Over the past year or so a lively community of ‘digital diplomats’ has developed in both Washington and New York, with ‘digital diplomats’ meeting on a monthly basis to share ideas and talk about their latest innovations. Social Media Week this year featured, in both cities, workshops and panels looking specifically at how governments can better engage digitally. So when colleagues from the Swiss Consulate in New York first suggested the idea of a panel on digital diplomacy at SXSW it seemed, to us, a natural step – to take the conversations we’d been having in our community and test them out on a broader, more sophisticated ‘real word’ audience.
But what does diplomacy have to do with a music festival in a Texan town whose inhabitants revel in their self-professed “weirdness”? On the face of it, not very much. But while Austin might point to its food trucks, music and annual Eeyore’s Birthday Party as evidence of its weirdness, it also finds itself at the centre of the “Silicon Hills”. Big names like Dell, PayPal, Facebook, Intel, Apple and Cisco are headquartered or have a major regional presence there, along with a burgeoning community of innovative small and medium-sized tech firms. And South by South West Interactive has grown from its origins as a sidebar event to a conference in its own right, this year attracting over 30,000 delegates from across industry, governments and the not-for-profit sectors – hence our Consulate General in Houston organises a major presence there each year, in conjunction with UKTI, to pair British start-ups and tech firms with potential partners in the US who have come to SXSW to do business.
Against this backdrop I, alongside co-panellists from Switzerland, Sweden and the US State Department, ended up speaking to 200-strong tech-savvy audience last Monday afternoon in a dauntingly large hall at the Austin Convention Centre.
The pitch, from the UK, was pretty straightforward. We’re now “Digital by Default” – everything we now do as Diplomats should have an element. It’s not a bolt-on or a luxury, it’s a core part of what we do. Some stats, a few visuals (on Prezi of course – Powerpoint is so 2008) – the Foreign Secretary tweeting, the GREAT campaign, travel advice on Twitter – and finish with a section on active listening. Job done.
Or not quite … this audience had other ideas, peppering me and my co-panellists with some tough questions on everything from risk to evaluation to the use of social media in support of the Arab Spring, from cyber warfare to ROI to internet governance. I think, by the end of it, we had them pretty well convinced; no-one got up and left which, given the SXSW habit of “panel shopping”, has to be a major achievement.
Aside from our own panel, the real surprise of SXSW was the relevance, to us as a government, of so much of the discussion taking place. I ended up at a hugely diverse range events, including a breakfast hosted by Mashable to talk social good, panels on topics such as social media in North Korea, crowdsourcing arms control solutions, and the future of drone policy, and dinner with software pioneers and venture capitalists. Oh, and there was some music, too.
Was the panel a success? I’ll let some of my favourite tweets from our #SXSWdiplomacy hashtag speak for themselves:
Irony: Government foreign relations offices have better definitions for “success” on social media than most companies. #SXSWdiplomacy
— Matt Harmon (@MattJHarmon) March 11, 2013
— Jeanne Park (@geniepee) March 11, 2013
They’re lining up pretty deep to ask questions at the #SXSWDiplomacy panel here. They’re asking the tough ones. Good crowd.
— William Colgrove (@wcolgrove) March 11, 2013
— Ingeborg Volan (@ingeborgv) March 11, 2013
— Aurélie Valtat (@avaltat) March 11, 2013
— Jessi Colund (@JypsyJBook) March 11, 2013
… and my favourite:
— Jacqueline Lambiase (@lambiase) March 11, 2013