Tools for a more resilient public diplomacy (guest post)

Editor’s note: As a treat for readers of the GD blog, it is a pleasure to present this guest post by colleague and friend Ali Fisher. It approximates a presentation he made via videoconference to my MA class on “Science, Technology, Diplomacy and International Policy” at Ottawa University on October 10.

Towards for a more resilient public diplomacy

With the right tools, smarter networks and collaborative strategies there is potential to deliver a more resilient and sustainable public diplomacy.


  • Public diplomacy is regularly cast as a long term activity, often around building lasting relationships or impact and frequently focused on engaging young people or the ‘next generation’.

On the other hand;

  • We know shock events will happen that cause rapid shifts in emphasis, policy, and resources. This Michael Oppenheimer has referred to as the inevitability of surprise in an environment that exhibits rapid change, fluid alignments, wide policy choice and strategic surprise.

The resulting challenge:

  • How to develop public diplomacy strategy in a way which considers potential shocks and is more resilient to policy shifts within the ‘constellation of possible futures’, to borrow a phrase Anne-Marie Slaughter used at the School of International Futures.

The Response:

Develop strategy focused on the potential network, connective approaches which might prepare a public diplomacy strategy for a wider range of potential futures. This will require public diplomacy organisations to develop Smarter Networks, Collaborative Approaches and the big data tools [link] to empower public diplomats.

Smarter networks:

To have influence within huge interconnected networks, future public diplomacy strategy is likely to be based on an analysis of the complex architecture which exists between communities around the world. The current trends and the rapidly evolving events that swept across Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and has continued in Bahrain and Syria, have reinforced one of the key elements of Guerrilla Diplomacy, that:

“Unlike all too many serving envoys, the guerrilla diplomat will know how to swim with comfort and ease in the sea of the people rather than flop around like a fish out of water, and prefer to mix with the population rather than mingle with colleagues inside the embassy walls.”

Engaging smarter networks is more than gathering large numbers of people, or twitter impressions and facebook fans. It looks beyond counting the number of relationships between public diplomat and individuals. Instead, smarter networks seek to understand the relationships between the different people the diplomat engages. In addition, it also focuses on the relationships between those individuals a public diplomat has engaged and other influential individuals within a specific community.

Ultimately, the development of these smarter networks challenges diplomats – and others who engage in public diplomacy – to identify and engage with a wide range of meaningful networks. It challenges the diplomat to manage their engagement in a way which facilitates the development of a network which would be sustainable if they have to withdraw – whether due to shock events or rotation of personnel.  This means that building ‘star’ networks (also known as hub and spoke) around a single node, whether fan page or individual’s twitter account, may not be the most effective approach.

Smarter networks are responsive, sustainable and have a level of interconnection to survive the loss of a key node, as described by Paul Baran in his work on distributed communications. They can share information effectively between specific clusters of individuals, rather than blanketing everyone with the same information.

When connected to a smarter network, an organisation can participate in a community which gathers, filters and interprets information which can subsequently allow the community to develop collaborative strategies in response to 21st century challenges.

Collaborative approaches:

A 21st Century approach to public diplomacy recognises the complex architecture of the multi-hub, multi-directional networks that exist between communities around the world. As a result of this complexity, public diplomacy will increasingly adopt an approach based on genuine cooperation and collaboration with these interconnected communities, rather than subject them to competitive assertions of identity and soft power.

Uncertainty about the future creates the need to engage with numerous groups and numerous key nodes across a wider range of communities. In this context I have argued that public diplomacy operates in networks with multiple hubs and in which influence flows in multiple directions. In an operational environment dominated by these networks, collaborative strategies, and even approaches inspired by the open source movement, have great potential.

Successful collaborative public diplomacy will engage individuals on their terms in their networks. The extent to which that strategy delivers any influence or impact will depend on both the nature of the individuals, the nature of their relationships, and the nature of the networks of which they are part.

With the focus on collaborative approaches there is potential to use technologies such as Twitter and SMS to open dialogues, and participate in smart networks of influence.

Network tools and deep zoom images:

The ability to connect to smarter networks relies, in part, on the ability to identify;

  • the network hubs,
  • the clusters of specific users,
  • the directions which information flows between them.

Making images which represent the architecture of human networks can empower public diplomats. With this information, diplomats will be able to enact collaborative strategies which engage a broad range of communities. One area in which this is most easily understood is social media where unobtrusive research methods allow connections, whether relationships or the flow of information, to be observed.

Example – Engaging in discussion of an issue:

The image below visually represents Twitter activity during the ‘Arab Spring’ focusing on content containing at least one of the #tags associated with the protest movements. It was created to analyse the combinations of sources that Twitter users were sharing and identify the relative position of prominent sources of information.

Information Flow - Nodes and Clusters

Highlighted on the image are individuals and organizations on Twitter who were leading producers of content that was subsequently shared during the wave of protests in the Middle East. The process allows the relative importance of particular “information brokers” to be identified, based on the degree to which other individuals shared (re-tweeted) content from those sources.

Repeating the process looking specifically at Libya we found lots of few-to-few interactions between relatively small communities creating a multi-hub network.

Libya - mult-hub network

Just as in the analysis of the wider Arab Spring, we found lots of few-to-few interactions between relatively small communities creating a multi-hub network. This example demonstrates how a public diplomat could use images such as these to identify the individuals producing information which is subsequently passed on as these may act as reach multipliers for content produced by a public diplomat. Moreover in addition to identifying individuals, these images allow the public diplomat to identify the different groups engaged in conversations, for example those re-tweeting @sultanalqassemi were often in a different community to those sharing content from @ajelive or @dima_khatib.

Example – Understanding comment on a President

This image shows the different clusters of information sharing that took place on Twitter about President Obama when he was arriving in Brazil during March 2011. As in the previous example, it is possible to identify different communities of individuals sharing information. From the image different clusters of information sharing can be identified. An extended discussion of the use of digital analysis from #ObamainBrazil appears in the InterMedia white paper.

The information on how people connect is relatively widely available. In fact, echoing discussion of the ‘Laptop Ambassador’ many public diplomacy initiatives could be analysed on a modern laptop running open source software. In fact, the commercial value of the hardware used to produce the recent mapping of the Facebook social graph “is of the order of a few thousand dollars” and it is unlikely a public diplomacy activity would regularly need analysis of a similar scale to mapping 69 billion relationships on FaceBook.


Influence in Public diplomacy is not necessarily about being connected to the most people, by reaching and connecting the right people.

With a collaborative approach, there is an opportunity for public diplomacy activities to gain influence or social capital by acting as boundary spanners or bridges between networks of individuals who may benefit from connection. In doing so, the impact of the connection will continue even if shock events cause priorities to be altered. Once connected, groups of committed individuals will continue to work to face the challenges of the 21st century

Ali Fisher

Associate Director of Digital Media Research – InterMedia

Ali Fisher joined InterMedia in December 2011 from Mappa Mundi Consulting, where, for the past four years he has gained notoriety for his work in identifying how information flows through both online and offline communities, and the influence of relationships on human behavior. Ali Fisher is based in InterMedia’s U.K. office and leads the ongoing development of the company’s global digital research practice, providing clients with comprehensive and targeted digital media insight that drives decision-making. Prior to 2008, Ali directed the Counterpoint think tank at the British Council and was a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter, U.K. He completed a master’s in U.S. Intelligence Services and his Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham. In addition to his commercial work, Ali regularly produces work for academic publication. Ali Fisher is a widely published author on topics related to public diplomacy, digital information flows, and engagement and influence patterns. His book ”Collaborative Public Diplomacy” will be published in 2012.