Sunday, 5 June 2011

Report on Public & Cultural Diplomacy: Wilton House July 2010 Conference Report

  • 'Wilton Park is an executive agency of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is academically independent.' (wikipedia entry)

  • This report was published before the wikileaks episodes and just after the Coalition government was formed and before the 'Arab Spring'. There is much emphasis in this report on UK's ability to handle web 2.0 platforms and this runs through the document. It is concerned with person-to-person relations when governments try to reach out in gestures of good will. How do audiences 'consume and interpret key government messages'? Like the French with a  gallic shrug of the shoulders perhaps. There is inherent in this the idea that the 'new media' has to settle down. The forces of conservatism wants the new kids on the block to stop causing such a ruckus in the 'hood all ready. There is a great deal of emphasis on strategic approaches and yet later the document suggests no one really knows what works. To be fair the document is a distillation of a high level discussion on diplomacy. The trouble is that they did not involve people with 'ideas' or 'imagination' to get them, the diplomats, to relax and take a chill pill. There is an emphasis on the need for a more 'regional diplomacy' but no reference to more regional democracy and no English parliament or English FCO. Recently the visit of Russell Crowe to the arts department of Durham University seemed to show the possibilities. (Footnote) (However things do not always go according to plan with Russell Crowe, who is not one of Australias designated citizen diplomats) The common thread is that the FCO needs to be 'creative' and use some 'imagination'. Aaah errm let's get some British artists and designers in! Some web designers maybe. Connect the message and connect the dots too. The report lists the achievements and challenges of the FCO's digital campaign.
  • Climate Change Summit
  • G20 meeting in London 2009
  • Some challenging Middle East initiatives which will take longer to come to fruition
  • A less than successful campaign in  Africa.
Some clear evidence is needed of the impact of PD during the economic downturn. As we know now the Coalition has decided the BBC should take responsibility for the World Service which was a partially economic decision. The Conservatives were always upset that the World Service would not do what the FCO wanted it to do. The report shows that the government have not yet decided what role the general public should have, just so long as the policy ideas come from those who have the paid jobs and the job specs designed to do just that. The report rejects the simplistic ideas of working on Brand UK. Moving away from Cool Britannia. After all New Labour has gone and the new bosses have their shiny new brooms to use. 'Ingenuity' is also key which Carne Ross would agree with. The report is missing the idea that PD in the UK needs a qualitative kite mark and a range of experts from a range of fields.

The role of the military  is discussed. There is an awareness that NATO will have a bigger role. But we know what that role is and once again the objectives are rather fuzzy around the edges. 'Soft power and the military' seems a tautology but this is the future we are told. Applying Nye's definition would seem to me to be too accepting of an ideology.  Here it is 'image and message' that are the key. If Abu Graib type events and civilian deaths can be avoided then all the better for the 'image and the message'. Later in the report it refers to a 'slow cooking approach' to 'enhancing soft power.' Does NATO own art galleries? I do not think so.

Much of the report can be summed up as 'know your enemy' or 'keep him close' which is ancient advice from Sun Tzu. PD must assess threats from those who are 'marginalised states of mind'. The report refers to Al Qaeda as 1% organisation and 99% brand with the promise of being a world player on the world stage (and 72 virgins in the next world).

There are new security threats in the world from a variety of sources. It is important to realise that sometimes military messages just do not work. The report talks of 'embedding big user friendly local ideas and values'. This being an idea borrowed from the effects of embedding journalists with the army which is a propaganda exercise which always compromises journalists integrity. Propaganda magic tricks, sleights of hand, and Orwellian double think are evident at times in this report.

The deployment of long term  branding is a strategic lesson that government PD have not refined and adopted to its advantage. However I would say that some brands should not tire their audience for example Coke and Pepsi do not need to advertise any more, they are world brands. Though the report does widen its acceptance of inviting those with commercial insights into the arena such as Vince Cable who used to work for Shell.

PD needs to correct the distortions of perception and open the doors to perception. Governments have intractable cross border problems beyond simple self interests that only cooperation can solve e.g.;
  1. Climate change
  2. Weapons proliferation
  3. International terrorism
Religion can help PD and should not be dismissed by secular society. Governments are sometimes in need of 'suitable moral agents'. For example in failed states the faith community can prove to be an invaluable power to work with.

The report looks at the power of social networks in the developing PD initiatives. Many are still not convinced but diplomats need to approach social networks with 'cordial honest(y) and professional(ism)'. But many are clueless as to how something like facebook can 'be factored into strategic decisions'. Of course much has changed since July 2010 since the report was released. There are also cultural differences to be respected within social networks. It is as anarchic as international law and yet as we know now it is thisd narrow view which is so intractable. How do you reconcile PD's apparent conservatism and reticence and the inherent nature of social networks which are not elite centred but social and democratic? It is a horned dilemma. The report recognises the problems of this resistance to change. International and US bloggers regularly use the BBC as a source. The BBC is seen as 'authoritative and trustworthy'.

At this point I found something to debate within the report. It states that forum rules attached to the media are rules set by the community and this is a blind perception. It is not the case. (If I disagree strongly with a given Daily Mail article the adjudicator at the Daily Mail will use his/her editorial power. Debate ends up being restricted. You cannot diss the brand sometimes!)

'The power of partnerships' is a useful conference phrase to bandy about at a conference. It is a bland expression. One sensible prediction which shows some prescience is that 'connectivity will lead to authoritarian regimes changing because they still have to engage'.  This applies to the recent Jasmine Revolution /Arab Spring with some exceptions.

    On th subject of sport and PD the report has a few things to say. China has slowly been working at changing perceptions through sport. (China won 51 Gold medals in 2008.) The Chinese managed to 'promote global cooperation and peaceful co-existence'. The FCO is seeking to replicate this success in ways that are distinctive. London Mayor Boris Johnson's waving of the British flag at Beijing is an abiding image of the closing of Beijing 2008 and an effective message (Unless you believe that flag waving 'patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel'). It is an 'opportunity to enhance the UK's reputation'. A number of associative factors are helping to promote the UK on the lead up to 2012, perhaps the report has these events in mind. The associative reflex reaction can really help PD.
  • The Queen's state visit to Ireland
  • President Obama's visit to the UK
  • The Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2012
  • The wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton
However the slogan for the Olympics; 'We're all in this together' whilst it works for the games is being over used and propagandised by PM Cameron in his austerity drives. It can be true for sport but not necessarily in society at large. I do not believe that it applies to the ruling elites who develop neo-liberal policy on the international stage on certain key issues;
  1. Terrorism
  2. Climate Change
  3. Global Economic recovery
It would be more accurate to say that we are all being manipulated together and our right to protest against it is being curtailed. 'Collaboration between global actors such as governments and corporations are essential in the implementation of effective PD campaigns' the report concludes.  In this way the British government will work no doubt, and has worked, with transglobal corporations that will help to deliver a successful Olympics in 2012. The report finishes with a call to evaluate the work that PD does, to reach out and engage. PD cannot afford, as I see it, to be aloof, distant, ultra conservative and dismissive of social networking sites.

My conclusion would be to say that PD is trying to work out what works but just cannot put its finger on what actually works. Diplomats might want to use facebook but the FCO would rather they did not.

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