The G20 and 21st-Century Communication
Tristen Naylor, G7 and G20 Research Groups
August 1, 2016
Ask any given person what the G20 is and what it does and you're likely to hear a vague guess that it has something to do with world leaders talking about stuff. Ask a policy expert the same questions and you're likely to hear that it's a multidimensional, multi-track global governance forum. This is a problem.
What the G20 is, what it does and why it matters is out of reach of the very people who are affected by its decisions. Political leaders too often fail to communicate the substantive importance of the summits, while experts who participate and observe them do little better. The result we are left with is a popular understanding of the G20 as being either little more than a photo-op or as a process of technocratic complexity divorced from everyday concerns.
The G20 is ostensibly the most inclusive informal global governance forum in the world. It has political representation — although perhaps uneven — from all world regions and an extensive outreach program that affords inclusion to business, civil society, labour groups, women and youth. However broad and diverse it is in terms of representation, this does not translate into the G20 having much resonance beyond those immediately interested.
It is easy to see why: the G20 has a serious communications problem.
The G20 hosts' websites are text heavy, laden with dull, cold paragraphs. Any images there are overwhelmingly of people (mostly men) in dark suits with captions noting that a meeting was held and things were discussed. Thrilling. The G20 Twitter accounts likewise astound with staggering banality. While the sites serve as good resources for those already engaged in the G20 process, they could not possibly be more off-putting to everyone else. Meaningful inclusion in global governance means being broadly accessible to everyone, not just the professionals and elites who directly participate.
In the era of social media we have come to expect greater access to our political leaders and political processes online, and it has never been easier for those expectations to be met. Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau have capitalized on this new communications landscape with great success, but such efforts have not been matched at the international level.
If the G20 wants to maintain its position as the top table of global governance, it needs not just to be effective in its work, but also to be seen as relevant and legitimate in the eyes of public. The long communiqués and dense action plans are necessary policy documents, but such texts cannot be how the G20 tells its story to the world. It would be like a restaurant advertising by broadcasting its food safety records and supplier invoices. While detailed, it does not whet our appetites like a nicely filtered Instagram photo.
If the G20 is to be the foundation of 21st-century governance, it needs to be a player in 21st-century communication. There are three quick, inexpensive, easy ways for the G20 to recast itself in the eyes of the world.
The "family photo" of leaders standing awkwardly beside one another is a mainstay of summits. It is the image of the summit that is most familiar, typically the one used by the media. The trouble is that it is too contrived and too familiar. The only time it gets discussed is if something is peculiar about it, as in 2009 when Stephen Harper missed the photo owing to the call of nature.
The photo is an important historical record and should not be discarded. But why not accompany it with a leaders' selfie? As Justin Trudeau and Ellen Degeneres know, selfies resonate online; forced smiles and wooden postures do not.
This summit is an opportunity for the host to show itself off — culinary masterpieces and cultural performances abound. But only those assembled at the summit get to enjoy such efforts in nation branding. Elements of the summit could easily be shared with the world, not just those lucky enough to be there. The Periscope app allows live video to be streamed online via platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Why not live-stream parts of the summit to give the global public a taste of what it is like to be there? The meetings should understandably remain closed-door affairs, but surely the ceremonial and performative dimensions could be broadcast to a much wider audience (and thus dramatically increasing the impact of such nation-branding efforts).
The G20's social media feeds do little else but announce meetings, share awkward group photos, and continually announce and re-announce the priorities of the host government — about the least social use of social media imaginable. We typically only see the finished products of the summit and its preparatory processes: communiqués, statements, policy documents, meeting summaries and other materials ripe for archives.
Why not show us what goes into the summit, not just what comes out? Do what Degas did for the Paris ballet and show us behind the scenes of what it takes to bring a summit together. A blog, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter could all be used to pull back the curtain on the summit to reveal just how monumental an effort is required to host such an event. The host should tell stories of just how mind-bogglingly complex it is to coordinate the comings and goings of the world's leaders and assembled media, house and feed the thousands of people who descend on the summit site for two jam-packed days, and maintain a secure environment for the G20 to do its work (all without compromising security, of course).
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Tristen Naylor, PhD, is the Lecturer in Diplomacy at the University of Oxford. His work examines status and group membership in international society. Previously, Dr Naylor was a visiting researcher at Sciences Po, Paris and the Lecturer in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford. He formerly served as a foreign policy analyst and advisor for the Government of Canada.
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