It’s almost ten years since I left the Foreign Office, but it’s always nice to be back. This time, I’m a guest at a roundtable seminar featuring some of their – actually, to be fair, some of the country‘s – leading bloggers. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones chairs proceedings.
I’m struck by the different takes on what it means to be an Ambassador who blogs. Alex Ellis, HMA Lisbon and Mark Kent, HMA Hanoi both admit to doing it (at least in part) for marketing purposes, promoting British values of democracy and dialogue, challenging the safari-suited stereotype – and both, it’s worth noting, writing in the local language. John Duncan, the Geneva-based Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control & Disarmament has been blogging for years, and uses it to influence a small and very narrowly defined audience. David Warren, HMA Tokyo says he’s a relative novice, and is doing a bit of both, with one blog in English, and another in Japanese.
There’s something truly wonderful about hearing senior British diplomats talk proudly of being bloggers. But as the conversation progresses, it strikes me that the Foreign Office is natural territory for the blogging policy official. For hundreds of years, London simply had to trust the Ambassadors overseas to ‘do the right thing’: there’s no culture of ‘command and control’, certainly not at Ambassadorial level, to work around. They’re lucky.
Engagement with a community, usually but not always defined geographically, is absolutely fundamental to an Ambassador’s job description. To the usual toolkit of press notices, speeches, meetings and conferences, we now add ‘blog’. So I’m genuinely quite surprised by the slightly hostile tone of some contributions from the floor, questioning their ‘authenticity’. To me, it’s totally authentic, it’s totally inherent to the job.
How do they assess their success? For a couple, they are among the first bloggers in their respective countries, which should score a few credibility points for UK plc. Some quote instances where a particular post gets hundreds of comments; but there are more examples of cases where the blog has led to something else: coverage in traditional media, reaching many times further than the blog itself, or personal contacts made. (I must admit, I’m reaching a similar conclusion myself. It’s not about who comes to the blog, it’s about where the blog takes me.)
I haven’t yet mentioned the FCO’s star blogger, Philip Barclay from Zimbabwe, recently named among the UK’s top 100. His situation feels slightly different: for a start, he’s a mere Second Secretary, not an Ambassador. More pertinently, his stuff tends to be much more journalistic, reportage-y, emotional frankly than his more senior colleagues. But as a Brit working in a country where British journalists are banned, he has special reason to do so: and in doing so, he’s symbolising British values as regards freedom of the press. That’s probably reason enough in itself, never mind the fact that his writing (and, he’s quick to point out, that of his colleague Grace) is so good, so compelling.
There’s little scepticism in the room, but then again, perhaps there are no sceptics in the room. I come away feeling that the FCO is approaching this in the right way: fitting its blogging into long-established organisational culture, having fun with it, but keeping an eye on its contribution to wider organisational objectives. Sadly though, I fear its unique position means it isn’t a useful precedent for the rest of Whitehall.
Here’s what Rory thought on his way out: