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[WebDebate #32 summary] Visual digital diplomacy: Opportunities for diplomatic practice

Published on 10 October 2019
Updated on 05 April 2024

In our October WebDebate, we discussed the visual quality of communication, specifically, as applied to the field of diplomacy. We were joined by Amb. Stefano Baldi, Italy’s representative in Bulgaria, and Dr Massimiliano Fusari, visual communications trainer and consultant. The debate was moderated by Diplo’s senior researcher and lecturer Dr Katharina Höne.

Fusari began by explaining that digital communication is led by visual components. The visual informs both the medium and the message. Visual diplomacy is about adapting a media-informed approach to a) engage content form and practices, b) enhance resulting visual toolkits, and c) tell diplomacy stories in an organic way across multiple media, channels, and platforms. Fusari gave his tentative definition of visual diplomacy: it is the credible visual storytelling of who does what to whom.

He then stated that there are two main challenges to reviewing the visual quality of digital diplomacy communication: digital agency (identifying the visual diplomat, the audience, and outlining their role), and the visual medium (defining a visual medium, and identifying how to inform diplomacy with effective visual tools). In addressing these challenges, it is necessary to keep in mind that diplomats should be able to reframe and enhance visual storytelling toolkits, and to implement these visuals toolkits towards the production and understanding of digital platforms. However, this should be done beyond digital platforms as the message always makes its way to the audience, which is outside of the pixel. Diplomats should remain flexible and adaptable in their visual media approaches, strategies, and tactics. Fusari underlined that communication is a performative act – how images and media forms are edited affects the symbols they project. Another point Fusari raised was that there has been a shift from the notion of stakeholders to the notion of social media contributors – they contribute to the conversation by sharing their perspective, and are actually able to influence, if not redirect, the online conversation. Visual media have become key players in representation. This is because of the shift from multiple tools to a single tool – the mobile phone. According to Fusari, questions on how to conduct visual diplomacy remain: How do we assess media? What are the facts of the storytelling? How to communicate strategically, toward which engagement, for which reception? 

The importance of resources

Baldi stated that diplomats and political leaders use the same visual tools, but have different resources, constraints, and purposes. For a diplomat, the main purpose of communication is promoting their own country. To do so in a visual manner requires a lot of expertise, as there is a delicate balance to be struck between visibility and not being overexposed online. To be visually present, diplomats need resources: money, personnel, and knowledge. Visual evolution has changed diplomatic communication, because today’s diplomats do not only communicate with their counterpart, but also with a wider audience. 

Fusari took the floor again to underline the importance of resources. Resources also encompass literacy –  diplomats need to learn and understand strategically how much of their communication can be done through a mobile phone by themselves, and when it is necessary to hire professionals. Resources are also about knowing how to read analytics, and tracking their own media presence to understand what has been done well, and what could have been done better.

Controlling the message 

Fusari argued that controlling the message should not be the key focus. Rather, being credible is possibly the best way to manage the message: it is the highway to branding oneself as the carrier of a specific message. The carrier can manage the message in an adaptable and realistic manner for different audiences. They can actually give consistency and strength to their communication, and avoid being hijacked by those opposing their perspective.

Can digital diplomacy assist in protecting a state’s foreign policy position to domestic and foreign audiences?

Baldi recounted his experience with promoting the policy positions of the government. These are not very easy to visualise, but it is worth searching for fitting visuals to enhance communication. However, the social activities of diplomats – such as opening a school – often get much more attention than attempts at communicating policy positions. Diplomats have to balance the message – they should show their social activity, but cannot allow it to marginalise the political message. Diplomats also need to keep learning about the sensitivity of their audience, as it changes from country to country. Baldi also stated that when a new policy position is presented online, negative comments outweighing the supportive ones are to be expected.

Catering to different audiences

In order to cater to different audiences, it is necessary to define who the target audience is, Fusari noted. Analytics are crucial in managing a basic notion of audience and basic engagement. By choosing what we want to engage and how we want to engage in that communication, we also define ourselves as a digital communicator – a digital diplomat. It requires adaptation, flexibility, and intelligence to think in short-to-medium as well as medium-to-long term, and willingness to readjust strategy and tactics.

Baldi agreed that it is crucial to define the target audience ourselves. In accordance to the target audience, priorities in communication can be defined and the strategy can be adapted.

Making diplomatic communication stand out

Baldi pointed out that there is an abundance of information online, but that the online audience is always hungry for more content. Therefore, communicators need to keep communicating, and in a continuous manner, in order to be visible to the audience. Making diplomatic communication stand out is risky for diplomats – they cannot only aim to please their audience – but need to represent their country in line with their national interests. 

Communication and prudence

Fusari noted that prudency is something all Internet users should be concerned with, not just diplomats. Once information is out, it resonates and trickles down, therefore prudence is even more necessary now when communication is required to be immediate.

Baldi highlighted that to be prudent online might sometimes mean not being visible online at all, and therefore choosing not to communicate. For diplomats, a delicate balance between visibility and prudence online must be struck.

Who is a diplomat?

Baldi highlighted that while diplomats are professionals with great knowledge and responsibilities, they also have a great need to learn new things on their job. Diplomats have to be to be humble enough to keep learning, and at the same time, applying what they have learned, otherwise they would just be very knowledgeable but have no effectiveness in their work.

According to Fusari, one of the biggest challenges in digital communication is that there are state-appointed, internationally recognised diplomats, and there are people that act like diplomats on certain topics. Both have roles and responsibilities, and their own, sometimes intersecting, spaces online.

On fake news 

Baldi underlined that diplomats should not unintentionally spread fake news. The quality of the content used and re-used (shared and retweeted) must be thoroughly checked. This is also relevant in case of re-using visual content, as it has own its meaning attached.

Journalism is based on telling factual information, Fusari stated. The word ‘fact’ comes from the Latin verb ‘facere’, which can be translated into English as the action of doing, making, creating – by humans. Facts have a very strong human connotation and are actually subjective rather than objective. This is why storytelling – connecting the dots and arranging facts and data – is crucial, Fusari concluded.

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