Social Media as a Tool for Public Diplomacy

Jennifer Charlton on the reach and transparency of social media.

By: /
October 17, 2012
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In January 2010, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stated that using Twitter to criticize his regime was “terrorism.” Less than three months later, he opened his own Twitter account. Days after his re-election victory on Oct. 7, 2012, Chavez announced the rearrangement of his cabinet via a series of tweets to more than three million followers. In just two years, one of the world’s most-watched leaders in the international policy arena has become an avid tweeter.

We are living in an era of social media diplomacy, commonly referred to as Diplomacy 2.0.

If we define public diplomacy as the art of communicating with foreign publics to establish a dialogue that informs and influences, then Twitter naturally serves as an ideal tool. The Internet messaging service is inherently a platform for two-way communication, allowing for instant broadcasting while also functioning as a medium for direct messaging.

So, how is Twitter, along with similar tools such as China’s Weibo, impacting the future of the “people’s diplomacy”?

At the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York, we are one of 10 Swiss representations abroad participating in an e-diplomacy pilot program launched by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. We have yet to venture into using Twitter for bilateral diplomacy, nor do we use social media to exert political influence. However, we are very interested in how it can be used as a tool of public diplomacy, and thereby help promote cultural exchange and understanding.

We have a small – but growing – following on Twitter, and we consider Facebook our primary social media community for sharing news, promoting Swiss culture, and engaging with the public. Our strategic approach also includes the use of YouTube, Tumblr, and Flickr to support content programs, such as our Swiss restaurant series Swiss It Up! and our interview series, Swiss Stories, featuring Swiss residing in New York who are contributing to American business, innovation, culture, and society.

In the short time that we’ve been active on social media, we have expanded our network as never before. Not only are we building a virtual community, but we are also scheduling face-to-face meetings from introductions made online. Social media enables us to establish new relationships, speak directly with our publics, understand perception and sentiment, and increase overall interest in Switzerland.

While we have an optimistic approach to the endless possibilities of using social media, we are astutely aware that anything we share is publicly visible to a global audience, potentially reaching anyone located anywhere in the world. For us, public diplomacy is being shaped by a new reality that anything we do or say can be digitally archived – from a post on our official Facebook page, to a photo of an ambassador uploaded to Instagram by a third party, to a FourSquare check-in tagging us on Twitter at an event.

For many governments, this new reality is a rude awakening. Social media demands transparency. Loss of control is a risk we must be willing to take. Understanding how to effectively use social media goes beyond awareness of the current platforms. It involves being flexible, fast, and nimble to easily adapt to new technologies. It also requires trust, good judgment, and quick thinking for rapid response and crisis management.

In Venezuela, Chavez’s government recognizes the potential for Twitter to reach the population and shape perception. In the Middle East, citizen activists realize the power of social media to organize movements that spark uprisings, as seen with the Arab Spring. In the U.S., the State Department capitalizes on Internet culture, using popular memes and real-time chats to communicate with the digital generation on the social networks they visit most. Governments have a choice: Disregard the current tools as part of a passing trend, or embrace new technologies to further develop communication programs.

Using social media as a tool for public diplomacy is not an end in itself – it’s a means to a new beginning. Social media is shaping the way billions of people interact with each other, which, in turn, affects the way businesses communicate with customers and citizens communicate with governments. Determining the appropriate digital channels for your foreign ministry requires understanding the current environment and the needs of your citizens and the host country. It also requires a clear vision to set goals and guidelines.

The tools will evolve. Twitter and Facebook may or may not be around in 50 years, but either way, something new and entirely unprecedented will likely exist. Like revolutionary mass mediums have done before, the Internet has catapulted us into a new era. As the old adage reminds us, ‘Change is certain. Progress is not.’ It is up to us to use the tools developed for this new medium to aid diplomatic efforts as we endeavour to create a better world.

Note from the author: Views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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