An insider view on government communications by Thomas Eymond-Laritaz
In 2010, a French Ambassador posted in the Caucasus explained to me proudly that he was one of the first diplomats from the Quai d’Orsay to run a Facebook account. Two years later, the US Ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, astonished the diplomatic community and Russia by engaging directly with the Russian population. With 55,000 followers on Twitter, he embodied the e-diplomacy revolution.
Many have forecast that the work of ambassadors has therefore changed forever and that they will all have to go digital. I disagree and would like to challenge this idea.
To a large extent, Twitter has reshaped political, corporate and individual communications. But do all ambassadors need to run a Twitter feed? I am not entirely convinced. Why should the South African Ambassador in Lima or the Swedish Ambassador in Lisbon tweet on a daily basis? To what extent is that indispensable for their day-to-day mission? Can the success of an ambassador be simply measured by the number of followers he or she has on Twitter? To tweet or not to tweet, that is the question!
Foreign services and ambassadors should first and foremost ask themselves what is their primary objective in each country. If engaging with the local population and local media is essential to fulfill their mission, then developing social media activities should be high on the ambassadors’ priority list. If not, then social media is certainly not a must. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on are just tools to implement a strategy, not the other way around.
However, in addition to the traditional closed-door diplomatic approach, every day we are witnessing the growing benefits of public diplomacy. Governments’ foreign policy stands are increasingly being driven by their public opinion. Engaging with and convincing foreign public opinion can be essential to win over their leaders, to build international support and strengthen foreign alliances. In that respect, social media clearly plays an essential role.
For example, there is no way the US can ever ‘reset’ its relationship with Russia as long as the mistrust between the two populations continues. Ambassador McFaul’s social media activities can be instrumental to achieving this goal. Having said that, one should remain realistic: winning the hearts and minds of a population requires much more than simply running a Twitter feed.
Political leaders have certainly understood the power of social media to spread their messages, both at home and around the world. But one sometimes wonders if their primary goal is to advance their foreign policy objectives or simply to improve their own popularity with their domestic electorate.
For better or worse, most ambassadors operate under the radar screen and do not wish to overshadow their own Ministers. Most importantly, they need to reflect their country’s exact foreign policy. They rarely have the room for the creative interpretation, undiplomatic humour and bluntness which usually create attention and interest on social media channels. And there is nothing more boring than a boring Twitter feed!
Embassies, of course, have a duty to communicate essential information to the public, such as visa policies, events, investment forums, messages to their expatriates, warning messages for travellers, crisis communication messages, election notices, etc. In addition to the usual tools, such as a standard telephone line, emails, newsletters, website and press releases, social media channels such as Twitter or Facebook can prove very efficient, and most embassies should certainly embrace this communication channel. But that’s not necessarily the case for the ambassadors personally.
As with all new tools, training and proper organisational structures need to be put in place. This was highlighted again recently by the revelation that the tweet from the Iranian President this September wishing ‘all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah’ was not in fact posted from an official Presidential Twitter account.
What to tweet? How to tweet? How to use humour? How to create a buzz? What are the secrets of successful social media communications? In the same way that one would not appear on TV for a prime-time interview without media training, embassies or ambassadors should not start a Twitter account without proper preparation and training. These were certainly the thoughts of an Ambassador in South America last year after he tweeted by mistake that the inhabitants of the neighbouring country were ‘gays and cowards’… Quite a diplomatic achievement. Thank you, Twitter!