Australia's public diplomacy and social media

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Australia's public diplomacy and social media

Posted 28/06/2011 by Nina Markovic

On 6–7 June 2011 the Forum on Public and Citizen Diplomacy was convened in Canberra to formulate recommendations for Australian public diplomacy practitioners, with the aim of identifying best practice and emerging trends in this field. Innovative ways of conducting public diplomacy, including through the use of social media, have been advanced by Australia's partners. But what exactly is public diplomacy?

Experiences from the US, UK, and the EU

United States of America
In the US, public diplomacy constitutes an essential part of the US foreign policy establishment, and is seen as an element of ‘soft power’, a term which was made popular by Professor Joseph Nye. Soft power refers to a state’s ability to achieve what it wants through attraction, rather than through force or payment.

According to research undertaken by the Congressional Research Service in December 2009, public diplomacy embodies:

...a government’s efforts to conduct foreign policy and promote national interests through direct outreach and communication with the population of a foreign country. Public diplomacy activities include providing information to foreign publics through broadcast and Internet media and at libraries and other outreach facilities in foreign countries; conducting cultural diplomacy, such as art exhibits and music performances; and administering international educational and professional exchange programs.
 The US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, expanded the concept for US purposes by remarking in 2009:

We must use what has been called “smart power”: the full range of tools at our disposal -- diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural -- picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.
One of the functions of the US State Department’s Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is to assist in the efforts of the US Government to counter ideological support for terrorism. This strategy, which utilises modern means of online communication (including Facebook, Twitter, and blogs) has been successfully implemented by US missions in the Middle East, and it is likely to be advanced further in response to the events surrounding democratic change in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ which began in December 2010.

The Forum participants observed that the Australian Government should make greater use of these rather inexpensive social media tools to counter radical ideologies and threats to Australian interests, particularly in the Southeast Asian context. For this purpose, it was also suggested Australia should also harness the language expertise of its citizens to a larger extent.

A global network of US State Department information centres also provide foreign citizens with up-to-date information about US politics, scholarship and funding opportunities, and connect foreign researchers with their US counterparts.

United Kingdom
The UK Government has developed a distinct public diplomacy strategy, which was revisited in a UK parliamentary review in 2005. In this document, Lord Carter (who led the review) expanded the definition of public diplomacy to include: aiming to inform and engage individuals and organisations overseas, in order to improve understanding of and influence for the United Kingdom in a manner consistent with governmental medium and long term goals.
In addition to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which is the lead agency on this front, the British Council, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) World Service, and the Wilton Park conferences, are all involved with promoting UK interests abroad. Events of international interest, such as the Royal Wedding and the 2012 Olympic Games, are also being used to showcase the UK to international audiences.

The FCO states:

Public Diplomacy is a process of achieving the UK’s international strategic priorities through engaging and forming partnerships with like-minded organisations and individuals in the public arena. So beyond traditional government-to-government channels, we talk to NGOs, think tanks, opinion formers, young people, businesses and individual citizens.

The FCO uses a variety of online communication tools—blogs (including video blogs by the Foreign Secretary), Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, foursquare, podcasts, RSS feeds, etc.—in order to inform domestic and international audiences about UK foreign policy and to promote the Government’s representation and engagement overseas.

European Union
On 12 May 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on cultural diplomacy. The resolution explicitly stated that: media and communication technologies, such as the internet, can be an instrument for freedom of expression, pluralism, the exchange of information, human rights, development, freedom of assembly, democracy and inclusion and for facilitating access to cultural content and education.
It also emphasised:

...the importance of cultural diplomacy and cultural cooperation in advancing and communicating throughout the world the EU's and the Member States' interests and the values that make up European culture.
On 16 August 2007, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee published a report on Australia's public diplomacy, one of the key program areas of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The Committee defined public diplomacy as: or activities undertaken to understand, inform and engage individuals and organisations in other countries in order to shape their perceptions in ways that will promote Australia and Australia's policy goals internationally.
The second recommendation of this report called on the Australian Government to ‘attach greater importance to creating an awareness of public diplomacy domestically’. Since this report, there have been calls for a greater focus on the use of social media to strengthen Australia’s public diplomacy. The Forum participants concluded that in this respect, much remains to be done in the Australian context, and that the Government should engage more with civil society organisations, particularly youth groups, to achieve this objective.

The Forum also suggested that Australia should to a much greater extent harness the comparatively inexpensive opportunities presented by social media tools. It was also recommended that the Government should work on developing a whole-of-government public diplomacy strategy that would be consistent across different agencies and portfolios. The participants also noted that some Australian states/territories, such as Western Australia, have independently conducted their own public diplomacy campaigns overseas targeting particular audiences, such as in China and Singapore. The Forum attendants felt that a more integrated approach and improved knowledge-sharing would benefit Australia as a whole.

The Forum recommended that an institution with a distinctively Australian name should be established in order to promote Australian culture and acquaint foreign audiences with modern Australia, emphasising Australia’s prosperity, multi-ethnic communities, and Australian innovation. Some of the participants felt that stereotypical images of Australia as merely a holiday destination may not adequately reflect other distinguished attributes of Australian society, including science and research, the arts, and expertise on a number of fronts in the Asia-Pacific region.

One of Australia’s key cultural and public diplomacy projects in recent years was the Australian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, which was visited by eight million people. Most of its visitors were Chinese nationals. According to the UN World Youth Report 2007 there are about 738 million people in Asia between the ages of 15 and 24, comprising 18 per cent of the total Asian population.

The Forum participants observed that Australia’s cultural and public diplomacy should be more diversified and focused on the Asia-Pacific region by targeting to a larger extent non-English speaking groups. It was observed that non-traditional public diplomacy tools, including the use of social media, could be used as a communication platform for Australia’s public diplomacy 2.0.

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