Digital Diplomacy: Using Social Media to Understand, Engage, Inform, and Influence

“Public diplomacy is a vital instrument of national policy, and should be funded as such.” – US Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Jr.

While traditional methods of public diplomacy utilizing television and print media are still essential to reaching a mass audience, in today’s globalized world an effective social media is critical to governments’ abilities to understand, engage, inform and influence the next generation of leaders in communities all around the world.

Recently I attended a forum held at The George Washington University entitled “The Last Three Feet: New Media, New Approaches and New Challenges for American Public Diplomacy”. Panelists (primarily Foreign Service officers) discussed the contemporary communications environment and how public diplomats overseas cope with it. Content from this post is representative of what was discussed.

Public diplomacy is not just a public relations campaign, but the promotion of diplomacy between societies. As societies connect, the social connection becomes more important. Local campaigns become connected into global campaigns, such as the fight against poverty, social exclusion, etc. People want a way to achieve their personal destiny, and find encouragement in others. Governments have to show people that they can help them to achieve their goals with democracy, open society, and economic opportunities.

In order to be successful, public diplomacy must be relevant to people and their happiness. Using a default ideology will no longer work, as people understand that the issues they face are complex and require multiple solutions. Governments need to show how they empower people for good health, security, and education; working through civil society is also important because of its different and useful connections to communities on the ground.

Diplomacy is an act of accommodation and empathy, finding places where we agree and we have the ability to connect. Who gains value in the digital diplomacy exchange? Importantly, who should Embassies and Consulates prefer as their target audience? Is an Embassy’s Facebook and Twitter for locals or expatriates? These are important questions that public diplomacy officers should consider when starting and maintaining social media as digital diplomacy. The answers may vary by country and foreign representation location, and are not always easy to answer. I provide pertinent examples afforded by Aaron Snipe of the US Department of State from his time serving at the US Embassy in Iraq.

Key Points in creating and maintaining an effective digital diplomacy strategy:

1) Understand. In utilizing social media, government officials must begin by listening. Examine how the Embassy used social media up until that point. Take a close look at the number and type of ‘fans’. Are there too many from your own country or those with direct linkages to the Embassy? The primary goal of an Embassy’s social media strategy should be to communicate with the locals and provide a platform for grassroots engagement. Before beginning engagement, however, government officials must understand what is at the heart of the local culture, social life, and political discussion.

In Iraq over the last year the US Embassy experienced significant improvements in their communications with locals because alongside all English text, they added Arabic text; this opened up a much larger space for readers who could not understand English, or did not feel comfortable communicating in English. Adding the local language showed a sign of respect for the local culture and a desire to effectively engage locals. However, some Americans did not agree with this move and have complained that the Embassy’s Facebook should be to communicate with local Americans about urgent issues and safety information.

2) Engage (part 1). Generate content relevant to locals. While a Facebook page can be a mouthpiece for a government, it should not simply be a place solely for launching press releases and policies. If users do not connect with the content then it hampers the tool of digital diplomacy from serving its purpose.

While the State Department generates and provides a surplus of content, it was not always what Iraqis were talking about; therefore the Embassy could not always use the reports, releases and policy briefs and so forth. The Embassy team focused on finding out what was important to Iraqis and attempted to connect with the culture; they created a “question of the day” which ranged in questions from “What is your favorite kabob shop in Baghdad” to “What do you think about the new law in France prohibiting face-covering veils”.

3) Engage (part 2). Ensure engagement is organic, about things that people are actually interested in, and contains a human element. People do not want to interact with ‘government administrators’. They want to know who you are in the Embassy. People will then get used to talking to ‘us’ in the Embassy, and will connect more effectively knowing their comments reach real ‘people’.

For example, in Iraq Embassy officials created a “Window into the Embassy” on YouTube. Programs feature Foreign Service officers talking about the Strategic Framework Agreement in Arabic. It was then linked to Facebook to spur discussion.

4) Inform. The ability to speak in a less formal way should not be overlooked. While it can be challenging to offer government words in a friendlier manner which coheres with policy, social media provides a channel in which a government can say thing more empathetically than traditional media and more formal statements.

5) Influence. Governments can receive and use productive feedback from comments on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Not all comments are constructive; sometimes participants praise you and ‘like’ everything you do without any explanation (or in some cases offer condemnations without justification). However, social media provides a place for real local engagement and direct reflection of a government’s policies. In the same way that a government can have a sincere influence on locals’ opinions, the locals gain unmatched access to government officials’ ears; this influence (or belief of influence) is invaluable for both participating sides.

While this post argues that local populations should be the primary target for a foreign Embassy’s social media tools, the keyword is ‘primary’. An Embassy website, Facebook, or Twitter can be a useful place for nationals to learn about their country’s policies, influence or events happening in a particular country. They can even provide a space for disagreements or praises about actions where the national may otherwise have no place for engagement. However, digital diplomacy as public diplomacy, when used as an effective tool to promote a state’s foreign policy interests is meant to focus on persuading the peoples (and hence the leaders) of other states that they seek positive engagement and to improve their overall wellbeing.

Whether locals prefer or need economic, social or political assistance depends on their particular situation. Sometimes in a small country, one-to-one dialogue can be more cohesive than a broader Facebook campaign. Nonetheless, a strong and coherent digital diplomacy strategy exemplifies empathy and compassion for a globalized community which is similarly reaching out to understand, engage, inform and influence foreign governments.

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