In January 2013, the Washington Post published an article titled "The secret behind Israel's dysfunctional political system." That same day, the Embassy of Israel in Washington responded, taking to its Twitter account — which has more 36,000 followers — with a snarky rebuttal: "Based on the actual article text," tweeted the embassy, "may we suggest a new headline: The secret behind Israel's functional political system." That the embassy responded to news that could have painted Israel in a negative light wasn't newsworthy — but the means and voice with which it did so were.
In a new era of social media tools that allow individuals and organizations to communicate and interact directly with online "friends," "followers," "fans" and "supporters," foreign embassies based in Washington, D.C., have started expanding the means by which they tell their side of the story. No longer do embassies have to rely only on letters to the editor that appear days later or press releases that are easy to ignore, but as the Israeli Embassy did, they can now submit instantaneous responses and engage more easily in conversations — all for free, with unlimited audiences and with the potential that their message could go viral.
These new tools — Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and others — have changed how the world communicates, whether it's a head of state making a headline-grabbing declaration, rebels trying to foment a revolution, or just old friends living continents apart reconnecting. But these tools have also changed the language of local diplomacy, allowing embassies to be more relaxed and approachable than what traditional diplomatic protocol often requires.
Just a few years ago, only a handful of embassies and ambassadors had a presence on social media. Today, Washington-based embassies from across the globe have jumped with gusto into this emerging realm of digital diplomacy.
The British Embassy has close to 20,000 followers on Twitter and over 5,400 "likes" on its official Facebook page, while Israel's combined reach with both popular services exceeds 100,000. The Embassy of Canada tweets to over 6,500 followers and regularly posts photographs on its Flickr page. The Polish Embassy is on YouTube. The United Arab Emirates not only employs Facebook and Twitter, but also created its own iPhone and iPad app, the only embassy to do so. The European Union Delegation just launched a new website in part to better showcase its Twitter efforts, interactive maps and photo galleries. And the Dutch Embassy recently took to Storify, using the service to aggregate tweets and Facebook postings to create minute-by-minute summaries of events it hosts.
The move toward social media is in many ways motivated by necessity more than desire. According to a December 2012 report by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, 67 percent of all Internet users in the United States regularly turn to social media. Of that number, 67 percent use Facebook, 16 percent use Twitter, 15 percent use Pinterest, 13 percent use Instagram, and 6 percent use Tumblr. Globally, it is estimated that there are more than 1.5 billion social media users, with close to 1 billion people using Facebook alone. Communications professionals say that entire conversations and interactions — especially among the critical 18-29 demographic — take place via social media, making it a tool of incomparable importance and reach for institutions seeking to spread their message.
At a recent discussion on social media at the Meridian International Center, Bob Boorstin, public policy director of Google, pointed out that digital diplomacy is still in its infancy, with only one-third of the world's population having access to the Internet. He also said that while social media can supplement traditional diplomacy, it cannot replace face-to-face encounters and a diplomat's social skills.
But it does open up a direct line of access to the public in a way old-fashioned diplomacy never could.
"You want to be there. You want to be where the conversation is taking place, and for any company, for any embassy, for any country — no matter the entity — the conversation is taking place out there whether you like it or not, and you need to engage in that conversation. [Y]ou need to be represented across many social media platforms to make sure that if the conversation is there, they have someone to turn to," said Peter LaMotte, senior vice president at Levick, a Washington-based PR firm that has worked with embassies on using social media tools to further their political and communications strategies in Washington.
The conversation can take many forms and include a diversity of content. While some countries rely on social media as another outlet to express political viewpoints, many use it to promote culture, tourism and elements of public diplomacy that expose their audiences to aspects of the country that may not be well known (and that sidestep touchy political issues).
The British Embassy's most popular social media tool is its visually rich Tumblr page, which it uses for cultural promotions, while the British Council used Facebook to share a Halloween picture of its staff dressed up like the characters from "Downton Abbey." Given the popularity of the TV show, the images were quickly and widely shared among thousands of people — a boon in the promotion of British heritage. Likewise, the British Embassy's Flickr page features photos of "Downton" cast members hanging out at Ambassador Peter Westmacott's residence during a December reception. The Flickr photos offer a glimpse inside exclusive parties with Washington VIPs such as White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Arianna Huffington, while others show a more down-to-earth side of diplomacy, like embassy staff training for a bike ride they'll do with U.S. wounded war veterans from Paris to London.
For the United Arab Emirates, social media tools offer the embassy an opportunity to communicate a variety of messages, from the political to the cultural to the economic.
"We absolutely mix it up as much as we can. We try not to make it about politics all the time, because there's more to the United Arab Emirates than just that," said Haitham Al Mussawi, the embassy's digital diplomacy editor. "So we try to inform and educate as much as we can about the U.S.-UAE relationship, about women's rights, about education, about culture and heritage, and about the philanthropy between United Arab Emirates and the U.S."
He noted that the embassy was recently able to use social media to correct an assumption that the United States buys oil from the UAE; it doesn't, said Al Mussawi, but the UAE does do roughly $20 billion of annual business with the United States.
For the Greek Embassy, Facebook and Twitter are avenues to inculcate positive sentiments in an era of difficult political and economic news for the country. "Our main objective is to create a positive sentiment around Greece. So we focus on culture, travel and good news about Greece. Especially now with the crisis, we want to promote — in an interactive way — good stories that do exist back home," said Maria Galanou, the embassy's press officer.
This, said LaMotte, is one of the core benefits of social media. "Every country has a positive message, every country has something that they can share about their country of what they're doing on education, what they're doing on diplomacy. All of them have those stories. Those are the stories that you want to engage in. Because people can be turned around," said LaMotte, whose PR firm recently hosted the EU Delegation and embassy representatives from Austria, Peru, Sweden the UAE and others during a Digital Diplomacy Open House as part of Social Media Week, a worldwide event exploring the social, cultural and economic impact of social media.
In addition to amplifying cultural or political messages, social media is also used to convey more basic information, communicating with local diasporas, for example, or providing timely information to nationals traveling in the United States should events warrant it. During Hurricane Sandy, said Al Mussawi, the embassy was able to use Twitter and Facebook to get in touch with UAE tourists visiting the United States, as did the Italian Embassy.
"We assign great importance to social media — for example, broadcasting information on Hurricane Sandy last fall, providing updates on the situation, and a list of emergency numbers of our diplomatic network for Italian tourists in the U.S. and any nationals needing assistance," said Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero.
Various embassies have divided up their social media presence into institutional and personal — both the embassy and the ambassador can maintain individual Twitter accounts, for example. Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal and former Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan — both of whom embraced Twitter early on — each boast more than 100,000 followers. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren has his own Twitter account with 10,000 followers, while Ecuadorean Ambassador Nathalie Cely Suárez has 31,500 followers of her own.
Cely spoke at the Meridian International Center on Feb. 21 for another Social Media Week discussion, "Power to the Tweeple: Best Practices in Digital Diplomacy," co-hosted by Google. The Ecuadorian envoy agreed with panelists such as Google's Bob Boorstin and Facebook's Katie Harbath that social media is more effective when engaging an audience with a "persona," rather than as a faceless mouthpiece dictating reworked press releases and official statements. For example, by tweeting informally and often in Spanish, Cely puts a personal touch on her professional observations.
While some ambassadors clearly do their own tweeting, not everyone will admit as to whether the chiefs of mission are the real voices behind the tweets, though envoys who are hands-on see social media as a means to break down the walls of protocol that tend to surround embassies.
"Sometimes I make personal comments about the weather or how I feel or how happy or unhappy I was with something. I make my own my own personal appreciations," said EU Ambassador João Vale de Almeida, who recently took on his own Twitter account (and provided live tweets during the U.S. presidential inauguration). "One-third of it is of a more personal nature, two-thirds of it are more professional. I think Twitter has to be personal, otherwise there's no interest."
Of course, social media can't merely be another way for institutions to talk at people, but rather has to be a means of talking with them, and therein lies a fundamental challenge. An interactive dialogue takes manpower, and not every embassy has the resources to constantly maintain websites, let alone multiple social media sites. And not every comment merits a response.
On that note, many embassies admit they have to balance when and how to respond to the public. As much as Twitter or Facebook are useful soapboxes, they also offer critics a chance to comment — and often abrasively. The more controversial the topic or country, the more difficult that balance can be to achieve.
"Israel is sometimes perceived as a controversial topic, so there's a lot of back and forth between people who love Israel and are very in favor of it and a few people that are against it. You have to have a balance between the people you're going to respond to and the people that you won't," said Jed Shein, who directs social media efforts for the Israeli Embassy. "I think what we really look at are what are the main issues, what do people want to hear? We're willing to react and respond to people."
But maybe the biggest challenge faced by embassies isn't so much what they can say — but rather what they can't. Social media tools are freewheeling and often anonymous; conversations and comments can move much faster than what traditional institutions, especially embassies, are able to respond to. Embassies are still bound by the political imperatives and messages of the ministries or cabinet secretaries they answer to, and sensitive diplomatic topics often have to be left off of social media. One badly worded tweet can easily create a diplomatic firestorm. In a sense, this leaves embassies at a disadvantage, especially when dealing with hot-button political issues: Users of social media can easily tell when they're being fed canned responses, and don't often take kindly to them.
Yet finding a voice — even in the midst of crisis — is important. For Shein and the Israeli Embassy, being a focus of controversy can often help. "We're not afraid to be a little edgy. That's what we're really proud of. We get a lot of front-page headlines — some of them in favor, some of them not in favor — but it's how we're going to grab the attention of people and kind of break through the filter of the media that won't write everything that you might be interested in," he said.
For LaMotte, the benefits of using social media far outweigh some of the drawbacks in navigating what can be said, how it can said, and when it can be said. "The fact of the matter is that whether it's a corporation or a country, their hesitancy comes from pretty much the same place, which is, this is an incredibly powerful tool that we're not sure we fully understand, and if things go poorly, we can control," he said. "We educate them first that getting engaged is the most important piece."
Be Present, But Have a Plan
Social media is a reality that exists out there, and millions of people already use it to communicate. If you're not on it, you're already behind the curve. Fortunately, it's easy, widely accessible and, best of all, free. That being said, it's easy to get lost in all the noise; without a proper plan of how to use tools as diverse as Twitter and Facebook to Pinterest and Tumblr, your message will not only be forgotten — it could never be noticed at all. Jump into social media, but know what you want to achieve with it.
Be Creative, Funny, Risky
Given the high noise-to-content ratio in much of the social media world, you'll have to be creative in how you communicate, engage, and get your point across. Use Tumblr and Pinterest for more visually compelling content, and use Twitter and Facebook to decipher some of the traditional codes and conceptions surrounding diplomacy. If an ambassador or senior embassy official is on Twitter, they should liberally mix in personal observations with professional obligations. Social media can be risky, but risks pay handsome rewards.
Speak With People, Not At Them
Social media tools enable conversations. Use them as such. While it could be easy to simply tweet out rehearsed talking points or post embassy press releases on a Facebook page, social media tools should be used to engage people who are already out there. That doesn't mean you have to avoid making a point, but you should be willing to go back and forth with people — respectfully — when they engage. Additionally, listen to what people are saying and what they might want and respond in kind.
About the Author
Martin Austermuhle is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and editor in chief of DCist.com.
Last Edited on April 1, 2013