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Stephen Hale

Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London

Stephen Hale is now writing a blog about digital communication for the Department of Health

Posted 11 November 2010 by Stephen Hale  
Stephen is now writing a blog about digital communication for the Department of Health:

Stephen Hale
11 November 2010

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The end of this blog

Posted 20 July 2010 by Stephen Hale  

I'll be leaving my role in the Foreign Office at the end of this week.

I'm sad to be leaving. This has been by far the most enjoyable and satisfying job of my career. It's a brilliant place to work. And I'm proud of the work we've done.

But I've been here for more than 3 years. I think that's probably long enough. I don't think the work is all done by any means, but I've completed a lot of what I've set out to do. And, as I don't have aspirations to become an ambassador, I really have to move on to get on. So for a few reasons, this feels like the right moment to go.

I'm not going far. I'll take up my new role as head of e-communications and publishing for the Department of Health in a couple of weeks.  I hope to be able to apply some of what I've learned here, there. From the outside it feels like an area ripe with new digital opportunities, so I'm really looking forward to joining the team.

So what can I say about my time here? 

I joined the Foreign Office (originally as the deputy head of e-media) back in February 2007. At that time the Foreign Office did online travel advice and retrospective news quite well. But we've come an awful long way since then. 

I take it for granted now that we provide 24/7 publishing, close-to-real-time multilingual content, business support for all our embassies, blogging diplomats, and tweeting ministers. I sometimes need to remind myself of all the incremental steps it took to get where we are now. And I forget that it's still unusual for a large (government) organisation like the FCO to trust it's staff to participate freely online in an official capacity as part of their work. 

I'm proud of the work we've done in the last 3 years to make digital engagement a routine part of what British diplomats do. Digital engagement is no longer a quirky add-on to the work - at it's best, it's fully integrated, and useful, with a real return on the effort it takes to do. Our blogs have been the the most visible manifestation of this. There are now 45 people in the Foreign Office demonstrating via our blogs that digital engagement has real value for them, and is a serious pursuit for officials, diplomats and ministers.

I've blogged here before about our campaigning approach to our digital workour social media presence, and our approach to training staff. But the thing I'm most proud of in the last couple of years has been the role I've played in recruiting staff to work in digital diplomacy group. I think we've made some good choices. We have some brilliantly talented, committed and energetic people working on digital in the Foreign Office now. So, however personally satisfying it might be for me to think that I was somehow indispensable to the team, it wouldn't be true at all.

There is plenty still to do of course.

Digital diplomacy is not yet so established that people don't sometimes question why we're doing it at all. We still need to make the case for digital, internally and externally, drawing on an increasingly large bank of evidence that this stuff is worth the effort. It's easy for us to make the case on softer issues, or when the feedback we're getting is mostly positive. But we'll need to stick to our guns when the pressure is on, when we're dealing with tough and complex foreign policy issues, and when we make mistakes.

We still need to find more ways to use the web to help diplomats to do their jobs. We tend to get credit for our most visible digital engagement, but there is huge potential value for us in using online tools and communities to help solve the daily problems that diplomats face, in a way that might be less visible to the casual onlooker. We might get less public acclaim, but we're not in it for that - this isn't show business.

I think we need to do more to work with others to get things done. This isn't unusual for the Foreign Office - most of our work is done in partnership with others, and we already work with online partners on particular policy issues. But we also have a lot to learn from other people who are struggling with the same issues that we face. That's partly why I started writing this blog, and it's why we've created Diplodocus, a community for people doing this kind of stuff.

And I think we need to keep finding ways to evaluate our work according to how far we're delivering the business of the Foreign Office. Because however excited we might get about digital engagement (and that's sometimes quite excited) that's the whole point of what we've been doing.

But that's all for others now. 

I've enjoyed writing this blog. I've found the discipline of blogging in an official capacity to be really helpful. I've never been stuck for things to write about the digital diplomacy project. And I think the process of writing the blog, reading comments, and participating on and offline elsewhere as a result, has made me better able to do my job.

So I may yet pop up in another capacity, blogging about digital health. In the meantime, I'll continue to talk about this stuff (and other stuff) in an unofficial capacity on Twitter.

Stephen Hale
20 July 2010

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British embassies and social media

Posted 08 July 2010 by Stephen Hale  

British embassies are increasingly using social media to help reach and influence local audiences around the world. 

Our diplomats aren't using social media because it's cool, or because they think it will change the nature of diplomacy. They're using it because it helps them to do things that they couldn't already do.

In digital diplomacy group we provide permission, and we offer advice and coaching. But we don't do it for them. It wouldn't work if we did.

So what are they doing?

Of course, we have lots of Foreign Office bloggers - 45 of us are blogging now, from Rachel Brass in Goma, to James Watt in Amman.

Our bloggers use their blogs differently, and for different reasons. But they are all doing it because, in their judgement, it makes them more effective in their jobs. 

Many of our embassies have official Twitter channels, like our embassy in Washington. And there are channels for particular audiences, like British Abroad. Some of our staff run official personal Twitter channels, like our Ambassador to Iran, using them to ask and answer questions.

Many of our embassies are also running Facebook pages like our High Commission in Pakistan. Most have lively conversations, with embassy staff taking part by answering questions and sharing links.

Some of our pages are based around particular issues, like the FCO Burma page, used most recently to gather birthday messages for Aung San Suu Kyi. Some are using Facebook more creatively. Like the Speed Sisters page, run alongside the official UK in Jerusalem channel - through these pages our team in Jerusalem are able to have meaningful conversations with over 2000 young Palestinians who were previously out of their reach.  

Some of our Facebook pages are for particular communities, like the official Chevening scholarships page. And sometimes we provide more exclusive communities, like the one for our Chevening Alumni network.

Some FCO staff are using video to deliver enaging messages to particular audiences, like our Farsi spokesperson. Or to invite real-time comment via a webcam, like our Ambassador to Tunisia.

Social media is sometimes about increasing our reach - half a billion Facebook users is a big potential audience. But more often it's about increasing the depth and quality of engagement with particular audiences, and learning from others.

And it's not all Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. We're most impressed when our embassies identify communities or platforms that are more widely used locally, or by particular groups.

There are lists of official FCO social media channels on  the FCO website:

And our social media guidance is available on the digital diplomacy website: 

Stephen Hale
08 July 2010

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Diplodocus - who's there, and what are they doing?

Posted 29 June 2010 by Stephen Hale  

People are using Diplodocus to talk about location based apps, how to centralise/devolve global web presences, social media guidance, copywriting, diplomacy hashtags, using social media during a crisis, and public diplomacy.

And we have members from the US, Israel, Belarus, Canada, Malaysia, France, Estonia, Bahrain, Denmark, Norway, Australia, the UN, the EU, the UK and Finland. 

It's a steady start. It was always going to be a bit of a slow burner, but I'm already finding it useful. As more people join and begin to contribute, the more useful it becomes. 

One of the first things we used the site for was to talk about the community itself. We even drafted some performance measures so that we can judge how we're doing. I've copied them below - you can hold us to account in 5 months time.

If you're not already a member, sign up now: Diplodocus: a community for international government people

1. Objective: Diplodocus has members from around the world

  • KPI: number of different countries represented
  • Target: 25 different countries represented within 6 months.

 2. Objective: Virtual community leads to physical benefits

  • KPI: number of physical meetings between members of Diplodocus
  • Target: 10 physical meetings between members of Diplodocus within 6 months (measured using survey)

3. Objective: Diplodocus leads to change in behaviour

  • KPI: number of times members of Diplodocus have changed their behaviour/approach as a result of using Diplodocus.
  • Target: 10 members report a change in approach as a result of Diplodocus (measured using survey)

4. Objective: Diplodocus is a genuinely interactive forum for conversations

  • KPI: Members contribute to discussions
  • Target 1 : 80% of member make at least 1 contribution (other than signing up) within 6 months
  • Target 2: 10% of members initiate a discussion within 6 months
  • Target 2: Discussions receive an average of more than 5 responses
(By the way, as Jimmy mentioned, we're reviewing the way we manage comments on the FCO blogs. To that end, you'll notice that I'm now trialling Echo to manage comments on my blog. We'll settle on a solution that works across our blogs in the next few weeks.)

Stephen Hale
29 June 2010

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Are you an international digital government person?

Posted 08 June 2010 by Stephen Hale  

If you do an international facing digital job for a government, then you should join Diplodocus: a community for international digital government people.

I've mentioned before that  I get a lot out of talking to people who do similar jobs to me. I think we have plenty in common and lots to share. But I've found it tricky to work out who to talk to in other governments - this is one way to solve that problem. 

Of course, there are a lot of other communities - this isn't meant to compete with them. I think this one fills a particular niche that none of the others fill.

There are a few people there already. And there are already active discussions on the site about how foreign ministries manage devolved global web content, geo-location, and the internet as a foreign policy issue.

It is already a directory of useful contacts. But it might become something else too. It might become the place that people ask questions and gather ideas about international government digital work or public diplomacy. It might lead to a corresponding physical event. 

So if you do an international facing digital job for a government, whether in an embassy, a ministry of foreign affairs, or somewhere else, then this is for you. See you there.

Stephen Hale
08 June 2010

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Digital diplomacy briefing

Posted 29 May 2010 by Stephen Hale  

So, we have a new government, a new Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office ministers, and new foreign policy priorities.

The Foreign Secretary has talked about an "ingenious and more energetic" approach to 21st century foreign policy. He may not have been thinking about digital diplomacy when he said that, but ingenious digital engagement should continue to play an important role in diplomacy.

I've used this blog before to explain what we mean by "digital diplomacy". I've even had a go at distilling what I do to a single sentence. But I'm always conscious that digital diplomacy is still a new concept, and we need to continue to explain what we mean by it, and describe what we do.

When asked (and often without being asked) this is what I say we do in the FCO Digital Diplomacy Group:

In digital diplomacy group we use the web to help solve foreign policy problems.

That means running our official Foreign Office websites and digital channels - we run 250 sites in 45 languages, providing our news and travel advice in close-to-real time, to international audiences.

And running digital diplomacy campaigns, making use of global internet culture to help deliver our policy objectives.

Our web presence and our digital campaigns give us huge potential reach and influence around the world. We aren't limited by geographical boundaries or even language barriers. We can reach audiences who want or need our content, irrespective of the news cycle or the editorial decisions of broadcasters or editors.

We use our digital channels to communicate directly with public audiences, as well as other governments and influential individuals. And importantly, the web allows us to engage in conversations with our audiences, not just deliver information.

We often find that there is a natural fit between what our diplomats are trying to achieve offline, and what is possible online. 

Our new ministers are already using the tools of digital engagement, from the Flickr galleries showing the first few days in the office, the Foreign Secretary's tweets, the Minister for Europe's blog and Alistair Burt's YouTube video on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. I'll continue to use this blog to highlight our efforts to help solve foreign policy problems through digital engagement.

Stephen Hale
29 May 2010

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The UK general election and digital diplomacy

Posted 06 April 2010 by Stephen Hale  

The Prime Minister announced today that there will be a general election in the UK on 6 May. You're likely to notice that the Foreign Office digital output quietens as a result.

We won't stop working, but our focus will shift from public campaigning to internal and technical. We won't stop publishing stuff, but we will be careful not to publish anything that has a bearing on party politics. Specifically our ministers will stop blogging, and our officials will stop actively campaigning in order to avoid any potential competition with parliamentary candidates.

See our news story for more info.

Stephen Hale
06 April 2010

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Our digital campaigns - some highlights

Posted 06 April 2010 by Stephen Hale  

It's annual appraisal time for civil servants, so I've been thinking back over a year of Foreign Office digital campaigns. 

As I've mentioned before, we've organised a lot of digital diplomacy work around the concept of running campaigns in the last year. Not everything we do is actually a campaign, but we've tried to apply our digital campaigning method to foreign policy issues, whether it's a 3 week campaign in the lead up to an event or a 5 year campaign on a big strategic issue. The campaigning approach helps us to frame our work to focus our energy on things that will help deliver foreign policy objectives.

This is a new way of working for the Foreign Office and we've spent the last year working out how to do it. We started by recruiting campaign managers and developing our method, and we've refined our approach throughout the year based on what we've learned.

But more important than our method, we've run lots of campaigns. Here are some highlights from the last year: 

London Summit

This time last year we were just rounding off our G20 London Summit campaign. It was a massive campaign, it won some awards, we evaluated it thoroughly, I blogged quite a lot about it, and it has informed our approach since. 

Climate change

We've run an ongoing campaign on climate change, one of the big priorities for the FCO. Our main focus has been on:

Act on Copenhagen

We ran a 6 month campaign in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate change summit in December. Typically for our campaigns, it was run in partnership with others across Whitehall, in this case the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for International Development. We ran a campaign website, hosted on the FCO web platform. But the successes of the campaign were often away from our official site. We had some success generating eye catching set piece bits of content for others to reuse such as our 4 degrees map and our Road to Copenhagen timeline. We used video, email and FCO climate bloggers extensively, and we made full use of the FCO network of web editors to run a 24/7 operation  during the summit.

Middle East

We've been working with our staff in the Middle East and North Africa to help them to make better use of digital engagement. This is a big long term strategic campaign, and it was difficult initially to know where to start. We've had some success creating content and aggregating content from our posts in the region. But we've found that we've been at our most effective when we've worked with particular posts and individuals to help them deliver their local objectives, and then in turn our broad objectives. For example, we now have 5 people blogging in Arabic (from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan) who are beginning to have a real reach into local conversations.


We worked a number of influencing campaigns on Burma in support of UK objectives on human rights. We've worked with the Burma Campaign on the 64 for Suu campaign which reached millions around to world to raise awareness of the continued imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. Assessing the impact of this campaign is tricky, but we've been working with our community in the UK to maintain momentum, through our Facebook group, and through events like the screening of Burma VJ at the Foreign Office


We worked with the Royal Commonwealth Society to run the Commonwealth Conversation campaign on the future of the Commonwealth. It was the largest ever public consultation on the future of the Commonwealth and the campaign website generated more than 1000 comments from around the world which fed straight into the Heads of Government meeting in November and informed the RCS call for reform of the Commonwealth earlier this year. 


We worked on a cross government campaign in the lead up to the London conference on Afghanistan in January. We built a conference website in almost no time, and generated lots of content and engagement opportunities in English, Arabic, Urdu, Dari and Pashtu. Like most of our digital campaigns this was run in partnership with lots of others. It wasn't difficult to generate interest, content, or engagement. The tricky thing was knowing where to place everything with so many interested parties. We're now focussing our digital efforts on helping to deliver FCO objectives on Afghanistan, and using digital engagement to support the objectives of our posts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Nuclear Disarmament and Counter Proliferation

We've been working on a campaign around the UK objective to move towards a world without nuclear weapons. This will reach a head in May in New York at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. It's sometimes been difficult to know where to place digital in this work, and how to demystify a complex and technical issue. But it will be a test of our method in May, particularly as we'll have a blogging and tweeting Ambassador and a digital campaign manager on the ground in New York.

During the year we've also applied our campaigning method to lots of other subjects including the 2012 Olympics, Chevening scholars, the Arms Trade Treaty, Europe, China, Human Rights (including a joint campaign with the British Red Cross), diaspora communities in the UK and more.

No two campaigns are the same, so to do all of this we've had to make full use of the digital diplomacy approach. For us that means focussing on listening (using research, developing dashboards, changing what we do as a result of what we hear), publishing (making full use of our branded FCO web presence), engaging (refining how we collaborate and participate and work with others), and evaluating (learning from what we've done so that we can get better at it).

We've also made full use of the Foreign Office network to deliver our campaigns. We've put effort into coaching and cajoling, and evangelising about digital diplomacy internally. And it's been diplomats on the ground who have actually delivered our campaigns.

So has it all been worth it? The real measure of success for us is not how good we are at running digital campaigns, but how useful our work is in helping to deliver diplomats' particular objectives. So there's no single measure of success. But the experience of running digital diplomacy campaigns in the last year has definitely made us better at applying the tools and techniques of digital engagement to help diplomats solve complex foreign policy problems. 

This is still all a work in progress of course, but I think we're getting better at it.  

You can find out more about our digital diplomacy campaigns on the Global issues channel of the Foreign Office website and on the Digital Diplomacy website.  

Stephen Hale
06 April 2010

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FCO blogs refresh - show original item

Posted 01 April 2010 by Stephen Hale  

We've changed the way Foreign Office blogs look.

If you're reading this blog via the RSS feed and you want to know what we've done, click on "view in Safari", or "show original item", or whatever you need to do to see the blog in it's original context. 

This isn't a relaunch. And we haven't changed much beyond how the blogs look. Our design challenge was to bring our blogs into line with the main FCO site and our embassy sites whilst retaining a bloggy feel and improving the experience for our readers. So we're reusing the grid, the image sizes and the styles from our websites. But we've introduced a few bloggy features too to bring the conversation to the surface and to promote related content.

We have 38 Foreign Office bloggers now, so we've had to think about how we aggregate them, and how far we try to present them as a coherent whole. We've gone for a more editorial approach on the blogs homepage, but with multiple routes to access particular bloggers, as well as more effort promoting blogs locally. 

It's taken us a bit longer than expected because we've been doing lots of other things at the same time. And we're not finished yet - we'll transfer all our blogs over the new templates in the next few days. And there are couple of things that we still we still need to add, particularly to cross promote our content and change the way we deal with comments.

So have a look round and let me know what you think. As I write you can still do a compare and contrast between the old and new templates.

BTW, this was an internal piece of work, done by existing staff, it hasn't cost anything, blah blah blah.

Stephen Hale
01 April 2010

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Digital campaign managers

Posted 25 March 2010 by Stephen Hale  

Our digital campaign managers have helped us to embed our work in the business of the Foreign Office.

When I joined the Foreign Office 3 years ago, we tended to use the web to report on things that had happened after they had happened.

I used to get frustrated that digital was always an afterthought in government communications. I remember meetings when the only thing the digital team could say was: "if we'd been involved a bit earlier we could have done something really useful."

In a way, our digital diplomacy project has all been about "getting involved a bit earlier".

A year ago we were running our first large scale digital diplomacy campaign in the lead up to the G20 London Summit. We'd been using the tools of digital engagement for a while before that of course, and we were already calling what we did "digital diplomacy". But the London Summit was the first time we had brought everything together in a fully integrated digital campaign.

Our London Summit campaign proved to us that digital diplomacy wasn't just about working out how to make use of a new set of tools. We realised that we were at our most effective when we were focussed on particular issues rather than particular tools.

This experience informed how we have approached digital diplomacy since. Our creativity with digital tools has mostly emerged from the policy problems that we have tried to help solve.

In the last year we have organised our digital foreign policy work around the concept of "campaigns". And we have created roles in our team for digital campaign managers to run them. A year ago we had no digital campaign managers working on digital diplomacy. Now we have 5. And it's our campaign managers who are helping us to get involved a bit earlier.

Our campaign managers are responsible for big foreign policy issues (like climate change and the Middle East), events (like the Afghanistan Conference and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review) or particular foreign policy initiatives (like our scholars and Olympics communities). We think that we can apply our trusty campaigning method to any foreign policy issue, although the tools we end up using are diverse.

Our campaign managers are ensuring that digital diplomacy is becoming a core part of the business of the Foreign Office.

We are rarely surprised by new policy initiatives any more, because our campaign managers are embedded in the policy process. They know what our policy desks are planning because they are talking to them every day. They are in the meetings before things are decided, not just the ones when it's too late to do anything. They are helping our diplomats to plan their digital activity, not just reporting on offline activity after if has happened.

I might be painting too rosy a picture. Charlotte and Fouzia and Phil and Amelia and Emily might well comment on this to say that they still sometimes find out about things too late to do anything useful. And I know that we haven't mastered it across all of our campaigns. But we rarely complain that we weren't involved early enough now, and that's because of the excellent work that they are each doing to get stuck into the issues, and the core business of the Foreign Office.

I'll post again with some more examples of our campaigns from the last year, and some of the challenges we're still facing.

Stephen Hale
25 March 2010

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The web as a foreign policy issue

Posted 10 March 2010 by Stephen Hale  

You need to be multi-skilled to work in a government digital team these days. We expect members of the digital team in the Foreign Office to be simultaneously expert in the psychology of human computer interaction, international politics, and semantic mark-up code. Some say that there are as many as 47 areas of expertise for government digital teams. I'm handing over my blog today to my colleague Shane Dillon who's been thinking deep thoughts about a 48th - the web as a foreign policy issue. Shane writes:

In the last two years the web has moved from the tech pages to the front pages. Google's decision to pull out of China is just one example. The web matters to businesses and governments. And in western societies some view access to the web as a right on a par with access to drinking water. We have come a long way.

I would argue that we must now treat the web as a foreign policy issue in its own right. By taking the web seriously as a foreign policy concern a state can advance its interests and influence. 

The debate is happening around us anyway - take Hilary Clinton's recent speech on internet freedom. The speech was widely reported, and for some like Daniel Calingaert it did not go far enough.

Eygeny Morozov has made an important contribution to the debate showing that for all the idealism that surrounds the web, it is dictatorships that are using the web effectively against those who would seek greater democracy. Morozov offers an essential realist critique of our understanding of how states use the web. Realism (as a founding paradigm of international politics) tells us that states exist in anarchy - to some extent the web is even more anarchic.

Morozov takes aim at idealists like Clay Shirky who views the web in more idealist terms, arguing that the tools offered by the web can affect social change, like the printing presses of Gutenberg's age.

I am perhaps caricaturing their positions as realism versus idealism but I think this new debate does closely reflect that age old foreign policy debate. Should a foreign policy focusing on the web have a moral position, or instead see the web world for what it really is?  

So what does the web world actually look like?  From its inception, thinking on the the web has provided a great deal of idealistic internationalism - the web not as a country but a virtual space for all to use productively.  But that view is now challenged as we see states attempt to control the web within their own borders, erecting ever larger firewalls and deploying filtering technology to control what their citizens access over the web.

Attempts to control the web by states can present serious human rights issues. And cyber attacks have the potential to cause major disruption to the day to day running of a state. But what else should a foreign policy for the web cover? Some ideas:

- Web freedom - democratic states may want to make the web as free as possible to aid the promotion of democracy.
- Play a part in negotiations that aim to shape the future of the web through international legally binding agreements.  
- Communicate and explain domestic web legislation to a foreign audience.
- Deploy research analysts to study the web in foreign policy terms as you would a state, an idea, or an international organisation. 

Britain has a great tradition in the academic field of International Politics, founding the first department of International Politics in 1919 at the University of Aberystwyth, right up to the British school led by Hedley Bull.  The UK has a chance to make its mark by leading on the issue of the web as a foreign policy issue, backed by a thriving digital culture and exceptional web expertise across UK government.

Stephen Hale
10 March 2010

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Forget global, everything is local now

Posted 04 March 2010 by Stephen Hale  

Sometimes we get over excited about our global reach in the Foreign Office.

We do have global reach. We have offices in 260 places around the world, in 150 different countries. We run 250 websites in 50 languages. And we work on issues like climate change and counter terrorism, which are truly global issues affecting millions of people around the world.

But that doesn't mean we run digital diplomacy campaigns that reach people every country in the world. We're more likely to have success targeting particular audiences with lots of small campaigns, than aiming for very large audiences with massive campaigns.

In fact, most our digital successes in the last couple of years have worked because we have been very clear about which particular niche audience we were targeting. Dominic Asquith's Arabic blog, or John Duncan's tweets about multilateral arms control, or our embassy in Vietnam's videos of songs in Vietnamese all work because they are focussed on the audience that they include, rather than the vast majority that they exclude. We've been less successful when we've aimed for a popular rather than a niche audience.

Of course, one of the brilliant things about the social web is that it can help connect people with similar interests that wouldn't otherwise be connected, regardless of location. Communities emerge that wouldn't otherwise have existed. If you're a left handed banjo player then you can find a left handed banjo playing community. This is really the power of the social web. It's not global audiences, it's niche audiences from around the globe. 

I was at Gov20LA a couple of weeks ago. One the things that really impressed me there was the focus on solving local problems. Tools like SeeClixFix and GovLuv are designed to engage local audiences. They might scale, but their initial focus is local. They work because they solve niche problems.

My digital colleagues at the State Department told me that for them everything they do is local, "but local isn't necessarily geographical." I think they're right. It's tempting for foreign ministries to try to run campaigns with global reach, but the ones that really work are likely to be those that address local issues first.

I was asked to be on a panel with Lovisa and Dillon about global citizenship at Gov20LA. What was striking for me was how much of the discussion was about local issues, and how much agreement there was that "global citizens" are local citizens first.

I've embedded the video from the session below. It's quite long. 

Stephen Hale
04 March 2010

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Evaluating our blogs

Posted 06 February 2010 by Stephen Hale  

Foreign Office bloggers should focus on making sure that their blogs are integrated, personal, real-time, and 2-way. These are the headline findings of our detailed evaluation of the impact and reach of our blogs.

I mentioned a while ago that we were doing some work to evaluate the impact and reach of Foreign Office blogs.

Our aim was to get beyond our regular stats reports to provide a deeper analysis of the reach of our blogs and the impact they have on the people that read them.

Some of our findings were expected, some were unexpected. Some of what we found was an endorsement of what our bloggers were already doing. But there are clearly things that our bloggers could do to improve the reach and impact of their blogs.  

We carried out the work internally (much credit to Rob and Shane),  but we made every effort to just report what the data told us, and in no way game the results. 

Here's a summary of what we found: 

What we did

Screenshot from blogs survey

1. A survey

All our English language bloggers posted a blog entry asking their readers to complete a quick survey. We asked readers a few questions about themself and their blog reading habits. And we asked them to rate a set of extracts from Foreign Office blogs according to how informative, balanced, trustworthy, authentic, appropriate and interesting they found them to be.

2. Metrics

We took a good look at the data we already had, concentrating on traffic, inbound links, and the number and sentiment of comments.

3. Competitor analysis

We wanted to learn from what others were doing. So we thought a bit laterally about who we might regard as competitors or peers of FCO bloggers (Carl Bildt, Steve Clemmons, Norman Geras, Moby...) and compared what they were doing with what our bloggers were doing.

Some conclusions

Some of our findings are particular to individual bloggers. But there were some pretty clear themes in the data:

1. Blogs are 1 tool among many

Our most effective blogs are combined with wider communication and policy activity.

For example, the second biggest peek in traffic to the Foreign Secretary's blog last year was when he posted Forging coalitions with the Muslim world. That blog was complementary to a speech he gave at on the same subject, was combined with outreach to bloggers, and was promoted via Twitter - including real time coverage of the speech and press conference. As a result it generated mentions and inward links from other bloggers and leading websites, increasing the potential influence of the blog entry exponentially.

We found that that this kind of behaviour is common among the peers of FCO bloggers too, who might use Twitter to confirm hunches or check facts with their followers while they are writing blogs, or use physical events or conventional media to promote blog entries or continue the conversation.

Where we found this kind of multi-channel behaviour, we found that it was reflected by both increased traffic, and increased volume of comments. It seems that successful bloggers are rarely just bloggers, and successful blog entries rarely exist in isolation from other channels. 

2. Personal insights and opinions make for interesting blogs

People expect, like and respond to blogs that only the author could write. In particular, they respond to personal insights. And readers comment on our blogs - and rate them highly and return to them - when they agree or disagree with the expressed opinion.

Our survey asked readers open questions about what they liked and disliked about FCO blogs. The strongest theme from the "likes" was around personal insights. And the most common answer mentioned insight into the opinion of the writer. When we asked them what they disliked, readers said they disliked blogs were bland or dull, or that didn't offer enough of the personality of the writer.

What do you like about FCO blogs?

Graph showing what readers like about FCO blogs

What do you dislike about FCO blogs?

Graph showing what readers dislike about FCO blogs 

The blog entry that was rated as being the most authentic was $50 shopping spree by Grace Mutandwa, which uses personal anecdote to make wider points. Blogs that just reported events or described facts were rated as being less authentic.

The blog entry that was rated as most interesting was Marwa el Sherbini by Dominic Asquith, in which he expresses a clear personal opinion. In fact, this entry (published at the time in Arabic and English) was the best rated of all the entries we tested across our metrics of informative, balanced, trustworthy, authentic, appropriate and interesting. 

Survey ratings for Dominic Asquith's blog entry

3. Readers want comment in real time

A significant number of people read our blogs every day. We know that stories move on very quickly online. As do as do the opportunities for our bloggers to engage their readers.

More than 20% of readers of FCO blogs say that they read them every day. This is the kind of behaviour we might have expected from readers of technology blogs, where the majority of readers might subscribe to an RSS feed. I didn't expect the number to be so high for our foreign policy blogs, where we know that the number of people subscribing via RSS is a much smaller proportion of the audience. There is clearly appetite for real time content.

Graph showing how often FCO blog readers read FCO blogs

When we looked at our peers, we found that there was a clear correlation between real-time blogging, and reader engagement (if we take the number of comments received as an indication of engagement). Those who blog as things happen also receive the most comments. For example, Carl Bildt posted 53 entries to his blog in July - often offering comment on events before they happened - and received more than 400 comments.

4. Readers want conversations

Readers expect our blogs to be 2-way communication. And blogs that reach into specific communities of interest generate the most visible engagement (comments, and inward links).

Our survey results suggest that our blogs are stimulating real engagement. Our readers are  having conversations as a consequence of reading our blogs. In particular, 66% of readers of FCO blogs said that they had discussed our blog entries offline. This appears to be an endorsement of the choice of blogging as a medium for our diplomats: by blogging they are stimulating conversations, on and offline.Graph showing further engagement following reading an FCO blog

We also asked readers what they expected in response to comments posted on our blogs. 34% of readers said that they didn't expect a response at all. Of those that did expect a response, 29% expected the author to respond personally, and 37% said that they expected a representative of the FCO to respond, although not necessarily the author.

We can see from the metrics that the blogs that are most commented-on are entries in which the author addresses issues that are already the subject of online debate. The most commented-on blogs from the Foreign Secretary last year were those about Sri Lanka, and we can see similar peaks when he blogged about Georgia, and Iran.  

Traffic to the Foreign Secretary's blog, overlaid with volume and sentiment of comments 

Graph showing traffic to the Foreign Secretary's blog plotted against the number of comments he received

Some practical recommendations 

We've turned these themes into some practical recommendations for our bloggers. Our advice isn't the same for every blogger, but we are using our findings to encourage our bloggers to be personal (say things that only they could say), real time (if it takes days to draft or check the facts then it's probably not a blog), integrated (with other things they're doing on and offline), responsive (responding to comments), and targeted (writing about things that people are already talking about online).

Stephen Hale
06 February 2010

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Can I say anything useful about the future?

Posted 18 January 2010 by Stephen Hale  

I wonder how far it's possible to be a digital futurist. I find it hard enough to understand what's happening right now, and to plan for the next few months.

Communications technology moves on so fast and unpredictably, and significant changes are often driven by complex social - rather than technological - factors. I think I'd prefer to leave predictions to Tomorrow's World.

The conference room at Wilton Park (taken at a previous Wilton Park Conference)

I was at a Wilton Park conference last week as an "expert resource" for a session on communications technology.

The global governance conference was designed to "assist senior officials to understand international perspectives on key global questions and to consider future trends, challenges and opportunities over the next 5-15 years".

It was fascinating, even though for some of the time I felt like I did when I turned up to university seminars without having done the reading.

The rules of the conference mean that I can't reveal who said what. But I can tell you what I said and thought, and what the themes of the conversation were.

I introduced my session by describing a newly empowered global citizen who is more connected, better informed, and better able to establish coalitions with others. This has implications for the state, and for long established structures of government.

We have already seen the impact of these trends on a large scale. Communications technology has played a role in challenges to governments (eg in Iran and Moldova). But the impact is more often seen on a smaller scale (politicians changing behaviours in response to spontaneous social media movements, or governments crowd-sourcing solutions to niche problems).

Governments have choices about how they respond: whether to embrace the new opportunities and engage directly with publics, listen to or monitor what public groups are doing, engage through 3rd parties or covertly, or attempt to control the technology itself.

I was struck by the range of opinion in the group, some seeing major challenges to established forms of governance, others seeing new opportunities.

I'll leave the fuller conclusions to the official report. Here is some of what was said by others about communications technology in the next 5-15 years (taken from my very selective notes):


- Biased and vocal minority groups bypassing the structures of democracy and distorting pubic priorities.
- The legitimacy of institutions challenged by unrepresentative digital democracy.
- The long tail producing a new kind of inequality, giving voice to minority (sometimes extremist) groups - "the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets greased".
- Individuals in non-open societies facing personal consequences of open engagement on the social web.


- More actors in the global process, beyond established state and non-state actors, leading to better solutions to problems.
- Governments have more opportunity to listen, rather than preach.
- Governments have new opportunities to work smarter and more creatively to address hearts and minds (like public diplomacy).
- More government accountability because of transparently shared data and new mechanisms for accountability.

Wilton Park, by the way, is an astonishing place, and I can endorse the effectiveness of their conference house-style. It's no unconference, but if it worked for Winston Churchill, it's good enough for me.

Stephen Hale
18 January 2010

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Why websites matter less and less

Posted 21 December 2009 by Stephen Hale  

Summary: Our audiences will increasingly find ways to use our web content that are more convenient than visiting our website. This won't reflect well in our stats, but we shouldn't fight it.

People often wrongly assume that traffic to the Foreign Office website is the main measure of the success of digital diplomacy: if traffic goes up we're doing well, if it goes down we're not. It's not the measure I use. In fact, I would be very happy for traffic to our official sites to go down if it meant that we were delivering our digital diplomacy objectives better elsewhere.

I'm very proud of the new look Foreign Office website. I think that it looks great, presenting rich - and almost-real-time - content clearly and effectively in an interface designed to serve what people have come to find. 800,000 different people visit the site each month. Most of them have a good experience, getting what they need, and occasionally finding content that they didn't know they needed. The team of people managing the site are doing a fine job.

I'm also involved in some work to refresh the user interface for our blogs, and provide all off-platform Foreign Office content with a consistent look and feel. We'll do the same thing for our all our embassy web content too, so that visiting the UK in Iran website will provide an experience comparable to visiting the main FCO website.

Our official online presence matters - it's our shop front. But I also accept that whatever work we do to make our content work well in a neat, branded package, the package itself is irrelevant to many people.

If you visit our pages on the Middle East, the content sits nicely in our consistent FCO visual identity, and it offers helpful links to other related content on our embassy and partner websites. But that's only 1 way that you might choose to access our content. You might subscribe to an RSS feed, or our email alerts instead. If you chose to, you could consume our content unencumbered by the Foreign Office brand, and without the clutter of suggested links from our editors. Increasingly, that's exactly what people are doing.

Similarly it's probably more convenient to read the Foreign Office news alerts than it is to visit the news pages on the Foreign Office website. And it may be quicker to subscribe to our travel advice RSS feed than visit the individual travel pages. But we should be pleased that people are using our content, rather than worried about the stats for our official branded pages.

Web users consume more web content now than ever before. But they also use more tools to help them do it, spending less time visiting traditional websites.

Personally, I find that I access the web mostly by using a combination of syndication services, dashboards, aggregators, mobile phone applications, and widgets, rather than by browsing websites. I read lots of blogs, but I tend to read them using iGoogle or similar, rarely visiting the blog itself unless I want to participate in the comments. The user interface becomes redundant to me if I don't ever see it.

Add to this the trend towards active participation online, rather than passive consumption of information. People now expect to take part, and they access the web via services that facilitate interaction. Our audiences are more likely to start their online journey from their Facebook homepage than the Foreign Office homepage.

So what does this mean for digital diplomacy? Well, I think it might mean that as digital becomes more important to diplomacy, traffic to our official websites will reduce - the increase in influence of our digital campaigns will probably not be reflected by an increase in the PageRank of our official website. It means we'll need to focus more on providing reusable content that works equally well in different digital contexts. And it might mean that we run effective digital campaigns based entirely on data, collaboration, participation and outreach without surfacing anything at all on our official websites.

As digital diplomacy becomes more important, our websites will remain as our shop front. But our content will be more important than our websites. And I think that our reach into spaces where people are having conversations and influencing each other will be even more important than our content.

Stephen Hale
21 December 2009

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