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Diplomats and their online selves: interacting with social media

Published on 07 February 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

In a recent interview with Diplo’s Stephanie Borg Psaila, Karen Melchior, First Secretary at the Danish Embassy in London, talks about how she has been able to integrate the use of social media in her everyday work. As a student of diplomacy, I read the interview with interest, eager to see how a practising diplomat is taking advantage of current technology. Most notable for me was how Karen spoke of her social media presence becoming an extension of herself online.

Earlier that week, in the Postgraduate Diploma in Contemporary Diplomacy workshop which is just finishing up in Malta, one of the participants with a HR background, also referred to this idea of an ‘online self’.  And it got me thinking. Is there an incongruity between my online self and my real self?

How many of us look at our social media presence as a depiction of ourselves? Do we see it as a disjointed series of photographs, comments, stories, and anecdotes, rather than a collage of information giving others an insight to who we are as people? Yes, I know I have control over what I post on Facebook, what I Tweet, what I blog, what photos I share – but how much control do I have about what other people post on my various profiles? And when I comment on their walls and blog posts and retweet their tweets, do I forget that this also forms part of my online self?

Do you remember that classic piece of wisdom that’s been trotted out for centuries: Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are? When we accept friend requests on Facebook, connections on LinkedIn, followers on Twitter, do we stop to think about what this says about us? A potential employer could not access my Facebook profile but some of my Facebook friends are not as paranoid as I am about security and are more lax about their privacy restrictions. This means that comments I’ve made on their walls are visible for all and sundry to see. I won’t post photos of people on any public site without their permission but that’s not to say that others haven’t tagged me in photos somewhere in cyberspace. Were I a diplomat, would I want a photo of me standing on a table addressing a group of revellers? No matter how serious the subject or how sober the moment, this picture, out of context, will portray an image of me that is less than favourable.

In her interview, Karen says that ‘in social media it is important to show a personal side in order to engage with people.’ And she is right – without that personal side, social media is no longer social. And yet this is quite possibly one of the biggest concerns regarding e-diplomacy – diplomats may be reluctant to fully engage with social media out of fear of exposing themselves, their embassies, and their countries, not overtly, but piece by piece through their online interaction. How can they strike the right balance? Is there a magic solution?

2 replies
  1.  Mary
    Mary says:

    You’re right, Karen. Would
    You’re right, Karen. Would Henry Ford have invented the car if he had known the number of deaths those using it would cause? Social media is not going anywhere and we need to learn how to use it properly. Thanks for pointing out the importance of how we deal with our online mistakes… that’s a key point everyone, in all walks of like, but particularly for diplomats.

  2. Karen Melchior
    Karen Melchior says:

    I am glad you found Stephanie
    I am glad you found Stephanie’s interview with me useful. I’m only sorry that I hadn’t noticed your blog post before now.

    Your concerns are valid, and I am sure you are not the only thinking these things, but I don’t think that they should be allowed to scare people away from using social media.

    A more experienced hand at digital diplomacy (@JimmyTLeach) once said something along the lines of you don’t stop using / ban telephones just because you could say something stupid to a journalist by using one. Social media are tools, it’s the person using them that can end up making mistakes.

    Your actions online should reflect what and who you are off-line, but diplomats should have received training in dealing with media and people in general. Dealing with social media is just one side to this.

    If – or really when – mistakes are made, the consequences are to a large extent also determined by how you deal with your mistake.


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