Senior Managing Director & Partner at FTI Consulting Stephen Day considers how diplomatic communication is changing in the era of personality politics
‘Bahabbak Lubnan’ – ‘I love you Lebanon’ – tweeted Emmanuel Macron on 6 August 2020, following the disastrous and tragic explosion that destroyed much of the city’s port and led to the government’s resignation. In an unforeseen expression of his personal sympathy and advocacy for the stricken former French mandate, the French President tweeted in support of the citizens of Lebanon 42 times in French, English and Arabic over the course of five days, a gesture that reflected France’s historic relationship with the country, as much as it emphasised Macron’s leading role in rallying international support for the relief effort. In contrast to the President, the French Ambassador to Lebanon, Bruno Foucher, posted only five original tweets, all of them in French.
As a side-effect of the rise of the 24-hour media cycle and the advent of social media, political leaders are now expected to be more expressive and relatable in how they communicate online than ever before. Macron’s expressions of solidarity towards Lebanonaptly demonstrate this trend: exceeding the formal messages of condolence that would have been customary in such a disaster in the past and advocating on behalf of the people of Lebanon in their own language.
Political leaders have often been possessed of strong personalities and compelling charisma: this is politically advantageous on the campaign trail and enables the projection and delivery of domestic priorities developed consensually with political peers back home. However, in an era where populism has gained currency, the ‘leader-as-individual’ is taking on newfound primacy in global politics.
Political leaders (and their personally-appointed communications teams) increasingly deploy strategies that engender a more dynamic media profile framed around the cult of personality; prioritising in-person appearances, photo opportunities and embracing media-generated, affectionate nicknames, such as BoJo (Boris Johnson), Basti (Sebastian Kurz) and Manu (Emmanuel Macron). Consequently, the perception of politics and politicians has radically departed from the technocrat at the negotiating table, in favour of the sweeping rhetorician at the lectern.
Diplomats, in their turn, are faced with the challenge of adapting strategies, sometimes decades-in-the-making, to align with increasingly populist eye-catching political priorities emanating from the centre of power, while building nation brands, built on heritage and history, abroad.
In this context, it is clear that the diplomatic community must examine its own communication strategies in response to the increased uncertainty that a sometimes-mercurial leader can bring.
In addition to heightened media scrutiny, social media and digital channels have also become an important arena for diplomatic activity. While the diplomatic community rarely seeks to compete with the likes of large corporates and high-level political figures that have dedicated communications teams, they must also take steps to ensure that they thrive in the fast-paced environment and effectively manage the democratising nature of social networks.
ENDURING IMPORTANCE OF THE NATION BRAND
Beyond the media headlines, diplomats have been required to revert to first principles – albeit through the lens of new communications channels – bringing innovation to the numerous other means of nurturing and cultivating a nation brand abroad. By implementing measures that complement both the central leadership style of the day and enduring national character, heritage and identity and diplomatic priorities, nations can ensure that the long-term continuity of traditional diplomacy is achieved.
In order to achieve these long-term goals, diplomats now need to reach out to the right audiences and bring together like-minded stakeholders in initiatives traditionally viewed as ‘soft’, often away from the public glare, such as establishing values and issues-based coalitions of historically like-minded nations, forging partnerships with multilateral agencies and working with domestically-based businesses to support market access. Though these underlying activities do not necessarily generate equal levels of headline-grabbing media interest as so-called ‘Twitter diplomacy,’ they are no less important as part of a multi-dimensional communications strategy that underpins a nation’s brand abroad and can lead to increased regional and international influence.
We have recently witnessed the potentially damaging effects that a breakdown in diplomatic relations can have on a nation’s overseas commercial interests, notably in the case of Huawei or TikTok. In light of the new era of global politics, it can be argued that diplomatic services have a unique role to play in supporting the private sector: working both at a technical level to foster positive working and trade relationships between countries through soft diplomacy – such as the UK’s Britain is GREAT campaign – whilst engaging in grassroots diplomatic activities to advance the interests of companies and industries based on home soil, such as investment in human capital in developing markets.
Development initiatives can add another dimension to such a network of stakeholders, too. In recent years, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has demonstrated this, via its work on the Pacific Step-Up programme. The programme is largely focused on economic and social development in Pacific Island nations, many of which benefit from Australia’s private sector expertise and initiatives. This regional approach to Australia’s foreign policy has positioned it as a leader in the Oceania region; enabling it to speak on behalf of many islands with authority and represent their interests on the global stage. While the initiatives that have been undertaken are perhaps not the most publicised aspect of Australian foreign policy, the positive reputational capital and enhanced regional unity generated in this case are important outcomes that ought not to be underestimated.
FORGING A NEW DIPLOMATIC REALITY
In this complex system of shifting political narratives and competing priorities, diplomats, embassies and foreign affairs departments are revisiting their approach to how they communicate and influence. Further, as political leaders take an aggressive and forthright role in fast-paced public diplomacy played out in mass media or on social media networks, diplomats are expanding their capabilities to sustainably build a nation’s long-term vision and enduring brand abroad, managing the competing narratives to achieve a solution that satisfies all parties.
Brought together, against a backdrop of global fragmentation and increasing politically-driven economic nationalism, the reality is therefore that the diplomat’s role as strategic communicator is as important as ever: cultivating ‘offline’ sensitive pragmatism, with a long-term focus on promoting heritage and enduring shared values; navigating the personal, the political and the perennial; adopting the critical role of mediator between the past, present and future.