Ahead of an online panel discussion on 16 February to share experiences and new knowledge gained from working digitally over the past three years, this article explores themes from recent British Council research on digital cultural relations and trust.

In early 2020 global lockdowns made digital international collaboration and partnerships the ‘new normal’ for cultural relations organisations, accelerating a digital shift that was already underway.

We know that ‘[c]ultural relations is centred on mutually beneficially relationships that build trust’

But what does this accelerated digital shift mean for building trust? 

We recently commissioned ICR Research to carry out research to better understand how the increased shift to digital is impacting the nature, outcomes and impact of international cultural relations. The project involved interviews with cultural practitioners from both the British Council and other cultural relations organisations globally. The research focused on themes of trust, participation and engagement, and inclusion and exclusion.

The project resulted in a literature review and short report reflecting on current practice and key themes for future development. These are by no means the final word on the topic but rather a springboard for further discussion and research. 

What is digital cultural relations (DCR)? 

The researchers identified and adopted these as central to using digital technologies for cultural relations, and in turn trust building:

  • greater connectivity
  • better mutual understanding
  • more and deeper relationships
  • mutually beneficial transactions
  • enhanced sustainable dialogue.

Genuine and effective DCR requires participation, active involvement and direct exchange between participants and the organisation to allow for mutual influence. This involves the cultural relations organisation giving up a certain level of control in digital environments, affording the participants a greater degree of power and influence than in one-way communication of content or messaging.

Building trust 

Our previous research demonstrates that there is a clear value of trust generated by cultural relations and soft power. 

The trust and attractiveness that come from a country’s soft power and cultural relations, increases interest in engaging with it through business and trade, drives up foreign direct investment (FDI) and increases inward flows of international students. This trust building is by no means limited to the physical realm.

‘People who participate in online cultural activities may change their offline perceptions of a country or a culture. Conversely, people’s offline beliefs about a country may reduce their willingness to engage with cultural relations institutions. Processes that begin offline may also continue online.’

In the DCR report, the researchers discuss trust as both a stepping stone to a further goal such as creating sustained stakeholder relationships, and trust as an outcome in and of itself. For the British Council, online cultural relations activities can genuinely build trust in the UK and are likely to impact attitudes and behaviours towards the UK.

Two divides 

In the value of trust, one of the most important drivers amongst young people in G20 countries for trust in both the UK Government and its people, is the perception of the UK’s strong contribution to aiding international development.

This is reinforced within the DCR report. Practitioners interviewed attribute standing for core values as crucial to the trust building capabilities of DCR.

‘[DCR] is intrinsically connected to the different dynamics of international development because they address economic, political, environmental, as well as security fragilities across the world.’

Natalia Grincheva, DCR project researcher 

The DCR report considers the inclusive and exclusive nature of DCR. Although DCR is generally considered to be inclusive in nature as it mitigates location and disability barriers, the report expands upon unequal representations across communities of age, gender, ethnicity, disability and socio-cultural backgrounds. It also highlights the global disparities apparent when considering the ability of different communities to understand rapid technological changes, acquire new digital skills and be digitally receptive.

Although there is a clear digital divide that impacts cultural relations activities – which is more and more apparent as increased digital activities take place – we must not forget the physical divide that impacts in-person cultural relations activities too. These are often ‘constrained by geography, logistics and budgets.’ It is unclear which divide is the larger.

Hybridity – the solution? 

Hybrid cultural relations can bridge the gap between online and offline activities. Cultural relations can dynamically flow between the digital and offline realm and they can be used to complement each other.

A hybrid approach can be a clear positive in terms of widening participation and improving accessibility. However, there are concerns that hybridity can reduce the effectiveness of the cultural relations activities carried out in this way and exacerbate the inequalities of both the digital and physical divide. 

A hybrid event can allow people to join in-person and online. The in-person participants have access to informal networking in the room and sometimes the online participants depending on the platform can network amongst themselves, but the two groups are generally cut off from each other with no meaningful two-way interaction possible.  

Digital credibility

Credibility is key to building trust digitally and as we know from our in-depth research into trust in international relations, public diplomacy and soft power, ‘[t]rust is hard to win but easy to lose.’ 

Practitioners interviewed within the DCR project explained that participants set much store on credibility, predictability and reliability. 

Is participant data being treated properly and privacy being protected in line with clear policies? Is the platform for activities secure, well-used, trusted and legally accessible in the participants’ country? Are digital safeguards in place? Is the cultural relations organisation clear about its stance on disinformation, media literacy and access to digital upskilling? 

Essentially, do participants trust the quality of the digital expertise, approach and ethics of the cultural relations organisation? Issues of digital credibility have a significant impact on participants’ willingness to engage in cultural relations activities, both initially and in the future. How can practitioners address these issues?

'Tailor your digital approach and think ‘Glocally’: identify the needs and digital preferences of each audience segment and how technologies are employed in different countries [and within countries].'

As with in-person cultural relations, DCR requires local expertise and know-how. 

A pathway to discussion and future research

DCR is a clear pathway to trust and positive perceptions.

Yet this DCR research is just the start of a substantial research agenda. There is so much more to explore, as the report outlines. 

If you’re interested in finding out the details, download our literature review and short report exploring how the digital shift is affecting international cultural relations and where future research on this topic needs to focus. 

You can also register to participate in our upcoming online discussion on 16 February – Three Years On: New perspective on international collaboration through culture and education. We’ll meet digitally to hear and exchange new thinking with our panellists from the Science Museum Group and the Association of Commonwealth Universities about the role of digital in building relationships, connections and trust between the UK and global partners, audiences and communities. Do join us if you c

Why is this important to the British Council? At the British Council, we support peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. Christine Wilson, Director, Research at the British Council said:

‘This is a crucial piece of research for the British Council as we reflect on the shifts we made following the pandemic. Digital architecture is woven into the political, social, economic and cultural fabric of much of the world, and many of us live our lives in the digital space, as much as the ‘real’. It is vital for us to understand the nature of digitally mediated cultural relations – how we can continue to engage effectively, how we continue to network people around the world, as we have always done, and ensure they are able to build relationships, learn languages, co-create art and be part of the rich tapestry of intercultural experience. We have much to learn on how we deliver, ensuring that we break down barriers (and avoid creating new ones), how we build and sustain trust and understanding, and how we continue to learn from digitally agile individuals and communities, wherever they are in the world. There will be more to learn about how our core aims of building peace and prosperity can be achieved through these new platforms, as well as through our face-to-face work, and this research provides a roadmap from which we will work.’