Delivering digital diplomacy in a changing – and challenging – world / Sean Larkins

Global Director of Consultancy & Capability for Kantar Public

Public policy can’t be delivered successfully without effective communication.  Alongside legislation, regulation and taxation, communication is one of the four key levers of government, but it is rarely understood fully within government – and it is seldom used to its full potential.

The growth of digital diplomacy or e-diplomacy acknowledges the powerful role that the internet and social media can play in solving foreign policy problems.  However, research conducted in 40 countries by the WPP Government & Public Sector Practice identifies that the majority of governments struggle to engage effectively online, and that most public communication is broadcast, one-way, and fails to effectively support the delivery of policy objectives.

The Leaders’ Report: the future of government communication ( acknowledges that the world around us has changed fundamentally.  The public’s desire for connection and personalisation has forced big shifts in behaviour and media consumption.  How we consume information is increasingly mobile-based, two-way and visual.  The reliance on press officers, media management and one-way reactive communication belongs to the past, not the present.

Mobile technology and social media have combined to make citizens more powerful than ever before – and their role in helping delivery public diplomacy objectives is increasingly central:

– Citizens have almost unlimited access to information
– They can broadcast their issues widely, regardless of accuracy
– They can criticise and campaign faster than the speed at which governments can respond.

At the same time, they have also become increasingly angry:

– Citizens fear change, distrust globalisation and disregard politicians
– They are venting pent-up anger at elites they believe to be out of touch
– Populism and extremism have become more mainstream.

Governments need to recognise the limitations of carrying on communicating as many do today – broadcasting too many issues at the public with insufficient thought given to any sense of overarching priority or strategy – and with little thought given to how citizens can and should engage.

Our research shows an increasing realisation that governments need to manage citizen engagement across multiple touch points for digital public services – and digital diplomacy is no exception.  Governments need to interact with citizens directly on social media; develop high-quality, rapid content production; build an emotional connection with audiences, particularly through storytelling; and begin the process of disintermediating the media – in effect, harness the power of digital influencers and reduce the reliance on journalists.

How do these insights help digital diplomacy and policy makers?

Firstly, digital diplomats are increasingly likely to have the skills of a data analyst, content designer, movement builder, and listener in order to engage citizens.  But few countries are yet recruiting the insight builders, behavioural scientists, algorithm builders, and coders that will drive digital diplomacy into the future.

Secondly, the task of delivering successful digital diplomacy depends not just on the relationships built by government communication teams but also on the relationship between the citizen and politicians.  We build trust by being transparent about our overall objectives, and that conversation needs to be comprised of three elements: what we want to achieve; how; and why.  Few governments focus on all three elements.

Finally, we know that the next trends in communication technology are already on the horizon.  How will digital diplomacy be impacted by Increasing personalisation, voice recognition, artificial intelligence and virtual reality?  All have the potential to transform not just e-diplomacy but also the relationship between the governed and those who govern them.  Who is leading this drive within your government?  How will it change how you conduct digital diplomacy?  The changes are too important for us to be bystanders in their development.


About the author
Sean Larkins is Global Director of Consultancy & Capability for Kantar Public and WPP’s Government & Public Sector Practice.  A former deputy director of government communications in the UK, Sean led a global research study in to the future of government communications that was published in January 2017.

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