Interview with Corin Robertson, HM Ambassador to Mexico

Ambassador Robertson explains how the FCDO is using digital diplomacy to promote British interests during the pandemic...

You came to the post in 2018, please update us on your work in Mexico before the pandemic struck.

Ambassador Robertson: I inherited a bilateral relationship that is already very strong, with good working links in education, government, trade and investment. I came to Mexico just as Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador [Amlo] assumed the presidency. So, my role was to build a relationship with someone that had a completely different attitude to his predecessor. In August 2019 Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, came to Mexico as part of his first overseas ministerial visit. He signed a bilateral agreement for sustainable and inclusive growth that was the most ambitious deal between the two countries in 200 years of bilateral relations. That agreement provides the framework for our relations across themes such as Brexit, climate change and trade.

"The programmes that we run aim to help solve those problems, unlocking Mexico’s potential and creating opportunities for UK businesses…."

We have found lots of shared values, such as fighting corruption, improving trade and reducing poverty, with the Amlo administration. I was fortunate the funding for our development programmes received a big increase at the start of my tenure, so I was able to shape them to suit our interests and the priorities of the new government in Mexico. We have the Prosperity Fund, the International Climate Finance Fund, the Newton Fund, which encourages scientific collaboration, and the Chevening Scholarship, which brings up to 60 Mexican masters students to the UK. We are the second-most popular destination for Mexican masters students after the US, and many of them return to become leaders in business, civil society and the government – often with a favourable attitude to the UK.

The programmes are all about blocking the obstacles to growth in Mexico. Mexico has a fantastic, diversified economy, which is on a solid footing following the update to the trade agreement with the US and Canada. It’s likely to be among the world’s top ten economies by 2030. Yet it has serious obstacles to growth. There is a high poverty rate, a large inequality gap, persistent corruption and gender inequality. The programmes that we run aim to help solve those problems, unlocking Mexico’s potential and creating opportunities for UK businesses.

Has the pandemic created opportunities to strengthen the relationship between the UK and Mexico?

AR: Yes. Mexico has always been active in multilateral fora and we are working closely with it on a number of coronavirus themes. We have been collaborating on vaccines, treatment and diagnostics. Also, we both support Gavi and Covax, to ensure that there is equitable access to vaccines. Indeed, Mexico has played a strong role in the international response to Covid-19, for example it helped pay for the Global Coronavirus Response Initiative Summit in May. Together we co-sponsored a coronavirus initiative in the UN General Assembly, while our foreign ministers co-hosted a regional vaccine seminar in August. Mexico, through the Carlos Slim Foundation, has also signed an agreement with Astra Zeneca, to produce and distribute the Oxford vaccine in Latin America.

During the height of the pandemic we worked well together. When other countries were closing their borders both the UK and Mexico kept them open because we realised the importance of global supply chains. We have collaborated on repatriation and helped return Mexicans stranded in the UK and Brits here in Mexico. We were particularly grateful for the cooperation of both the national government and the State of Yucatan in letting sick British passengers disembark from a cruise ship in March.

How has the FCDO used digital diplomacy to counter the challenges created by coronavirus restrictions?

AR: I am a big fan of digital diplomacy, indeed the FCDO has been working on it for the last 15 years. The British Embassy in Mexico has been using social media for more than a decade and we have seen first hand what an impact it can have in reaching wider and more diverse audiences. Social media is a powerful tool when it is used well and we vary the message and platform depending on our aims. For example, we use Instagram and Snapchat to get to a younger audience, while Facebook and Twitter are better for an older crowd. Then you have LinkedIn for the business community.

"Of course, you need to think about what you’re saying when you represent the government, but you can be authentic…"

The role of the Ambassador is crucial because you have your personal account, which is a way to have an authentic voice. It resonates with people and helps make ambassadors, which are sometimes slightly removed figures, more accessible. Of course, you need to think about what you’re saying when you represent the government, but you can be authentic. I found that Mexicans really engage when they see you getting to know their country, tasting the foods and appreciating the culture. It’s particularly important to travel around the country and use social media to show that you are learning about different communities and places. A tweet about local food will often get far more reaction than some of the policy stuff I put out there. But just because the subject matter is fun, doesn’t mean we should dismiss the importance. It’s a way to connect with the Mexican people. I have more than 14,000 followers on Twitter so it’s a useful platform.

Nowadays ambassadors need to be able to work well on social media. You still have the traditional meetings with government figures and public events, but communication is a core part of an Ambassador’s role so clearly digital comms is an important part of that. It’s also incredibly useful for the consular part of our work. When coronavirus first broke out, we had lots of British tourists stranded around Mexico. Social media helped us to get out vital information in real time. The situation was changing very quickly so this allowed us to keep people up-to-date.

Trade promotion relies on events, visits and delegations; how will you do it digitally?

AR: Trade is important for us, so we’ve had to adapt quickly. It’s very challenging trying to replace the traditional formats with digital alternatives. But we are steadily getting better at it. We have held webinars on Covid-19 themes, such as testing, diagnostics and innovations in healthcare. We have been holding export clinics to help UK firms get the answers they might have previously found on a trade visit. We have held technical seminars, for example in renewable energy, where we have brought in experts from different parts of the UK. We even held a virtual trade fair. It’s not the same, because people don’t get to see visit Mexico and see what a great place it is. However, in terms of networking and making connections it is probably more efficient than a physical event because you can ensure that people meet who they want to. Of course, there is no good doing all of this virtual work if nobody knows about it, so we have been using social media to promote the positive case studies, so that UK companies realise that they can still trade with Mexico throughout the pandemic.

There is a large informal economy in Mexico, with two-thirds of people without a bank account. The UK has a strong fintech sector that can find solutions to that problem. It’s an example of how our shared goals – increasing financial inclusion – can also create business opportunities for British firms. Education is another promising area, as we have seen the UK digital education platforms have gained market share here. More generally we are very strong in tech, digital and innovation. These are the areas that will become even more important because of the pandemic. So, this new emphasis on digital solutions suits our economic strengths.