9 Arts of International Communication
We get a lot of questions from diplomats asking about public relations strategies and how to better communicate with journalists and the public. Diplomats are getting better at being on millennial social media platforms. However, getting internal communications right is just as important.
At one point in your career, diplomats will be asked to write cables and note verbale to help aid effective decision-making in their home countries. Well written cables are one way for low-level officials in embassies to make a name for themselves that truly shows diplomacy in action. Internal diplomatic cohorts and military staff will only ever see cables (unless Wikileaks decides to get their hands on another 250,000 diplomatic cables to leak!) Spinning narratives is an important skill for diplomats, so why bother writing something that will never be read only because you were told to write it.
We all want our written communications to get the attention it deserves which can make a difference to someone’s career. Here are some top tips on improving internal communications for the diplomatic community.
1. Start with a Strong Lead
Like novelists or journalists, you are writing for a particular market. In the world of publishing, an author has one sentence to grab the attention of an agent. The same principle applies as to whether your note will be read or ignored, missing an opportunity to impress your boss and peers with your keen insight and storytelling capabilities. Make the first sentence so enticing that it is difficult to ignore with a good catchy title that illustrates the content of your note.
Kiss, baby! It means – keep it short and simple, no matter how long the committee meeting was or how much has happened over the past 24 hours. A number of UN General Assembly resolutions have called for improvements in the quality of drafting at the United Nations written by and for diplomats. The United Nations Editorial Manual (1971) specified that: “reports should present the required information as briefly as possible…” In case you aren’t provided with editorial guidelines, make it your mission to stick to a word count of 450 words or less to avoid eye-rolling and sighs.
3. Flow and Signpost
Nothing screams BORING than long prose that has no full stop. A good note will convey the most important information succinctly in a way that catches attention. If your note has a lot of detail, break them up into bullet points and keep them categorised, so that similar actions are under one heading for clear sign posting. This will help guide your reader understand your point and tell a better story.
4. Drive for Purpose
A purpose-driven note is more likely to engage your reader, especially if the information you share will help them make their jobs matter. Aside from storytelling, diplomats must be able to communicate how other countries fit into their political and cultural narrative, which also highlights mutual interests and shared histories. A well-functioning internal communication will motivate your reader to work toward a common goal by letting them in on the “why” before the “how”.
5. Remain in Control of the Origin
It is the job of a diplomat to convey important messages to its home country, so it becomes less than desirable when important news comes from an external source first. In the age of smartphone technology, this may be difficult. It is therefore critical for you to learn to match external speed and make internal points of view readily available, as quickly as possible. This approach shouldn’t just apply during crises but should be interwoven in day-to-day operations, providing you with a good opportunity to show off your keen understanding of people and their motivations.
6. Empower Middle Management
Whether you are a junior desk officer or a senior military chief, the reality is that plenty of internal communications gets missed by mid-level officials. Empowering middle management with the required information will allow them to be the best possible leaders and lighten the burden when managing reports and agendas. Make your note valuable by forwarding on to those who may otherwise ignore it and put your reason for writing as close to the top of your communication.
7. It’s All About the Action
Other UN resolutions* demanded that “reports should be action-orientated and contain precise information confined to a description of the work done by the organ concerned, to the conclusions it had reached, to its decisions and to the recommendations made to the organ to which it is reporting.” The same principle applies to communications led by diplomats. Stories are useful in dealing with hypothetical situations but the point may be missed if the ending is weak. Provide actions in your note as a recommendation to be considered rather than assuming your readers will know what to do. If an urgent action is required, make that obvious for maximum impact.
8. Timing is Everything
Careful and timely communication is key to mastering an internal or external crisis. The way incidents are viewed by your readers is a major factor in whether or not the event will develop into a full-scaled crisis. Use internal communications to help steer your reader’s perceptions about a situation that supports short and long-term crisis management. At the end of the day, the work of a diplomat is to report, analyse and provide information, so stay focused on preserving your country’s reputation well before things escalate.
If all else fails, remember the acronym SMART. This stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Ask yourself who you are writing for, what you are sending, where it is going, when it will be delivered, why it is being sent out, and which issue you are focusing on. Next, consider your goals and the goals of those who will read your note. If the note is for informational purposes only, make this clear at the very top. Decisional notes will require very clear instructions. Keep in mind how you found the information you are sending and whether your note is relevant and timely. You may need to schedule the note so that it aligns with a particular agenda or event.
*(Editorial director ST/CS/SER.A/13/Rev.4 of 11 March, 1980).