British Ambassadors' blogging excellence

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:

Departmental blog platforms

When you think of ‘official’ blogging platforms inside government, the obvious example is the Foreign Office blogs site – headed of course by David Miliband, but featuring some truly remarkable contributions from various global ‘hotspots’ (Beijing, Kosovo, Zimbabwe). But it’s not the only one out there, and it’ll soon be joined by others.
One which rarely gets a mention is the Royal Navy’s Jack Speak – which, before you ask, is the Navy jargon term for Navy jargon – launched nearly a year ago, and based on WordPress. 🙂 Like the FCO’s site, it features personal contributions from an eclectic selection of ‘ordinary staff’. The content doesn’t flow as naturally as the FCO site, but then again, maybe that’s too much to expect with such subject matter. And perhaps as a result, despite prominent promotion on the Navy’s front page, it doesn’t seem to attract much in the way of comments: just three in the whole of July, for example.
There’s been an equally quiet launch for the NHS Expert Blogs pilot. So far, there are half a dozen active blogs, based around themes rather than individual bloggers: diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and so on. The site feels very impersonal, which seems at odds with the often extremely personal accounts you might read; there’s next to no detail on who the people actually are. As you might expect, given the NHS Choices tie-up with Microsoft, it’s running on Community Server.
Meanwhile, Puffbox is working on a similar blogging platform for another central government department (which I won’t name just yet). It’ll be a similar proposition: personal stories from half a dozen front-line staff in interesting situations, to give a flavour of the organisation’s work. The schedule is pretty aggressive, measured in weeks rather than months; but I’m quite excited at the chance to see what we can do.
As you might expect, it’ll be WordPress-based; but the plan is to use the ‘single user’ version rather than MU. I don’t think we need the full power of MU, there’s always the question of plugin compatibility, HQ understandably want to keep their hands on the controls – and besides, we can do a lot with the WordPress Template Hierarchy to make it feel like each writer has a separate blog.
At the same time, I’m seeing one of my longer-term projects evolving into what looks like a proper ‘project blog’ platform. Several teams have seen the existing WordPress-powered site, and want to be able to contribute to it. Whether they’ll come across as ‘blogs’ per se, I don’t know. But it’ll certainly be a step closer to what I imagine will be the end game here: ‘project blogs’, where teams write in their official capacities, and seek feedback from their stakeholders. More details to follow.

Another new FCO blogger (ish)

The Foreign Office launched itself into blogging last September, with a couple of ministers and a couple of high-profile ambassadors joining in the fun. Indeed, I note they’ve been scoring some PR points with it: Jolyon Welsh, FCO’s head of ‘Public Diplomacy’ presented a case study on it at a conference last week. But what happens when a (relatively) senior FCO staff member blogs off his own bat?
James Barbour is the (relatively) new Head of Press at the British Embassy in Moscow – one of the more interesting posts to be in at the moment, I guess. He has some experience in blogging, having blogged for a while in his last job, a consultant with the public affairs practice at PR agency Hill & Knowlton, with a focus on technology.
He’s quick to point out that ‘this blog is unofficial, personal, and does not (necessarily) represent the views of Her Majesty’s Government’. But it’ll be interesting to see what he feels able to say, from such a potentially sensitive position.