Virtual programming is a key tool in cultivating your public diplomacy garden.
This article is based on the white paper Creating a Virtual Programming Ecosystem. To learn more, download the white paper here.
By Loren Hurst
If there is one lesson to be drawn from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that online interaction as a core part of everyday professional life has been firmly established and is set to continue. Public diplomacy practitioners should take note. The strategic implications of this shift require a deep look at the skill sets and programming models needed to successfully conduct public diplomacy in the virtual context. At first blush, the notion of engaging audiences virtually may seem trite; social media is not new. In this new reality however, it’s time to make a clear distinction between “social media” and “virtual engagement”.
There are two sides to the social media coin. Despite much of the friendly interaction, the “social” aspect of social media has been twisted. Platforms have largely become content delivery spaces where audiences react. Moreover, anonymity gives license to expressions of anger and hate, oftentimes by users who would rarely display such behavior in face-to-face situations. Beyond the well-documented mental health impacts on individuals, such as isolation and depression, the political impacts of misinformation pose an urgent challenge to public diplomacy practitioners. These divisive aspects of social media have created a new urgency for “misinformation inoculation”.
The antidote to social media’s negative effects is person-to-person exchange – think Peace Corps and the State Department’s Education and Cultural Exchange programs, among others. The onset of the pandemic forced the cancellation of travel and in-person exchanges, driving many of these programs online. Over a year later, there are several lessons that can be drawn as to how virtual programming can evolve to play an important strategic role in public diplomacy going forward.
To fully realize the full potential of virtual programming as a strategic communications context, it’s important to think beyond common perceptions. We are not talking about webinars. While some webinars do have interactive elements, the nature of webinars remains content-focused. Indeed, many, if not the vast majority of webinar views occur on video sharing platforms after the live event has ended. The missing key element is that relationships are not being cultivated. Ultimately, successful public diplomacy is driven by the everyday interactions that American diplomats have with their audiences. Alliances and partnerships are critical to achieving success and can be enhanced by interpersonal virtual engagement. Information-driven webinars are ill-suited for this goal. A new level of thinking is required that uses virtual programming to cultivate relationships, not to simply deliver information.
In February of this year, Nicholas Burns’ tribute to former Secretary of State George Shultz in Foreign Affairs likened diplomacy to gardening – a patient process based on personal engagement and relationship-building. Corporate public relations professionals have drawn many of the same conclusions on the importance of stakeholder engagement in recent years, expressed in the concept of reputation management. Whichever moniker you apply, the key takeaway is that community-building is the foundation for successful public relations, domestically and internationally. Ultimately, it’s about building trust and resiliency in relationships.
Virtual programming is a powerful application of the notion of diplomacy as gardening. A strategic virtual programming effort requires a holistic view and clear purpose of how you engage stakeholders. In practice, this is best expressed as ongoing programming dedicated to a single topic or region, with the ultimate purpose of relationship cultivation, stakeholder empowerment, and co-creation of deliverables. For instance, a single public-facing online event would be preceded by a series of informal online listening sessions with key stakeholders. These sessions serve as relationship-building contexts, with the purpose of gathering information and receiving input on the event format, topic selection, and other important areas. Listening sessions, both before and after the main online event, are one way of achieving inclusiveness within a virtual programming ecosystem. As valuable as the information gleaned from these informal interactions is, just as important is the interaction itself. The simple act of taking the time to reach out to stakeholders and listening to their input is a valuable investment in the relationship.
Deploying virtual programming in this manner is diplomacy as gardening taken online. It doesn’t scale as social media does, but scaling is not the point. The purpose is to create spaces for focused engagement with key stakeholders in which partnership and creativity are rooted and can thrive. When backed with a clear objective and outreach strategy, sustained virtual programming cultivates familiarity and empowers participants.
Einstein famously said that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The challenges of misinformation driven by social media cannot be successfully addressed by simply adding more content – we must inoculate listeners against misinformation. Relationship-driven virtual programming will be a key part of stakeholder engagement strategies going forward, and must be looked at beyond the context of content-driven webinars. Ultimately, successful public diplomacy hinges on developing relationships and trust with audiences.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a harbinger of further disruption to come. Climate change is the most important reality to consider as it impacts infrastructure and the ability to travel, among its many other impacts. As a result, remote work will remain and likely expand. Public diplomacy practitioners would do well to develop robust engagement strategies with virtual programming as a centerpiece and dedicate the resources to skills development in this important communications space.
Any views or opinions represented in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent those of people, institutions, or organizations the author may be associated with in a professional or personal capacity.
Loren Hurst is a strategic communications professional with over 25 years experience in public diplomacy, government relations, and digital communications. He specializes in the strategic use of virtual technologies to engage stakeholders, target audiences, and build reputation management solutions. As a practitioner, teacher, and voice performer, he works around the globe and addresses the communication risks associated with misinformation, especially on climate change and other science-related issues. His professional interests focus on the integrated application of strategic virtual communications, media skills, and sustainability.