From Diplomat to Twiplomat

Danish diplomat Karen Melchior on learning how to be a Twiplomat.
By: /
October 17, 2012
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My first major challenge as a diplomat was being part of the crisis team dealing with the publication of controversial cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in early 2006. Many of the protests were spread using the new possibilities of digital or mobile-phone networks, which were not controlled by traditional media or governments. My experience in this situation sparked my interest in the interaction between diplomatic work within governments, public communication, and the networks of wider society.

There is a power in networks outside governmental structures that governments need to be aware of. How do we, as individual diplomats, begin to harness the power of networks? This is a longer discussion than I have room for here, but mandatory reading for people interested in Twiplomacy should be Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody, in which he expertly explores the effect of the Internet on group dynamics and activism.

Being an e-diplomat or a Twiplomat is not only about producing content and having a message to broadcast. If you only interact with people when you have something to broadcast, they are not likely to want to help you unless it is in their interest, in which case your profile is no longer part of a network, but is instead a website dressed up as a social-media page.

Being part of a network means that we give back to the people we are in a network with. One aspect is sharing or retweeting, and so curating the information received. The people I follow or have on lists form a network that curates information for me through Twitter, and whose posts I also curate. Part of curating information is looking at the validity of the information, which is particularly important when following current events. False rumours have been spread through social media, so it is important not to act too hastily. For me, the trustworthiness or reliability of the person sending or retweeting a message is an important indicator of whether I should take the information seriously.

In 2009, I looked at public diplomacy carried out via social media, comparing the social-media activities of the British, French, and Danish foreign services. In hindsight, I can see that things were only just beginning at that point. Since then, Twitter has become my way of following major news developments, as well as developments in the sector of diplomacy I cover.

A quick note on the technical side of my Twitter use: I use different interfaces than www.twitter.com, such as tweetbot, and I use lists. Lists allow me to organize and view the people I follow. I rarely change or delete lists, because people start following them – so even if I no longer have a use for them, they might. Change happens according to the subjects I work on, but the lists are less ephemeral than a search or following a tag. Lists also allow me to concentrate on a particular subject whenever I want without changing the people I am following or doing a new search.

Working in London for the last few years allowed me to see digital diplomacy go from being a tool for specialists to mainstream in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. London, and the U.K. in general, is a fantastic place to discover and experiment with social media. There is a vibrant and open Twitter community of people working, and interested, in politics and international relations.

There were a number of online discussions about Denmark during my time in London. Denmark hosted the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in 2009, and had the EU presidency in the first half of 2012. But other things surprisingly proved the importance of being present on social media even when you do not have a story to tell.

Being active on social media was essential for reputation management in the U.K. following the Danish authorities’ decision to stop a shop in Copenhagen from selling Marmite. An article in TheGuardian on the subject became viral news. We found out about the situation via social media, which allowed us to ask for a statement the same day and get a spokesperson out the next day. Responding via social media allowed us to reach the people reading the story online or via social media. Most people do not read the same paper from front to back every day any more. Responding with a correction in the next day’s paper or on the newspaper’s website is not an option. You need to reach people where they found the original story.

Now that I have returned to Copenhagen, I wonder what the global links we maintain through Twitter and other social media will mean for the future of diplomacy. Such networks are built not around our physical location, but around our digital presence, so the online connections that we make through posting will stay relevant for much longer.

Denmark has a very different media environment than the United Kingdom. While the U.K. has embraced Twitter as well as Facebook, Denmark’s social-media scene is still very much ruled by Facebook. When I was comparing the use of social media in Denmark with that in France and the United Kingdom in 2009, one of my conclusions was that the Danish Foreign Service did not consistently use social media: While it used social media for individual projects, it had not yet begun using it for general communications. Today, however, I can see an increased interest in social media by politicians, which may lead to further developments of digital diplomacy.

I believe that social media is a great tool to help diplomats do what they have always done and should be doing: creating bonds and providing information in order to protect and promote the interests of their country. Using social media is the online equivalent of going to receptions. So, I will keep on being a Twiplomat as well as a diplomat, because, as U.K. Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher is quoted as saying, “imagine a reception where all ppl you want to talk to are invited... And not turning up.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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