Umar Farooq Khan
HUMANS are built to size each other up in a snap judgement. Whether facts speak otherwise, we have an inherent characteristic to respond spontaneously to a stimulus. These responses create an immediate image which is rapidly-formed and long-lasting, and can lead to feelings of friendliness, trust and attractiveness. Some experts argue, that first impression is so important that intelligence analysts are specifically trained to overcome their impact. Traditionally, a foreign public’s first impression are formed by the structural architecture of embassies, the splendor of ambassadorial vehicles, degree of honesty of the diplomatic representatives and the grace of the diplomatic celebrations. They represent the supremacy, culture and influence of the sending states. In today’s digital world, embassy websites often contribute to the foreign public’s first impression.
But recently with the advent of social media, public diplomacy scholars have ignored the utility of embassy websites as the go-to means to understand how governments engage with foreign publics. As an area of research, embassy websites do not make the cut which begs the question: Should scholars be paying more attention to embassy websites? There are many good reasons to study the utility of embassy websites. First and foremost, foreign publics usually prefer to use lower level sources instead of higher level sources of official government policy communication. The reason being that lower level sources have the authoritative stamp of the government and are also more accessible and easier to utilise. Hence, to connect and persuade foreign publics, lower level sources such as embassy websites can be more useful than policy papers and speeches.
Moreover, embassy websites also act as a more effective intermediary between the governments and the public. For instance, when a high level official makes a speech, a foreign public will hardly ever look up and read a dry, black and white transcript to retrieve information. But if one was to add a suggestive imagery and a more interactive embassy website, the public would be more drawn towards the same speech. The recent speech made by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly last month is a case in point. On search, the transcript of the speech is available at the website of the Permanent Mission of India to the UN New York with evocative imagery of the State Emblem of the country and the tricolor of India’s national flag. The pages also have links to other social media feeds where the video footage of the speech is also available with thousands of comments, likes and shares reflecting the traction it got around the world.
According to experts, effective embassy websites are conscious of web culture, host influential narrative, and utilise balanced rhetoric. Web culture relates to the distinctive differences in how different cultures use the internet. Websites in different countries differ in all aspects, whether it is navigation, the font, the design even browser preferences. For example, websites in South Korea are extremely crowded with many pop-up windows and splash imagery. On the other hand, an official government website in Pakistan is very standardised which misses out on an opportunity to engage, influence and persuade the audience.
An influential narrative is very important when it comes to building a positive first impression. Storytelling is an inherent characteristic of human communication which goes beyond cultural boundaries. An embassy website with text and image-based narrative acts as the medium to focus on the values, beliefs and objectives of a country, and the importance it renders to the bilateral relationship.
Equally important if not more is a balanced rhetoric which is based on emotion, morality and logic. Appeal to emotion could include shared historical experiences or cultural heritage; appeals to morality could be elements like human rights or governance and appeals to logic could include elements such as rational arguments in support of specific policy initiatives such as counter-terrorism. An imbalance between the three could leave a bad first impression.
While most of the world is caught up in the sensationalism of social media diplomacy, embassy websites are being neglected. But it is important to remember that for many foreign publics, embassy websites are still the first choice of visit when looking for information on issues like visa regulations, tourism-related information or official press releases of diplomatic events – and first impression count.
– The writer is a Researcher at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.
Umar Farooq Khan