy?
Know your target market. You’ll learn about the medium by doing, so it doesn’t have to be perfect to start. Keep an open mind and adapt.
[Note that we are gathering these interviews in an e-diplomacy resources page here]