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Politics & press news – Embassy 57

Is social media killing diplomacy?

“A triumph of banality over profundity” is how Australian High Commissioner Alexander Downer described the impact of social media on the diplomatic profession at a recent panel discussion at Canada House.

Challenging the “box-checking” orthodoxy  that most foreign ministries have adopted towards social media, Downer said social media was a distraction and urged his colleagues to take to social media only “when you have something meaningful to say”.

Risk and reward
But a mission’s fear of a backlash to confrontational content that could affect diplomatic relations is often a reason for missions to stick to safe topics of “limited interest”.

UK Ambassador to Lebanon and self-styled ‘naked diplomat’ Tom Fletcher said diplomats should take risks and “pick arguments” with those with opposing views – as he has done with Hamas and Hizbollah in Lebanon – even if this did occasionally result in “a collective intake of breath” back at HQ.

Giving control of social media content to risk-averse public diplomacy officers who don’t “own” the policies was part of the problem said former digital adviser to the FCO Jimmy Leach. He urged foreign ministries to “mainstream” social media in every section of the mission.

Intelligence gathering
But social media isn’t just about broadcasting, pointed out Scott Nolan Smith, digital strategist at Portland Communications and former head of Digital Diplomacy at the British Embassy in Washington DC. It is also a powerful new tool for the good old-fashioned diplomatic practice of intelligence gathering. “If you are not pushing out content, then you should be listening,” he advised.

This point was driven home in an eye-opening presentation by Eric Jeurissen of the EU Satellite Centre at a social media conference hosted by the London Academy of Diplomacy and the Consular Corps of London. Jeurissen demonstrated how EU data analysts had monitored social media feeds of soldiers in Ukraine to identify if tanks seen on satellite images were Russian or Ukrainian.

He added that tweets sent out from a crisis were analysed and helped to inform a crisis response and shape EU policy in the long term.

Platforms for diplomacy
Both conferences touched on the social media platforms that were useful diplomatic tools.

Twitter is handy as a public diplomacy amplifier and for a continuing “conversation” with your target audience, said Fletcher.

Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s government and politics specialist said Facebook was good for engaging a community or diaspora and therefore useful for consular work.

Lauren Harris of the Dutch Embassy explained how their consular section had used Youtube videos to explain to citizens how the consulate operates, while Twitter was helpful to send out general information. In a crisis the FCO now typically uses Twitter to contact British citizens about evacuation plans, said Fletcher.

For commercial diplomacy Linkedin is preferred as a way to reach new markets and investors, said Rudi Guraziu of the International Business and Diplomatic Exchange.

Death of diplomacy?
Both conferences concluded that social media has a role to play in diplomacy if used strategically. Sir George Reid at the London Academy of Diplomacy reminded diplomats that the profession had always been resistant to adopt new forms of communications technology.

The 19th Century British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston’s reaction upon receiving an electronic telegram was: “My God, Sir, this is the death of diplomacy!”

It survived (and thrived), so to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of diplomacy have been greatly exaggerated.

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