At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, on 26 October 1962, John Scali a reporter for ABC news, was contacted by the chief of Soviet embassy staff in Washington. In a hastily arranged lunch meeting, he was presented with a proposal to peacefully end a dark chapter in world history. Would the president accept the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Cuba in return for a guarantee that the US would never invade the Caribbean island, he was asked.
In the preceding 12 days, the crisis had threatened to accelerate the world towards inevitable nuclear Armageddon, and diplomatic wrangling had often struggled to keep pace. Embassy to embassy messages delivered back and forth to Kennedy and Kruschev were slow, but a necessity at a time when there was no direct telephone link between Kremlin and White House.
The diplomatic ‘back channel’ however, presented the opportunity to deliver a message directly and quickly, in this case via a broadcast journalist acting as presidential messenger boy. The proposal taken by Scali directly to the White House was the beginning of a rapid de-escalation of the crisis.
Today, the concept of a “back channel” communication is an altogether more benign affair. In the 21st Century, it’s defined as a secondary conversation that takes place at the same time as a presentation, using a platform like Twitter, generally aligned with a suitable hashtag.
We’ve all been at a conference where this happens: delegates are encouraged to use a hashtag, to tweet questions, raise issues or just give the conference host something to talk about between sessions. But it’s not very exciting is it. The fate of the world will hardly rest on the shoulders of one man tweeting during at a stationery sales conference in Telford.
But hold fire! Perhaps Twitter does play a slightly more constructive role as a back channel in today’s less substantial world – when dealing with covert affairs of the heart. Within the noise of a twitter feed messages can be discreetly hidden, messages that we know will reach one particular individual without ever shouting their name directly. An ex-lover, an old flame or someone for whom you still secretly have feelings.
“I wonder if our lock still hangs on the Pont des Artes in Paris?” “I miss Sunday lunches at the Kings Arms”, “I saw Betty Blue last night and made a chilli”, seemingly banal tweets are meaningless to all but one in your army of followers.
To that individual, a covert message hidden from those now closest to you, delivered by a back channel like Twitter, tell them that you still care and that you are thinking about them. Now that might not change the world, but in the long run, this form of back-channelling could be a rather lovely thing.