Diplomacy and the media

Picture of Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Diplomacy and the media can have a rich, mutually beneficial relationship – but don’t always. Diplomats should build media skills.

Diplomacy and the media: Sources and Sounding Boards

I gave my first TV interview in August 1994. I and a colleague flew into Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border in Eastern Siberia, from Nigata in Japan, to minimise journey time on the eye-wateringly unsafe Russian airlines. After visiting local businesses and officials in Khabarovsk, being poisoned by samogon home-made vodka on a ferry trip on the mighty Amur river and declining an offer to go bear-hunting in the north for $1,600 a week, we climbed aboard the Trans-Siberian railway for the 14-hour trip to Vladivostok.

In early 1990s Russia, the railway system was one of few things that worked reliably. Our train rolled into the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, only recently opened to foreigners, dead on time. Bleary-eyed and unshaven, I descended from the carriage to find myself surrounded by journalists and TV cameras, seeking Russian-language interviews. I did my inadequate best. When I later saw the interview broadcast, they had somehow excised my grammatical errors.

Media lessons for junior diplomats

The experience taught me three things. First, as a junior diplomat, you should seize every opportunity for a live interview. It’s a sandbox: the more junior you are, and the further from HQ, the less chance any screw-ups will have repercussions. Second, interviews are a two-way street. Our dawn efforts in Vladivostok sparked interest in the city. A meeting with the controversial Governor of the Far East Maritime Region, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, materialised. Finally, most journalists, with a few notorious exceptions, want an interview to run well. If your interviewee comes across as a total idiot, why are you interviewing them?

At that time, visits to zones of Russia previously off-limits to diplomats often generated disproportionate coverage. Following my first visit to Vladivostok in June 1993 at the head of a small team, when local journalists probed us on what intelligence (sic) we were collecting, the Russian Army newspaper “Red Star” published a report headlined “Vladivostok becomes a Mecca for foreign delegations”. “Tatarstan News” published in their 9-16 May 1994 edition a lengthy interview with me headed: “Leigh Turner: the economy of Tatarstan is stable.” After my visit to Sakhalin Island in March 1995, the English-language “Sakhalin News” ran a front-page spread above a flattering picture, headlined: “Leigh Turner: Development of Russian economy surpasses statistics”. This was certainly true, in one way or another.

The key lesson here is: as a junior diplomat – or anyone else who has to deal with the media – you should experiment with local media to build your skills.

A rich, symbiotic relationship

Diplomats and the media can have a rich, symbiotic relationship. Both hunger for information and its interpretation. Both, however much evidence may appear to stack up to the contrary, are human beings. 

That interdependence between diplomacy and the media was perhaps closest in Moscow. In the 1990s, diplomats and journalists struggled to make sense of chaos as communism and authoritarianism collapsed and regrouped. The ambassador held lunches with the UK press corps in the ex-sugar baron’s mansion that was the residence, and also the embassy, opposite the Kremlin. At one such event many speakers bemoaned the fact that the Communists, ejected from power in 1991, threatened to do well in upcoming elections. It took John Kampfner, then bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph, to point out that this system was called democracy.

Diplomacy and the media - the Princess of Wales was, arguably, both a user and a victim of the media.
The Princess of Wales in Vienna. I am top left, trying to get out of shot

In all my experience of diplomacy and the media, the worst press behaviour I witnessed, prophetically, came during the 1986 visit to Vienna of the Prince and Princess of Wales. I was responsible for handling the media, and rode my bike, black-tied, to the evening banquet at the City Hall. My efforts were in vain. A fist-fight broke out among photographers between those with good camera positions to capture “Lady Di” and those less fortunate. 

Nor shall I ever forget the scolding I received from magisterial, legendary journalist Hella Pick for failing to admit her to the ambassador’s residence in Vienna to use his private phone. 

Diplomacy and the Media: My First Interview

I gave my first ever interview on 12 November 1984, weeks after arriving in Vienna on my first overseas posting. I had been out of the embassy buying my lunchtime belegtes Brot (open sandwich) when a bomb exploded in the entrance to the consulate, in those days shielded only by an unlocked door designed to give access to members of the public. Luckily, no-one was injured. 

The local English language “Blue Danube Radio” interviewed me that afternoon. Who, they asked, might be behind the attack? I declined to speculate. What about off the record? the interviewer pressed me. Who could it have been? I said the same thing. When transmitted, the repeated question was edited out of the interview. Years later, as ambassador in Vienna, I agreed to talk to a  respected journalist who interviewed me at length about a range of substantive policy issues before slipping in a question about intelligence, on which I said I could not comment. He later used – only – my “no comment” as if I had been responding to a question in a documentary he had made on an entirely separate subject.

The key lesson here is: choose your words carefully to reduce the risk that later editing may make one side or the other look bad – or, possibly, good.

Diplomacy and the media: interview techniques

Diplomats should explore the practice of journalism. Seize every opportunity to train in interview techniques. Wherever you are posted, disasters will happen. As a potential contact point or crisis leader for every type of tragedy, you will sleep better once the building blocks of a press statement or response to media enquiries are lodged in your head. Pity for the victims, praise for the first responders and a promise to help may sound mechanical, but when chaos surrounds you, structure helps. Other tips – from acknowledging the existence of the camera team as well as the interviewer, through not touching your face during an interview, to grounding your feet on the floor, can be transformative. 

Diplomacy and the media - giving a TV interview in Salzburg, 2017
Giving a TV interview in Austria, 2017

The lesson here? Take that media training.

Diplomacy and social media

Whether a diplomat should go a step further and proactively create media content is a personal decision. An understanding of the mechanics of writing a newspaper article or blog is valuable for anyone trying to catch the attention of readers with a short piece of prose. Few diplomats will write regularly for a newspaper, as I did for the FT from 2003 to 2006 in Berlin. But the experience shaped my subsequent career.

Many diplomats build a social media profile. Like learning languages, this comes more naturally to some than to others. Not everyone feels comfortable with the investment of time, the loss of privacy and the constant quest for content that comes with a commitment to Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram or all of them, plus whatever platform next seizes the limelight. The 2020s may have seen the high tide of tweeting and blogging ambassadors recede from the risk-tolerant free-for-all of the 2010s, when blogging in Kyiv and tweeting in Istanbul became a core, or even dominant, element of my diplomatic life. 

In both postings, I suggested to my successor that he or she consider the pros and cons of social media before getting in too deep.

Key lesson: for a diplomat, social media may be valuable. But it’s one communications tool among many – from a chat over coffee to a speech, a cocktail party or, if you are lucky, an evening’s carousing with a minister, a journalist or an artist.

Diplomacy and the Media: What to Do Next

For an example of how terrorists use the media, and a diplomat uses it, in turn, to defeat them, see my Berlin thriller Blood Summit. Of course, all of this is wholly imaginary…

Blood Summit by Leigh Turner


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