James Barbour

James Barbour

Press Secretary and Head of Communications

Part of Digital Diplomacy

20th March 2013 Washington DC, USA

SXSW diplomacy

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.

SXSWBut 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:

 

… and my favourite:

One comment on “SXSW diplomacy

  1. The old diplomacy might catch up one day with the change of the digital more modern, more in touch with the real world we live in.

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About James Barbour

James Barbour is the Press Secretary and Head of Communications at the British Embassy in Washington. He joined the FCO in 1997, having studied Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Roughly half of his career has been spent in London, in a range of jobs covering the OSCE and the Balkans, corporate social responsibility and corporate governance, press work and public relations. From 2000 to 2004 James was posted to the British High Commission in Cape Town, and more recently spent 2007 to 2011 in Moscow. In Washington James is responsible for managing and portraying the Embassy’s – and the British Government’s – public presence in the United States, engaging in debates in the US media environment on policy issues of importance to the UK, and contributing presentational perspectives to the Embassy’s policy discussions. James is keen to help the FCO make the most of social media; this is his third blog, and he often dabbles with Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter. James is joined in Washington by his wife Carrie and their two children.

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