By Justin Brown, acting Deputy Secretary of DFAT with responsibility for consular, passports, corporate administration and information management. He has been Australia's High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador for the Environment and Deputy of Australia's Mission to the European Union in Brussels.

As more Australians than ever are travelling and living overseas and the demand for consular assistance and services continues to grow, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is continually seeking out better ways to reach out to Australians to inform them of travel risks, taking steps to reduce these risks, and better explaining the scope of consular assistance DFAT can provide.

The Department's Smartraveller website remains central to our efforts. Last year, we posted 877 updates and revisions to travel advisories for 169 overseas destinations. But our challenge is to reach the broadest possible audience.

Now half-way through its run, 'The Embassy' television documentary series on the Nine Network is doing exactly that – it's ranking among the most popular programs on Sunday night – providing an audience of a size DFAT would find very hard to reach otherwise. This is one of the reasons we agreed to allow the show's producers access to the consular and passports section of the embassy in Bangkok for a period of several weeks early this year.

Our decision to cooperate on this project was a first for the Department and reflected our judgement that it was a golden opportunity to get our message across. The cases covered in the series demonstrate in a real and practical way how accidents and incidents could have been avoided by preventative actions – and the application of straightforward common sense. The program also underscores some of DFAT's key goals for its consular work: encouraging people to register their travel on the Smartraveller site, subscribe to travel advisories and purchase comprehensive travel and medical insurance prior to departure.

Last financial year, there were 14,558 cases of Australians in difficulty overseas who received consular assistance. While the bulk of these cases related to general welfare (more than 5,000), there were over 1,200 cases of deaths overseas, over 1,300 hospitalisations, more than 1,000 arrests and nearly 350 cases of Australians in prison overseas.

So far, 'The Embassy' has proven to be an effective vehicle in complementing our messaging by reaching a broad demographic. From our vantage point, we hope the program will reinforce some key points:

  • that the travelling public needs to accept responsibility for their welfare and be as self-reliant as possible when overseas, and take decisions that lower risk;
  • that Australians overseas must obey local laws and respect the cultural and social circumstances in other countries; and
  • Australian embassies and consulates can provide assistance when Australians get into difficulty overseas, but there are limits on the scope of assistance that can be provided, and embassy officers must act in accordance with the Department's Consular Service Charter.

According to recent statistics, nearly 20% of travellers venture overseas without any travel insurance. The figure is higher for younger travellers, particularly young men. DFAT recently commissioned the CHOICE Travel Insurance Buying Guide to present clearly that insurance is affordable, readily available and value for money. The Guide was developed with a particular emphasis on that younger demographic - so potently illustrated in the second episode of 'The Embassy' by the case of  Beau Goetz who was hospitalised without insurance in Bangkok after crashing his rental motorbike and breaking his neck.

DFAT may once have been accused of being a social media 'dinosaur', but social media is now playing an increasing role in the way we communicate with travelling Australians. In another first, the Department hosted a 90-minute online forum on its Smartraveller Facebook page immediately after the third episode of 'The Embassy' last night. Departmental experts in consular matters, passports and travel advisories were on hand to answer questions from the public stemming from that night's episode – which dealt with a missing person, theft, scam, hospitalisation and an Australian facing criminal charges. We intend to host a number of such forums for targeted audiences, including students and travel agents. Along with ongoing outreach to key demographics, such as partnerships with universities and youth-focused organisations, we hope this will help better inform the Australian public about the consular role.

Photo courtesy of Twitter user @TheEmbassy9.