By Rachel Briggs.
This is a copy of the speech delivered by Risk and Security Manager Rachel Briggs at the recent launch of the policy report on FCO Travel Advice. Other speakers included Austrailian High Commissioner H.E Michael L'Estrange, James Watt of the FCO Consular Section and Manny Fontenla-Novoa of Thomas Cook.
Travel Advice Launch Event Speech
The matter of FCO travel advice has never been more important. The appetite for overseas travel continues to grow – there were 60 million trips overseas in 2002 and there are 15 million British nationals living overseas. Alongside this, as we all know, the threat from international terrorism remains real. The tragic events in Bali reminded us of the fact that terrorists can strike anywhere and affect ordinary Britons enjoying themselves on holiday as much as diplomats and dignitaries.
In the wake of the Bali bombing, FCO travel advice has been the focus for much scrutiny. Apart from questions raised in the media, a number of official reviews have also taken place. In December last year the Intelligence and Security Committee's report into the incident said: "We believe that the whole issue of FCO travel advice, its purpose, target audience and presentation needs to be examined by the FCO as a matter of urgency." And the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has also been hearing evidence on the subject.
As a result, the FCO has carried out a large-scale review into its travel advice. At the risk of pre-empting James Watt, it is fair to say that the FCO has taken these criticisms on the chin and has worked hard to make changes. Sir Michael Jay, Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the FCO recently commented to the FAC, "There is, as a result of the terrorist attack in Bali…. And other terrorist attacks since then, a clear recognition that travel advice in the context of our consular work has to have a higher profile than it has had in the past." These firm words have, importantly, been matched not only by reform and change, but also by increased resources and personnel.
But, while the FCO has done much to improve the content and presentation of its travel advice, much more remains to be done on its dissemination strategy. Unless the FCO can get its information and guidance out to those who need it its impact will be minimal. My report, Travel Advice: Getting information to those who need it was written last Summer, and while much has happened since then – both on the threat side and response from the FCO – the basic argument of the report remains unaddressed.
In what follows I would like to point up four key issues that the FCO must address if its travel advice is to have a sizeable impact on the safety and well being of the traveling public. Firstly, the FCO must think more clearly about its target audience. Secondly, it must be more creative in its use of key networks for dissemination and consider how it could work with, not just the travel industry where much has already been done, but also other networks, such as employers sending workers overseas on business or the aid community. Thirdly, the FCO needs to develop ways of measuring the success and impact of its travel advice in keeping more people safe. And finally, while the threat from international terrorism is important and has most certainly not gone away, the FCO must be careful of not to over-emphasize this at the risk of obscuring the range of other threats to travelers, such as crime and health risks.
The target audience for the FCO's travel advice is, of course, the whole of the traveling public. The advice is aimed at keeping Britons traveling or living overseas as safe as possible.
As I started by saying, in 2002 60 million trips were made overseas. The public is traveling for a variety of reasons: holidays, business, aid delivery and independent travel and exploration.
Depending on the reason for travel, the place being visited, the extent to which the individual is autonomous or has help from a tour operator, employer or other organization, and their perceptions of risks, the needs of the individual will differ greatly, and the content of travel advice must reflect this. I don't want to dwell on the issue of content now, though. The FCO has done much to strengthen its messages; to ensure its advice is accurate and helpful; and that there is clarity and consistency between information sources. I would like to stress though that where these risks differ between groups the FCO should be looking for ways to communicate these differences to the relevant groups. A memorandum submitted by the FCO to the FAC on 31st January 2003 stated: "We need to be careful about accusations of picking and choosing between groups; and of implicitly offering a better service to some." This misses the point. What we need is better travel advice for ALL and this means tailoring it to the needs of individual groups. Giving information about all risks to all travelers may actually result in confusion rather than better preparedness.
A more fundamental question that the FCO must consider is the most effective way of reaching its target audience: the whole of the British traveling public. Is this best done through being the public interface with individual citizens? Or, given what I have said about the need to target advice more selectively according to need, should the FCO seek instead to reach travelers through a network of organizations well linked to the different travel groups?
This brings me onto my second point about the need to use networks.
For each group of travelers there are a series of organisations that are both well connected to them but who also have a genuine interest in their safety and well being. For tourists there are tour operators and travel agents; for business travelers there are employers; for aid workers there are aid agencies, and so forth. These organizations, if networked into the FCO, could take on some of the responsibilities for re-packaging and disseminating information.
In some ways, the FCO has started this process. As part of its Know Before You Go campaign it has signed up partners who commit to disseminate the FCO's advice wherever possible and spread the clear message – know before you go, be prepared. But the list of partners is skewed towards the tourist end of the travel spectrum. At a recent meeting of the FAC, Dickie Stagg, Director of Information at the FCO, went so far as to say, "We can't succeed in sending our message to the public except through the travel industry." The FCO should expand its range of partners.
The FCO should also work with them to develop materials that will meet the specialist needs of each of the groups. Information and materials currently available for partners remains general rather than tailored.
Of course, there will always be those individuals who do not fit into such a network or slip between travel groups, and for that reason it is vital that the FCO maintain the central information and advice point it has. But there is much more potential for the FCO to work with organizations such as tour operators and companies to decentralize as far as is sensible and feasible the re-packaging and dissemination of advice according to special needs.
As a service provider, it is vital the FCO understands the extent to which its travel advice is effective in keeping Britons safe when traveling and living overseas. The FCO does not have a clear idea of the extent to which its travel advice is reaching those who need it. The report from the Intelligence and Security Committee commented, "The Committee is not clear how many travelers actually read the FCO travel advice prior to embarking on a trip nor do we know how many people actually follow it." There have been attempts to track use, although they show disappointing results. In a survey commissioned by the FCO and published in January 2001 just 2 per cent of those questioned had consulted the FCO or a consulate overseas. The Foreign Secretary stated to the House of Commons in December that the FCO travel pages generate 670,000 unique users per month, which is 8.4 million per year. Even if each unique user equated to one overseas trip it would mean that the site is being accessed in just 14 per cent of trips. If the FCO extends its work through specialist networks as I have suggested, it is even more important that it collate accurate information about the extent to which these networks are delivering.
It is also important that the FCO measures the impact of its advice in keeping people safe. Towards this end, it would be useful for example for embassy staff to collate more information from those who do fall into trouble about what has happened, why, whether they consulted advice, and if not whether the incident could have been avoided if they had done. Some of this happens informally at present, but the FCO needs a systematic method of collation. Like any service provider, the FCO should understand its market and work aggressively to remain the market leader.
Finally, a word of caution. Since September 11th, but particularly since the tragic events in Bali, the FCO has stepped up information about the threat posed by international terrorism. This is right and proper. But it is important that these messages do not obscure advice about other threats, such as crime, health and accidents, which continue to blight hundreds of thousands of trips each year. The FCO has recently changed the structure of advisories, with safety and security coming immediately after a summary at the top of the page, and terrorism being the first sub-category in this section for all countries. While the information contained is sensible and acknowledges the varying degrees of threat, I fear there is a danger of over-emphasising terrorism and diverting attention away from the plethora of less critical threats that should be a greater concern for travelers. Striking the right balance between panic and preparation is vital, although I do concede that this is easier said than done in practice.
To conclude, I welcome the improvements that the FCO has made to the content of its advice, which will no doubt bring benefits to those using it. But the FCO now needs to concentrate its efforts on ensuring that its travel advice is reaching as wide an audience as possible.