As President Biden told his fellow leaders at the recent G7 summit, “America is back.” While the United States seeks to deepen relationships around the world, digital diplomacy has a pivotal role to play in influencing key decision-makers at the White House, at the State Department and on Capitol Hill. Digital media offers a low-cost way to engage, persuade and influence the citizens of both allies and adversaries.
An embassy’s website is a core central component of any public diplomacy efforts. As former US and British diplomats, we know the power of agile, creative digital communications to shape the ground for policymaking. Now, at Signal Group, a public affairs consultancy, we wanted to assess the state of digital diplomacy through the lens of embassy websites here in the United States.
We conducted a detailed analysis of 38 embassy websites to evaluate how sophisticated and successful they were in representing their country. Our goal is to help ambassadors and digital diplomacy officials consider best practices and look for ways to better serve their constituents.
Our results were surprising. We found that embassies are sorely neglecting their “front door” for their country. Embassy sites we reviewed needed significant updates in design, usability content and structure. A few were even deeply concerning, given their lack of security or ability to be utilized on a mobile device.
However, a number of embassies were best in class for the whole site, or at least key features. The embassies of Sweden and the United Arab Emirates both hit full marks in design and brand while representing the country and its relationship with the US well. These sites had a modern sensibility and design, and reflected a thoughtful user experience.
Embassy websites can be a bewildering tangle of information, forms and content, so a strong homepage, site navigation and well-formatted content pages are incredibly important. We admired the Embassy of Panama’s home page for its clarity and hierarchy. New Zealand and Portugal were our picks for the best navigation, and should be considered as good examples of putting best practices into use. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia exhibited the best content page design, allowing information to stand out with good layout and spacing.
Beyond design, embassy sites must be presented in an understandable way. We looked at pages dedicated to the ambassador, consular affairs, trade, and investment and finally, tourism and culture. The ambassador’s page should enhance that person’s standing as an experienced, trusted and influential representative of his or her country.
The Embassy of Ecuador had a strong example that allowed us to understand the ambassador’s career, duties and accomplishments, as well as learn a bit more about her, and her perspective on the job. The consular affairs pages of Embassy of Tunisia were outstanding, as were the trade and investment offerings of the embassies of Mali, Norway and Ghana.
In our review of 38 embassy websites, we found significant and easily avoidable issues, such as broken links and pages, sorely out-of-date designs, broken navigation, flat and unreadable content, and poorly executed imagery. The most common problems:
- More than 20% of embassy websites were unsecured and hackable.
- More than 25% of the embassy websites we reviewed were not built for mobile devices.
- Designs and layouts that may have not been changed in the past decade made the embassy site feel out-of-date and reflects poorly on the ambassador.
- Errors, broken links, images cut in half or other obvious technical issues that undermine confidence in the site.
- Scant navigation was a critical problem; we saw several examples where navigation was limited to the top sections, even if the site had multiple sub-sections.
An embassy website is a critical pillar of public diplomacy efforts and how a country represents itself to official Washington and the American public. It has the ability to influence key decision-makers on Capitol Hill and in the Biden administration. The website and social media account are extensions of foreign policy, a country’s brand, and how it presents itself to the world. As we turn the page and embassy teams seek to engage with the Biden administration, now is the time for ambassadors and public diplomacy leaders at embassies to prioritize redesigning their embassy websites and social platforms to ensure their message is reaching key decision-makers.
Robert Bole is a managing director and chair of Signal’s digital practice. Mark Duffy is an executive vice president and chair of Signal’s international practice.