Reaching a wider audience (above: a cat listens to the live broadcast of the BBC Today Programme on Radio 4 at the British base in Basra Palace, 2006)

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Being a Public Diplomat - Top 10 Tips

Given the amount of money that allegedly gets spent on government spin (not to mention election campaigns), it amazes me how those in the very business of influence – the diplomats – often have such limited resources for communication.

Being a diplomat these days is not about seating the Spanish Ambassador next to an ally at a dinner party, nor about handshaked trade or political deals behind closed doors - the majority of diplomatic activity has a public and often highly critical media spotlight shone on it. Diplomats should be considering how they are perceived more than ever, not just by official counter parts and heads of state, but, as a new form of democracy takes grip, somewhat driven by access to new media, the public are rapidly becoming main influencers.

In the absence of this resource, below are my top 10 tips for being a good public diplomat. If you follow this guide you will increase your credibility and make your job easier.

1. Understand the country you are in. Spend some time (the longer the better) before you begin your official assignment. Back pack around. Use public transport. Travel alone if you can – you will meet far more people this way. Stay in hostels and family run hotels. Act like a researcher or journalist – ask questions all the time and take notes. Read fiction written by good local writers. And most important – find out about what your hosts think of the country you come from.

2. Learn the language. If time is a factor, at least learn a few niceties. And smile throughout even your most awkward attempts.

3. Roll your sleeves up and get stuck in. Walk the walk. Don’t patronise “the community” with a drop in visit – stay for tea. Sleep in the refugee camp. Share a local meal. Paint a wall. Clean out a toilet. Not just for the photo – actually do it. Spend time.

4. Talk to the media. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Be on the front foot – see every interaction as an opportunity. Write Op Eds and articles and suggest ideas. Remember there is no such thing as saying nothing in communication – lack of media engagement can give the impression that you don’t care or you are hiding something. Blog. Not on an official site – that is nuts – it will only be read by the converted and by very bored journalists. Blog on a personal site about personal experience. About your tummy bugs, about your doubts and feelings.

5. Think locally. Don’t just respond to the international media. Spend more time with local and regional media and develop a relationship. Internationals get much of their info from local stringers anyway.

6. Be yourself. If you like cricket, play cricket, talk about it. If you like to paint pictures, join local art groups. If you like to dance or play a musical instrument, do it. Use your natural abilities and loves to your best advantage. Be genuine.

7. Think about how you present yourself. Judged on 7% of what you say, 38% on how you say it, but 55% on how you look - this is important. You may have a brain the size of Mars, but sadly your haircut may leave more of an impression. In many countries the public can feel intimidated and alienated by formal dress – so dress casually wherever possible – and always respect the cultural dress code of the country you are in (without being patronising). Note: You may think it your “right” to wear a mini skirt and not be judged by it – don’t be on a crusade to push your personal values unless it is an objective of the mission – be respectful and be respected. (In the picture above, one blogger commented that the Lord Mayor of London looked like an "unmade bed" at the Beijing Olympics).

8. Everyone in the mission is an Ambassador for your country. One of the most influential public diplomats will be your receptionist or your visa section staff. Think how anyone travelling out of their home country is judged as representative. Not every Japanese person is into photography nor every Brit a football hooligan.

9. Have a strategy (as a Communications Strategist I would say that). But really, have one. Don’t focus on activity (although it will lure you in) before you know exactly how this fits in with your overall plan. For example, if your overall plan is to increase trade between countries and lobby for human rights – ensure that your communications strategy reflects this – don’t leap into publicity that doesn’t have this at its heart.

10. And don’t dream beyond your budget.

Above: Chinese Embassy staff in Greece

I can hear the smirking of non diplomats among you who may be surprised to learn that there are very few grandmothers sucking eggs around here – so much of the above is simply not done. Believe it or not there are Embassies in the world where not a single member of staff speaks the local tongue (I am diplomatically not naming names ). I would love to hear from governments who train their diplomats not simply in policy, economics, security or specific press officer expertise - but those who show every member of staff who represents them overseas how to present themselves as a public diplomat.

Coming soon! The Celebrity guide to Doing Good in the World.