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A few lessons from Swedish Digital Diplomacy

A few lessons from Swedish Digital Diplomacy

In my recent blog post, I complained, at some length, about the continuing use of ‘the field’ in development speak. One of the criticisms raised concerned the fact that ‘the field’ fails to describe development as a process occurring as much in the global metropolises as in rural settings. So, I thought I’d follow up by highlighting a form of development communication that basically “lives off” of what goes on in the corridors and cubicles of Washington, London, etcetera. We’re talking Digital Diplomacy, and more specifically that of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations in New York.

I began thinking about this after reading Cristina Archetti’s (2012) piece The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice. Her focus was slightly different than mine is here, as she looked into information-gathering and public outreach in a broader sense (albeit limited to the diplomatic community in London). Still, her conclusions remain relevant for the purposes of this post, which will very briefly look at the social media/Facebook presence of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN in New York.

Archetti’s study is of course mainly concerned with new media and its implications on diplomatic practice, but her insights can also be of use to professionals and diplomats working with development communication, as is arguably the case with the Swedish UN mission’s Facebook page. A quick glance at the page shows the sort of content being published, which is, to quite a large extent, linked to global development and the Sustainable Development Goals:

One mother dies every two minutes from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. #Sweden’s increased funding to UNFPA…

Publicerat av Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN in New York den 3 februari 2017

Have you heard about the Swedish #Recycling revolution?

Publicerat av Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN in New York den 11 februari 2017

, Sweden has made an active attempt here at publicizing its work at the UN in New York, including the country’s official stance on a number of development issues, as when it shares a poster on the #MoreWomenMorePeace hashtag, or informs about Sweden’s role as co-chair of The Ocean Conference. (Although, it should be said that it is somewhat unclear who the target audience is; foreign publics or Swedish nationals? Or both? Some of the videos are entirely in Swedish, others in English.)

Archetti helps us understand what might be one of the driving forces behind Sweden’s decision to establish a social media presence for its UN representatives in New York. Her paper, which draws on interviews with diplomats in London, suggests that countries like Sweden struggle to get the attention of mainstream media. As a result, she writes, “countries that do not gain exposure through mainstream media depend on the development of alternative channels – particularly websites and social media”.

Unsurprisingly though, challenges don’t really end there. For example, one Swedish diplomat explains in an interview with Archetti that budget cuts have significantly reduced the London embassy’s ability to conduct communication activities and engage with new technology. Another, related, issue has to do with the lack of qualified and salaried personnel to undertake communicative tasks and media production, making it increasingly difficult to maintain in-house channels.

It seems to me that these challenges are pretty well exemplified by the Facebook page of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN in New York. Video clips, of which there are quite a few, have, often but not always, been produced in a somewhat – in lack of a better word – amateurish (or just bureaucratic?) way. In the clip below for example, we see the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, broadcasting an update on her work at the UN. The video is part of the Facebook page’s VLog, apparently running under Sweden’s membership in the UN Security Council. Holding the microphone in her hands, it almost looks as if Wallström is interviewing herself (contributing to that slightly unprofessional tone). Image quality is not great either. And there is another thing: do followers want mere updates?

As noted by Shaun Riordan
, Digital Diplomacy cannot simply rely on establishing a social media presence, far more is needed:

Web 2.0, and especially social media, do not only make genuine engagement with foreign publics and foreign civil society technically feasible, they also create an expectation of two-way communication. Users of social media do not only expect to listen. They also expect to be listened to. Any Public Diplomacy strategy that seeks to sell messages on social media without appearing to listen to the replies quickly loses credibility and effectiveness.

The promise of two-way communication is hardly fulfilled on the Swedish Facebook page. Although very few questions were asked in the comments section under the posts, the page administrator failed to reply to any single one of them in the month of January 2017 (which, one might assume, is related to my aforementioned point on budget cuts and limited human resources). See for example the post below, where one user is asking a question (no answer though), very much related to the topic discussed in the clip:

So where does that leave us? Obviously, a far more in-depth analysis is needed in order to say something substantially about strategy, implementation, content, and concrete results/impact. What is clear, however, is that the social media presence of the Swedish representation at the UN in New York reflects much of Archetti’s analysis on the impact of new media on public diplomacy – not the least when it comes to the challenges associated with maintaining an attractive and participatory social media presence.

PS 1. Riordan has an interesting blog post (click here) on how social media can be used by diplomats in other ways than just communicating messages.

PS 2. I wrote in the intro that this post would look at development communication in the global metropolises, not in the imagined ‘field’. Ironically, the most recent video clip of the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN in New York comes with the catchy title: ‘Word from the field – Per-Axel visits Haiti’. I guess the best thing I could do is link back – yet again – to my previous post on why it’s time to get rid of ‘the field’…

PS 3. This being a blog post, I’ve tried to be short. However, it should be said that the Swedish UN mission’s social media presence isn’t all bad – in fact, quite the opposite. For one, not many countries have set up Facebook pages for their UN reps. Sweden doing so I think is a good thing, providing a look behind the scenes and allowing publics (foreign and domestic) to keep up with the Swedish diplomatic service.


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