Thursday, 30 June 2016

Preliminary Thoughts on Post-Brexit Public Diplomacy

The gaze of the international community is now fixed firmly on the UK. The ramifications of the referendum on EU membership have gripped the world's media, with international broadcasters from China's CCTV to Al-Jazeera and RT providing thorough coverage of events. For the first time in decades the UK is the centre of global media discourses, with people across the world interested in British politics.

However, with uncertainty there is danger, and this is because much of the world's media have reported the alarming increase in racist abuse that accompanied the Leave campaign's victory on 24 June. If Britain does have any so-called 'soft power', then it is undermined by this image of a racist and divided society. In the days since the result was announced I have been contacted by many people from across the world who tell me they, their families and friends are now extremely worried about coming to the UK, for either study or tourism. At best, they fear they are unwelcome; and at worst, they are scared of being victims of racial abuse. Britain's international profile is taking a hammering, while the consequences for tourism and education are potentially very serious.  

What can be done to to overcome these problems in the short-term? While the government and police need to get to grips with the increase in hate-crime - after all, communication is not a solution to the real problems now facing British society - we also need a clear public diplomacy strategy with a positive narrative for global audiences. 

First, the architecture: Public diplomacy must be included in all discussions of post-Brexit strategies. This means that, in any committees established throughout the government to formulate a plan for the UK's exit from the EU, experts and practitioners of public diplomacy - including the BBC World Service and British Council - must be invited to participate as full members. They will be able to advise on how any political strategy will be seen across the world, and also help plan a clear communication policy. They will recommend which themes will resonate with particular audiences, as well as who should do the communicating and through which platforms. 

Two further structural suggestions: First, all the UK's embassies need to begin their own public diplomacy campaign, a charm offensive, with Ambassadors and Press Officers taking every opportunity to address a range of audiences in person and on the media to explain the referendum. The full mobilisation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and NGOs who work with the FCO is essential to help recover the UK's declining 'soft power'.    

Second, the Prime Minister needs to issue a strong positive statement about the referendum and the UK to the world via the BBC World Service. Only he has the perceived credibility and name recognition to do this. This statement should be crafted especially for international audiences and follow my suggestions below. This needs to be done sooner rather than later. The Prime Minister also needs to reassure the world that foreign visitors are still very welcome in the UK, and that the government and the majority of people will not tolerate racial abuse or attacks. Safety is in everyone's interest and remains a priority for both the government and the police.   

In terms of the narratives that should be communicated, public diplomacy needs to focus less on the details and focus on the bigger picture. The public diplomacy needs to be as simple as possible to capture and retain the attention of audiences, and this means paring down very complex, controversial, and divisive issues into the fundamental issues. 
Thus there is little point in recounting the technical details of the vote and the implications of the result. The economics need to be set to one side. Rather, the narrative that embassies and the government at home should privilege is the democratic value of the referendum. This, after all, is where soft power lies - in the core values and principles that guide the British political culture. Hence audiences should be told that the government has listened to the people's voice, and although many people do not like the result, the government respects the opinions it sought. What the referendum reflects is democracy in action: encouraging popular participation in debating and deciding the future of the country. The public diplomacy needs to remind audiences that the UK promotes this political culture around the world - often facing severe criticism and rebuke for doing so - but is prepared to lead by example.     

Second, audiences around the world are now familiar with the political fallout from the referendum - the Prime Minister's resignation, the impending leadership election in the Conservative Party, the disintegration of the Labour Party, renewed discussions about the Union with Scotland. The public diplomacy theme is: Democracy is sometimes messy; it can be chaotic; and this reflects the diversity of voices and opinions energised by, and tolerated in, the political culture in the UK. Not everyone is happy with the result, but the UK encourages critical debate and discussion.   

Above all, the international reaction to Brexit, the fear and worry it has generated, and the decline of British soft power requires the government to renew its commitment to public and cultural diplomacy, and the financial investment they require. It is no good claiming that Brexit allows us to begin a fresh relationship with the world outside Europe while subjecting the BBC World Service and other instruments of British public and cultural diplomacy to financial constraints, cuts, and generating a climate of suspicion that such important strategic assets are not valued.    


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