Digital Diplomacy For All

I want to see a commitment to digital diplomacy in the context of all the serious issues and challenges that exist in our society today.

What am I talking about?  Alec Ross would know what I am talking about. Ross is senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the subject of a brief profile in the September 12, 2011 issue of Time Magazine (the one with the ‘What To Eat Now’ article by Dr. Oz on the cover).  As Time explains:

“Over the past two years, Ross, 39, has been incorporating [Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - along with other digital platforms] into the daily lives of U.S. diplomats.”

His efforts are part of a larger effort to exert a new kind of technology-fueled 'smart power’ that helps advance American foreign policy interests around the world. Again, from Time:

“Ross’s effort is a key component of Clinton’s 21st century statecraft agenda, which aims to harness communications technology and information networks to address the U.S.’s grand challenges on the international stage: aiding democratic movements, providing disaster relief and alleviating poverty.”

The whole idea of digital diplomacy is super exciting, and includes far more than just the creative use of some new technology platform or application. But the conversation about digital diplomacy is too often limited to how governments (and the groups they work with on government-related matters) can address international political and policy issues.  Individuals and organizations at all levels, here in the United States and around the world, are facing the exact same grand challenges that the State Department has prioritized.  The State Department doesn’t own the idea of digital diplomacy, and they shouldn’t.

We should all be working to harness communications technology and information networks to help support democratic movements, provide disaster relief and alleviate poverty.  At all levels. The same concepts can be applied to any issue or cause. By anyone. Brands, media, educational institutions, and non-governmental organizations of all stripes should be embracing the very ideas behind digital diplomacy better and applying to a wide variety of 'grand challenges’ that we know exist today. Individuals can serve as ambassadors for the issues and causes they are committed to addressing, with or without formal training or an official posting overseas.  We can all be a little smarter with our power.

This is what my new book, Shift & Reset, is all about – rethinking how we address serious issues in a connected society.

Some individuals and organizations are leveraging technology in the right ways, but not enough.  Why not?  Most people are thinking about how to apply technology to address serious issues in the wrong way.  What separates Ross, and the rest of the crowd working to develop and advance digital diplomacy efforts around the world, is the role they assign to technology as a part of their larger overall strategic approach.  Here is how the Time profile summed it up: 

“Ross insists he doesn’t take a utopian view of the power of information networks.  'Technology gakes on the values and intentions of its users,’ he says.  'Governments that try to use these nteworks to control their people are ultimately swimming against the tide of history.’ And therein lies the crux of Ross’s position: technology is just a tool, for good or ill.  Its up to people to decide how to use it.’

My view: there are far too many groups focused on building their own organizational capacity or elevating their brand, and failing to recognize that those efforts often come at the expense of truly engaging their audience in a way that motivates greater action or drives meaningful, measurable outcomes around an issue or cause.  You can’t compare well-meaning organizations failure to leverage technology in truly compelling ways to efforts by authoritarian regimes to suppress individual freedoms or violently undermine political opposition.  But in today’s connected society, with all the potential that exists to address serious issues available and waiting to be directed in better, more effective ways, our refusal to change the way we operate and realize the potential that exists when we do, is just as disappointing.

Clearly we need more people who think like Alec Ross - and they need to work in organizations and on projects that exist outside the walls of the State Department.  Or put another way, there is an urgent need for digital diplomacy, at all levels and applied to all the most pressing issues and important causes facing our society today.  

I write more about the idea of digital diplomacy and how organizations must re-think how they communicate and engage audiences in a connected society in my new book, Shift & Reset. Buy a copy today. Seriously, what are you waiting for?