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Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2008-09 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Letter to the Chairman of the Committee from Chris Bryant MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office


  1.  I am writing to update the Committee on the FCO's work in public diplomacy and strategic communications and the structures that govern both. In response to a short section on these matters in the FCO Departmental Report (2008-09), the Committee has said that it would welcome further information.

  2.  The key historical point of reference is the review of Public Diplomacy completed by Lord Carter of Coles in 2005, which led to the establishment of a re-vamped Public Diplomacy Board. The idea behind the PD Board was to create a ministerially led body which would set the strategic direction of UK public diplomacy; monitor and evaluate its outcomes and make recommendations on resource allocation. The Carter Review also led to the creation of a number of pilot projects (the PD Pilots) designed to explore more effective and ambitious ways of cross-working, especially between the FCO and the British Council.

  3.  When the current Foreign Secretary took office in July 2007, he built upon this work, setting out the case for an integrated campaigning approach to communications, based upon using a full range of modern communications technologies and techniques to engage publics around the world and applying these across the FCO's diplomatic priorities. He told the FCO Leadership Conference in March 2008: "Our global networks, and London, need to focus not just on government relations but business, media and citizen relations. Sometimes we need to use public diplomacy to shape a debate and build consensus. At other times it may have a more disruptive role challenging conventional wisdom." The Foreign Secretary also urged the FCO to design more ambitious engagement with UK citizens ("Bringing Foreign Policy Home") and to adopt a parallel approach to the use of integrated communications techniques within the FCO.

  4.  Against this background, the FCO appointed a new Director of Strategic Communications in June 2008, with a mission to implement the approach set out by the Foreign Secretary. Ian Hargreaves, the Director, brought to this task a wide experience of journalism across print, broadcast and online media, as well as substantial experience of corporate communications and the academic debate which informs these issues. He joined the FCO on a fixed term, two-year contract.

  5.  In the 16 months since the new Director took office, the FCO has reviewed all aspects of its approach to communications and public diplomacy and made a number of far-reaching changes, some of them quite recent. The key developments, in rough date order, have been:

    — A newly co-ordinated and converged structure for FCO communications activities, (announced September 2008) bringing together the following elements: a strengthened Press Office; a strong, global digital diplomacy team to exploit the FCO's 40-language web platform; a new "strategic campaigns" unit, headed by an experienced Cabinet Office specialist in cross-government campaigns; a re-shaped corporate communications team, with responsibility for internal communications and relationships with FCO stakeholders in the UK; a smaller public diplomacy unit, with a tighter focus upon the work of the FCO's public diplomacy partnerships, including those directly funded by the FCO (BBC World Service, British Council, Wilton Park, scholarships and British Satellite News). The public diplomacy team is also responsible for servicing the governance machinery of the FCO's public diplomacy activities. These changes were planned and are being delivered on a cost neutral basis.

    — Internal reviews of public diplomacy partners. These have led, so far, to a major strategy refresh and strengthening of governance for Wilton Park and the closure (on September 30, 2009) of British Satellite News. Wilton Park, an Executive Agency, is now governed by a board, chaired for the first time by a figure external to the FCO: Iain Ferguson (former Chief Executive of Tate and Lyle) and with a new chief executive (Richard Burge) also recruited from outside the FCO. BSN was established in 1992 to provide UK news content to international broadcasters. The demand for "newsreel" material delivered in this manner has significantly diminished in recent years and BSN was not cost-effective as a provider of video material for use on the internet. This change should produce annual savings of up to £1 million per annum. The FCO is already enjoying the benefits of a more flexible, web-focused approach to video, currently supplied by the Central Office of Information. The FCO focus with our other two funded public diplomacy partners, British Council and BBC World Service, has been on achieving a clear alignment with our strategic public diplomacy goals, whilst not trespassing upon the legitimate operational (or in the BBC's case editorial) autonomy of either organisation. In the case of the British Council, there has been successful joint working on complex global issues such as climate change, counter terrorism and global economic recovery (for example at the time of the G20 London Summit). The FCO is also working closely with the Council on major projects such as the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and in the approach to the 2012 London Olympics.

    — Meanwhile the British Council has also pursued significant re-shaping of its "back office" to reduce costs and to allow for growth in its language teaching services. With regard to BBCWS, investment in the BBC Arabic television service and BBC Persian TV have been widely acknowledged as important interventions in strategically challenging information markets. This is all part of a significant programme of geographic re-focusing by BBCWS, which continues in the context of structural decline of listening to short-wave radio and significant growth potential in television and on-line audiences in some markets.

    — Replacement of the Public Diplomacy Board by a Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy Forum, chaired by the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary has agreed to adjust the governance for public diplomacy within the FCO. Ministerial oversight of public diplomacy and strategic communications will be the responsibility of a new forum, chaired by the Foreign Secretary. The Minister with Responsibility for Public Diplomacy (currently Chris Bryant, Parliamentary Under-Secretary) will focus on providing specific ministerial supervision of the relationship between the FCO and its directly funded partners: especially BBCWS and the British Council. The Foreign Secretary's new Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy Forum, which meets twice a year, is also supported at the working-level by an increasingly active and effective Public Diplomacy Partners Group, which meets at roughly six-week intervals, under FCO chairmanship, and which is currently addressing cross-cutting topics such as education, sport, science and events such as the Shanghai Expo and London 2012 Olympics/Paralympics. On a daily basis, FCO media, digital, public diplomacy, corporate and strategic campaigns now meet to deliver an integrated approach to the FCO's communications priorities.

  6.  These new arrangements are designed to capture, on the one hand, the breadth of the integrated communications work of the FCO, supervised by the new Forum, and the more specific governance of directly funded PD partners. In short, I believe that we have now succeeded in responding to Lord Carter's assessment that the FCO needed to become more strategic and resource-conscious in its pursuit of a more ambitious public diplomacy agenda. Our campaigns currently extend across a very substantial and ambitious range of the FCO's work, including: Afghanistan and Pakistan; the low carbon economy; global economic recovery; Burma; UK reputation in the Middle East; nuclear counter-proliferation; the Olympics; the Commonwealth (in the run-up to CHOGM); the Arms Trade Treaty; conflict prevention; Europe and international institutional reform; along with a substantial programme of work within the UK, some of it aimed at diaspora communities and embraced within the "Bringing Foreign Policy Home" framework led by the Foreign Secretary. A number of our campaigns involve working very closely with other Government departments; the Act on Copenhagen campaign, for example, is led by DECC.

  The fact that our cross-government, converged approach has proved of such interest to other foreign ministries is testament to its growing reputation.

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  9.  I am confident that the approach we have now adopted is the right one. It enables us to deploy our campaigns across the full range of media platforms, including the latest digital channels; it enables us to plan in a converged and strategic way both in the short and longer term; and it enables us to manage our relationship with our many public diplomacy partners, but especially those we fund directly, in a way which maximises the benefit of those relationships. We would be happy to brief the Committee in more detail on any of these matters.

22 October 2009

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