Diplomacy around the world

Soft power, public diplomacy and the digital-first era

Digital disintermediation has had a dramatic effect on every sphere of life, business and society over the past twelve to fifteen years. But what do I mean by that? Quite simply that the internet – from email and video-conferencing apps to social media channels and platforms, has utterly transformed and multiplied the ways in which we communicate, consume information and engage with others.

In the geopolitical realm, countries, governments and political parties that have kept abreast of technological developments, and combined that growth in knowledge and skills with strong messaging and stakeholder relationships will continue to lead. The combination of technological and traditional approaches offers an unrivalled source of strategic, sustainable competitive advantage.

Effective approaches to soft power and public diplomacy rely on relationships and trust. Since the onset of Covid-19, our real-world interactions have been dramatically scaled back and replaced with sub-optimal digital alternatives. The two dimensional window on the world we are offered by the screens in front of us can never compete with three-dimensional reality. We’re a few years away from virtual reality and augmented reality becoming sufficiently high quality to be embraced by the mainstream, but when they are they will become the next truly transformative inflection point, and those that are investing in them today are storing up success for tomorrow.

All organisations and entities that desire enhanced reputations or greater recognition need strong representation. Prevailing media narratives often need correcting, key publics must be communicated with, and every tool and technique should be considered in the process of crafting and deploying integrated campaigns to deliver results. The air war, online war and ground war must work in perfect concert, if you’ll allow me to mix military and musical metaphors.

The relentless 24 hour news cycle, rising tides of disinformation, and multiplication and diversification of channels mean that we often need to look beyond mainstream TV, radio, newspapers and online news outlets. Building narratives and movements requires a multi-layered approach. Digital wizardry is wonderful, but we also must make sure that the messages are clear, relevant and persuasive.

As is often the case, we need to go back to basics. The fundamental purpose of a campaign is to achieve objectives: to influence and persuade relevant groups of people in the court of public opinion, and through direct communication. Without delineating what success looks like, you can’t evaluate whether you’ve succeeded.

Soft power initiatives and public diplomacy endeavours have intended outcomes. The clearer the shared understanding of what success looks like, the more likely you are to achieve it. The other elements remain consistent. When you know what you want to achieve, you build an overarching narrative that’s true to your proposition, policy or position; shape and direct key messages to target audiences, engage with those who may be open to hearing your case, and assemble the strategic and tactical tools at your disposal to achieve the desired outcome.

It’s really that simple. And yes, it’s also really that complex. There’s no substitute for face to face interaction, but we need to embrace the fact that the information we consume from the screens we spend ever-increasing hours in front of reaches deep into our psyche and shapes our worldviews, opinions and perspectives. Those who win the digital debate stand a better chance of creating a dominant discourse.

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