An English Man In Social Media

Talking digital diplomacy with Istanbul British Consul General Leigh Turner

by Deniz Ergürel

“If only one country would have written the book of diplomacy, it would be the United Kingdom”. The empire on which the sun never set during the 20th century, owns a deep-rooted culture of diplomacy. In the historical building of the British Consulate of Istanbul, I had the chance to talk to Consul General Leigh Turner about the digital diplomacy, the use of social media as a diplomat, the GREAT campaign and football…

Having spent his childhood in Nigeria, Leigh Turner is a graduate of Cambridge University. Joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the beginning of 80’s he had postings in Austria, Russia, Germany and Ukraine before coming to Turkey. Passionate about discovering new cultures, Leigh did freelance journalism between 2002 — 2006 for several newspapers including the Financial Times. He is also a spare time novelist with some published books on Kindle.

One other thing that makes Leigh stand as an extraordinary diplomat is his excellency on actively using the social media. He is a prominent blogger (both professional & personal) and uses the Twitter handle @LeighTurnerFCO.

Here is the transcript of our interview

What has social media added to your life, both individually and professionally?

The United Kingdom has a foreign policy like any country. But you can’t have a good policy without communicating that policy to the public. In the past. you could have the king, sultan or the head of the government who would announce policies with no specific consultation and the policy would be implemented. But in a more advanced society you would need to have means of bringing other people with you. Today we need to be explaining that policy both to people in Britain and to people in overseas.

To explain those policies we have very traditional tools like face to face meetings, lunches, conferences, television interviews, speeches and all kinds of different traditional means of diplomatic communication.

But with the arrival of the digital media, we now have new ways of communicating with other people. I find social media a very good way of distributing and gathering information. Twitter is available like an address book, you can contact people or they can contact you. Sometimes you’ll make connections that you might not make other wise. It’s not like sending a random email or an anonymous letter because you can see little bit about who the person is. It’s a very good way to make direct contact with the people.

Did you have any professional training for using social media?

In the beginning I didn’t have any training. Over the time, the foreign office has developed training courses to learn about Twitter and how to use it in different kinds of mechanisms. The British government encourages all diplomats to use social media. They want us to be reaching out to the widest possible audience.

Does the UK government has a social media policy?

Some governments encourage their diplomats to use social media but they also publish thick manuals. In the case of Britain we have a policy of encouraging people to use social media, to provide some tools but there aren’t many rules. It’s up to you. It’s your responsibility to be sensible. A tweet or a blog is not so authoritative as a official press statement but if you’re tweeting or blogging, you have to be inline with the government policy. It’s a delicate balance. I always show a blog to somebody else in a mission to get a different view.

What is the difference between the digital and traditional diplomacy?

I think both are the same. Clearly there are some areas of diplomacy where digital is more important. But as I said at the beginning, the digital diplomacy is only a part of our tools of communication and communication is at the central part of diplomacy. It’s vital that you can tell your story and explain what your policy is to people in order to influence events.

Do you have a special team that deals with the social media affairs?

Our two media people here in Istanbul, Özge Türkmenoğlu and Aslı Tekinay are dealing with communications generally. They deal with press releases, newspaper articles, journalist visits to England etc. We also have a Facebook, Twitter, Flickr channels and sometimes use YouTube.

What do you think about the internet and social media bans in Turkey?

When Twitter and YouTube bans were introduced we published a series of tweets, setting out the reasons why we thought this was damaging Turkey’s international reputation and the freedom of speech. Each country has to decide where to draw the line between saying anything you want about anybody and not being able to. The risk is that if you draw the line in a place which is inappropriate you will begin to stifle the debate which is important for the development of democracy.

It’s difficult for all politicians to be criticized but at the same time if people feel that they are not able to express themselves freely, the risk is that the democracy is weakened. and people will look for other ways to express themselves, which is not possible.

Can a EU country ban YouTube?

I don’t think there are any rules about which country can do what. But clearly, EU is based on the freedom of speech and expression. I would be very surprised if a country were to ban YouTube or Twitter in general. I think there have been some cases during social disturbances, where some social networks were closed down for a few hours. Nobody should say “holier than thou” -this country is bad and this country is good-but as a principle you need to have the widest possible freedom of expression to support democracy. And the EU will see that as an important measure of a country to join the union.

How do the investors react to such restrictions in a foreign country?

If people feel that the government may behave in unpredictable ways that increases the risk of the country. And the price for investing would be higher. In a country where there is good rule of law and transparent judiciary system and everything is predictable, then it would be easier for that country to attract investors.

As a diplomat what is your personal policy on social media?

The most important thing is to be clear on what you are trying to say. Communications are not a goal, they are a part of your work. The main thing is to be aware of what you are trying to achieve. If you start tweeting out things which are not relevant to what you are doing, I think you are at risk of not having a clear message. You also have to be careful about two things:

First, if you want to get lots of followers quickly you can say something very controversial but that necessarily won’t help you to communicate. The other thing is that you must be conscious of your audience. You should never assume that people you are communicating with on Twitter are everyone.

British Government has a campaign called GREAT, could you tell a bit more about that?

It’s a very exciting campaign launched by the whole British government and run from our Prime Minister’s office. The goal is to build up relationships between Britain and certain very important countries, including Turkey. It is designed to explain areas of Britain where other people might not know. We’re focused on specific areas like Creativity, Health Care, Fashion, Sports, Technology, Business, Tourism, Manufacturing. Last year we brought a beautiful new London red bus and drove it all along the Turkey, and the reaction was vey positive. It’s to overcome all kinds of prejudicies, to make sure people know positive things about Turkey.

You are a big Manchester United fan, what do you think about the crisis that the team is going through this year?

I always know that even when Manchester United are successful they never make it look easy. Even when winning the champions leauge it’s always at the last minue and fans bite their nails. They had a difficult year, but it’s been particularly disappointing for me because I’d like to see them come. to Turkey and play a champions league match here in Istanbul.

Do you like watching Turkish football league?

I love watching Turkish teams. I decided to support Kasımpaşa, because their stadium is right next to the consulate. I have seen them playing several times this year. They’ve got some very good players. I’ve also been to see Galatasaray against Manchester United and Fenerbahçe against Arsenal.

In my view the Turkish fans are better than the Turkish teams. I think the Turkish fans are fantastic. The atmosphere in stadiums is really great — particularly Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. I haven’t been to Beşiktaş yet but I know that theirs is also great too. However, the administration of football seems to me not so good.

What about the news on corruption in Turkish football?

The questions about corruption are not addressed strong enough. I am not talking about a particular team. If you talk to any football fan in Turkey and say “is the game clean?” most of them will say “not really”. The bad administration of the clubs, weakens the Turkish football.