- 26 Mar 09, 12:07 GMT
It was like any other new media get-together where a bunch of bloggers and social networkers gather to compare notes and work out what happens next. Except for a few things. Nobody was tapping away on a laptop or a mobile phone, nearly everyone was wearing a suit and tie, and the small room held at least eight British ambassadors.
For this was a session inside the Foreign Office on digital diplomacy, moderated by the BBC's technology correspondent - that's me. Having had my phones and laptop confiscated at the entrance to the Foreign Office, I felt digitally disempowered. But the diplomatic service appears to have barged into the blogosphere with alacrity. There are now more than twenty bloggers listed on the Foreign Office blogroll - from the Foreign Secretary to a Second Secretary in Zimbabwe - and there is a rush to embrace other social media tools like Twitter and YouTube.
Our hour-long session was supposed to put this whole digital diplomacy venture under the microscope and to work out whether it was paying off. Apart from me, there were other outsiders from organisations like Reuters and the Oxford Internet Institute. But the majority were senior diplomats, eager to share their experiences with each other - and still somewhat uncertain whether they were doing it right.
The Ambassador to Vietnam Mark Kent blogs in Vietnamese and also on an English-language site. But why? "Part of the purpose is just to show that using the internet is a good thing. It gives a little bit of support to the blogging community out there."
His blog - my Vietnamese is poor, so I'll take his word for it - is more about throwing a light on the daily life of an ambassador than heavyweight policy issues. That's also reflected in his YouTube videos, where he takes us out onto the streets of Hanoi.
For the Tet festival, he got David Miliband and Sir Alex Ferguson to wish the Vietnamese a Happy New Year - and won a lot of YouTube hits and seventy comments on his blog. "If I just blogged on very technical issues," he says, "people would think it was devoid of personality. People want to know about you."
But right at the other end of the spectrum is John Duncan, British Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament. He definitely broaches very technical arms control issues in his blog, and even uses it to comment on UN negotiations, almost in real time. But who's reading it?
"There aren't a lot of comments," he confessed," I'm not sure why. But journalists around the world use my blog to get quotes from the British ambassador." Of course, comments are not the only index of a blog's success. And Duncan notes that his site is also about connecting with very well-organised campaigners, who make full use of blogs: "In order to engage in that dialogue we had to have something similar."
I felt we were still searching for one solid reason why it's valuable for busy diplomats to clatter away at the keyboard - because as far as I can see, they all do it themselves, unlike some corporate bloggers."I blog to change the brand," said Alex Ellis, our bicycling, open-shirted and youthful man in Lisbon. (I'm afraid I've reached the age when even ambassadors can look unfeasibly young). He blogs for a Portugese paper and, as well as seeking to transform the ambassadorial image, he says he wants "to reach a new audience, to learn myself, and to make people laugh".
I wondered whether they all felt they were part of the blogosphere, engaging with other bloggers, wading into the online debate. They seemed slightly unclear about that - and the questioners from the floor probed the overall motivation for the digital diplomacy project.
Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute wondered how authentic Foreign Office bloggers could be, pointing out that Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, had been very authentic - and had lost his job as a result. He also wanted to know whether it was really a diplomat's job to be a journalist. Philip Barclay admitted his very popular blog, which has chronicled events in Zimbabwe, was akin to journalism but said that it worked as a way of getting the British government's message out.
Tony Curzon-Price of openDemocracy felt that the bloggers could be authentic as long as they were transparent about their mission. He said the Foreign Office needed to proclaim: "We are representing the interests of Britain here and this is how we do it."
What seemed to unite the meeting was a conviction that the world - campaigners, journalists, politicians - was using this new technology, so the Foreign Office had no choice but to be part of the conversation. The ambassadors left saying that they'd learned some new tricks from each other's blogging experiences and that they would redouble their efforts.
I returned to my office where a colleague - a very experienced correspondent who doesn't yet blog - asked me where I'd been. When I told him he said "Ambassadors blogging? What a waste of time. They should be handing out the chocolates." It seems the Foreign Office still has some work to do on selling the idea of digital diplomacy - and modernising the ambassadorial brand.
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