The Turkish presidency is maintaining the standard set by Australia for public diplomacy, leveraging dialogue opportunities and sourcing meaningful input from outreach groups, write Caitlin Byrne and Scott Blakemore, Bond University
People matter to the G20. As the leaders’ self-declared “premier forum for international economic cooperation”, the G20 has global interests and ambitions. Yet, its agenda is deeply and directly connected to the everyday lives of ordinary people around the world. From economic growth to jobs, climate change to the spread of disease, the public reach of the G20 agenda is real and tangible.
To fulfill its own mandate, the G20 must understand and inform ordinary people around the world. It must draw their voices, interests and concerns into the dialogue of leaders and countries, and it must represent them. Simply put, for the G20, engaging people is not a nicety, but rather a matter of effectiveness, legitimacy and credibility. It is a symbiotic relationship. Without the fundamental recognition and support of the people it represents and seeks to serve, the G20 is at risk of losing its greatest asset: the attention and will of the global leaders it currently brings together.
This is where public diplomacy – or diplomatic engagement with people – takes its cue. In today’s globalised and hyperconnected world, public diplomacy has become essential to the task of conducting foreign policy. No longer solely the domain of states, institutions and other global actors now look to public diplomacy as they seek to capture and leverage the attention, support and input of diverse public audiences.
Public diplomacy itself is an evolving field. The tempo of its evolution is set by the emergence and spread of new technologies and the rising expectations of global publics. Today’s public diplomacy has shifted away from the one-way information transit models of the Cold War towards a model that enables “genuine cooperation and collaboration between interconnected communities”, as Rhonda Zaharna, Ali Fisher and Amelia Arsenault wrote in Relational, Networked and Collaborative Approaches to Public Diplomacy: The Connective Mindshift. With an emphasis on relationship building through dialogue, this ‘new’ public diplomacy holds relevance for global actors seeking to generate legitimacy and credibility in the crowded and competitive global landscape.
As an informal, nomadic institution that brings together a diverse array of high-profile actors to address global interests and issues, the G20 has struggled to engage publics in the past. Instead of support, it has tended to agitate the ire of a vocal cohort of global protesters. Seen as an elite group servicing the interests of a precious and entitled few, the G20’s early summits were mired by violent and active dissent. Blockades and barricades separating G20 officialdom from the publics on the ground reinforced the sense of disconnect and public distrust and anger. For other publics, the G20 generated at best a sense of ambivalence, with many preferring to ignore its existence altogether.
Visible and meaningful input
Yet, much has changed in recent years. The past few G20 summits have emphasised outreach and engagement with people as a priority. Each has done this differently, and with varying outcomes. Australia, as the 2014 G20 chair, set a new standard for public engagement. Three aspects of the Australian approach are particularly deserving of attention: engaging key dialogue groups early in agenda-setting processes; leveraging the dialogue opportunities within the host city; and utilising social media in order to amplify global visibility, interest and input.
First, the formalised schedule of conferences and interactions involving key representative groups, such as the Civil Society 20 (C20), the Think 20 (T20 – think tanks and academics), the Labour 20 (L20 – unions) and the Youth 20 (Y20) took place throughout the year and right up to the Brisbane Summit. These groups met separately and together, deliberated with political leaders and G20 officials and shared their views with the media. Their presence and input into public debate surrounding the G20 process and agenda were visible and meaningful.
Not only did the formal engagement process generate dialogue, but it also yielded outcomes. Components of the communiqué agreed to by the G20 leaders in Brisbane reflected key concerns and interests, particularly around equity and fairness: from inclusive economic growth through to improving women’s participation in the workforce, and from climate change to youth unemployment. The process was not without its challenges. For example, diversity of public participants made for complex deliberations. Not all issues or concerns were heard or considered. However, with outcomes viewed as largely positive, the overall process offered an important precedent and framework for ongoing and robust G20 dialogue with and between public audiences.
Second, hosting a G20 summit is a major opportunity for any city, but it also brings significant concerns, primarily because of the sheer scale of the event. The Brisbane Summit, which attracted some 4,000 delegates and 3,000 domestic and international media, was viewed by many with dread. Residents and business owners worried about its impact on traffic and access. Meanwhile, administrators, officials and police prepared for the unpredictable.
Yet, for Brisbane, hosting the event proved to be a positive experience for the local residents. Promoted early by the city, the G20 was seen to be an opportunity to gain global visibility, build business and develop new conversations and thought leadership within the city. The Global Cafe, a key initiative developed by Brisbane Marketing (the city’s promotional agency), delivered on all three. Held in the heart of the city, the Global Cafe engaged a live audience of 2,000, plus thousands more via digital streaming across a two-day programme of themed conversations. Discussions, led by international and local thought leaders, focused on improving human life, creating future cities, powering the economy, unlocking the opportunities of the digital age and exploring the emerging frontiers of tourism. The Global Cafe invigorated local engagement within the city, and it brought the potential of the G20 agenda to life.
Leveraging tools to maximise outcomes
Third, in today’s hyperconnected world, social media provides a core element of G20 public diplomacy. The Brisbane Summit proved itself to be a major event on Twitter. The G20 Twittersphere was abuzz with expressions of concern over the appearance of Russian warships off the Queensland coast, and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Brisbane nightclub selfies. There were also tweets of support for G20 action on climate change. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s koala moment was the most retweeted of all. In the month leading up to the Brisbane Summit, some 1.02 million G20-related tweets were recorded. But it was US President Barack Obama’s public appearance at the University of Queensland that generated the most significant activity, peaking at about 20,000 tweets during his one-hour speech.
The lessons learnt for the forthcoming G20 Antalya Summit are straightforward. Public audiences are ready, and expect to be engaged in G20 dialogue. But they are diverse, with interests ranging from notions of fairness and equity, to concerns about how the G20 will affect traffic. G20 public diplomacy is no longer a simple matter of one-way communication, but a complex process of relationship building with multiple and challenging audiences. It offers an important platform for public deliberation, social cohesion and local thought leadership. In order to maximise outcomes, G20 hosts must leverage a range of tools and, more importantly, engagement should start early. As the 2015 chair, Turkey has articulated its commitment to inclusiveness on the G20 agenda. It is a commitment that bodes well for the wider G20 citizenry, and also for the people of Turkey and the community of Antalya.