While digital campaigns run by government bodies can help to communicate policy positions, drive trade, and encourage tourism, campaigns on global issues that lead to real-world change are exceptionally rare.

As the respected former Ambassador of France to Israel, Gerard Araud, noted: “Diplomacy is working with everybody – including the devil – to reach mediocre and dubious compromises which eventually improve a given situation.”

Up to now, the standard playbook calls for deploying well-known celebrity advocates to boost awareness and advocate for coordinated international action on a given challenge. However, the pace of technological change, exponentially expanding online noise, and the expensive campaigning tactics required to influence sceptical and passive audiences, has meant that even well-funded groups and organisations can struggle to execute compelling digital campaigns by themselves.

As we have set out in our previous editions, diplomacy in the digital age is no longer limited to foreign affairs ministries. The rise of digital networks and the shift in power from state to non-state actors has destroyed the old hierarchies when it comes to campaigning. Just look at Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion’s impact on the climate debate.

Just as tourism boards and trade offices now take on critical roles in nation branding and projecting of soft power, new actors in the form of non-governmental organisations, grassroots movements, and commercial brands are taking the lead in campaigning for change on major foreign and domestic policy issues.

Women’s World Cup 2019

Prior to this summer’s 2019 World Cup in France, women’s football was caught up in a constellation of disputes over gender parity in pay, equal inclusion, and the importance of professional women’s sport.

The objective of football federations and governing bodies involved in the Women’s World Cup was to increase uptake of the sport amongst women and girls. For the brands and sponsors involved, the objective matched their own commercial goals. Andrew Campion, Nike’s Chief Financial Officer explained: “The women’s footwear and apparel market is 1.5 times the size of the men’s footwear and apparel market globally. But it accounts for less than [a] quarter of our revenue.”

The confluence of priorities amongst these actors provides a new case study on how networks of like-minded individuals, sports organisations, and commercial brands are able to generate the critical mass required not just to mobilise opinion, but to deliver real change. And social media channels have become the key platforms for change.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram play a critical role in connecting communities and building a sense of belonging. @football4women, for example, shares user-generated content of amateur female footballers, and has amassed over 80,000 followers on Instagram.

Social media platforms also provide individuals, sports organisations, and commercial brands the opportunity to interact with fans and consumers on a regular basis, building trust and brand loyalty. Increasingly, organisations and their fans are joining conversations on broader topics, including gender diversity, and platforms such Facebook and Instagram have given them a powerful voice in the global debate.

In advance of the tournament, UEFA’s #TimeforAction and #WePlayStrong campaigns set out their strategy to double the number of players in the sport, improve player standards, and increase female representation throughout their organisation. #WePlayStrong’s main campaign video, shared on the campaign’s Facebook page, has been viewed over eight million times.

The inclusion of a strategic pillar devoted to increasing commercial value outlined how sponsors such as Nike would support the campaign’s strategic goals. Through aligning commercial opportunities with the values of the campaign, a partnership was created that allowed both stakeholders to benefit from each other’s involvement, while advancing the cause. Nike’s subsequent marketing campaign during the World Cup reflected the values in the UEFA campaign, and as an official #WePlayStrong supporter it was able to amplify the core messages through its creative (marketing) content.

Another example centred on the announcement of the English team’s World Cup squad. Using a social media countdown, each member of the squad was announced by major British public figures, including ex- England football star David Beckham, high-profile women’s rights activist Emma Watson, and pop icon Ellie Goulding.

The convening power of the English Football Association and its public clout provided the ideal platform for the projection of a powerful narrative around inclusion and the wider value of women’s football by British society. The inclusion of establishment figures such as HRH the Duke of Cambridge reinforced buy-in and support from the highest levels of the British state.

In all cases, the campaigns delivered against the three factors digital diplomacy expert Tom Fletcher sets out as being vital for effective digital campaigns: authenticity, purpose, and engagement. This was achieved by coordination across a range of actors who were aligned by a common set of values and leveraged their combined strengths to advocate for specific, tangible outcomes.

Digital platforms are driving global interest in women’s sports, which is generating real financial rewards for women athletes, as well as powering social change. Research by video management platform organisation Imagen found that Instagram and Facebook have the highest engagement in women’s sports. The FIFA Women’s World Cup Facebook page has over 1.1 million likes, while the Instagram page has over 160,000 followers. Official FIFA Women’s World Cup social accounts had registered 433 million views gaining almost two million followers throughout the tournament. New revenue streams are being opened up via live streaming platforms such as Facebook Watch, which will contribute significantly to the growth of women sports. And social media clout played a critical role in fuelling this rise.

The creative nous and financial clout provided by partnering commercial organisations helped deliver public engagement through compelling content projected by well-funded, effective campaign platforms. The national teams themselves became the advocates for change, giving the campaigns a political voice. Putting the players at the fore ensured that the message was more authentic and powerful than it ever could have been coming from government or diplomatic actors. USA Team Captain Alex Morgan has 8 million followers on Instagram and 3.5 million followers on Facebook. Her Instagram post on the World Cup Final received an engagement level of 736,000. The involvement of football associations and other quasi-governmental groups provided a direct route into government policy making processes, thus clearing a path to deliver the change being demanded.

This fracturing, or democratisation, of influence should be viewed as a step forward for the diplomatic community despite the surrender of control and ownership over certain issues it necessitates. As brands and companies become more attuned to the values of their customers and the commercial opportunities provided by heightened awareness, they will offer expertise and campaigning resources in order to align marketing and communications activities with the values of their clients, customers, and stakeholders.

A diplomats’ strength rests in their ability to bring together civil society, decision makers, and commercial organisations around a set of values or campaign. By bringing these networks together and providing them with political purpose and access, diplomats can help support and deliver campaigns on their foreign policy priorities. The trick, as noted by Fletcher and others, is then getting out of the way and letting others take the lead. The Women’s World Cup social media footprint is a strong testament to doing just that.