Social media has taken the world by storm. Citizen journalists are increasing pressure on diplomats to deliver timely and accurate reporting of what is happening on the ground. A recent survey of 105 practising diplomats from five regions: Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia shows that the biggest impact social media has in terms of diplomatic reporting is making it more immediate and less formal.
While a 2010 survey by DiploFoundation showed that 76% of respondents thought Diplomats should blog, some argued that ‘blogging is not compatible with the diplomatic function’. Stephen Hale of the UK FCO, did not agree. ‘A large part of what we do offline in the Foreign Office is engage and influence audiences in support of UK foreign policy goals. Diplomacy is not just about states talking to states. And often the issues we work on (like climate change or counter terrorism) can't be solved by one state talking to another. The internet provides us with the means to engage and influence audiences all around the world. And blogs are one tool that diplomats can use to talk informally with their target audience about specific foreign policy issues.’
With the post-9/11 move in the US government from a ‘need to know’ to a ‘need to share’, the US Department of State became an example of one diplomacy machine that has embraced social media and is seeking to maximise existing tools to promote the sharing of information. It is not rocket science. ‘What better way to move an agency into need-to-share protocols than to integrate technology from the world's leading authorities on need to share, namely social networking sites Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia’ (Khalid, 2011). In a non-exhaustive list of blogs compiled by Danielle Derbes for the June 2011 Foreign Service Journal, the Department of State lists 161 blogs and the UK’s FCO lists 47 active bloggers.
With public diplomacy coming more and more to the forefront as an international tool of engagement, social media has a huge part to play in diplomatic reporting. Whether diplomats use Twitter to get instant updates about what is happening on the street or to float an idea in cyberspace to informally sound out public opinion, this microblogging tool is rapidly become part of the diplomat’s reporting toolbox. It is interesting to note here that a distinction apparently needs to be made between the diplomat and the person. In which capacity are they tweeting or blogging? One case in point is that of former Indian diplomat Shashi Tharoor, who, in 2010, tweeted a rather innocuous message to his half-million or so followers: Dilemma of our age. Tough visa restrictions in hope of btr security or openness & liberality to encourage tourism & goodwill? I prefer latter. He made the front page news nationally for making a ‘big mistake in Indian politics: appearing to disagree publicly with his superiors on a delicate issue’.
Likewise with blogs. The diplomat’s prime objective is to promote and to pursue their country’s interests. Blogs written by themselves or by others can be a valuable source of information that often goes unreported in mainstream media. In a comment on Diplo’s online survey on whether diplomats should blog (DiploFoundation, 2010), Vladimir Radunovic cites a visit in 2009 to Serbia by then Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a regular blogger. Bildt announced a last-minute visit to Belgrade on his blog, where he planned to meet with the Serbian President and the Foreign Minister. This visit coincided with the Butmir regional talks on the Balkans, while Sweden held the EU presidency. Yet the visit was never officially announced. This low-profile approach to the meeting was enhanced by the medium used to communicate its happening. As Radunovic puts it in his comment: it was ‘available to all as not being a secret; yet reaching only some, without drums and fuss’. This nuanced messaging is a key component of diplomatic reporting and it would seem that social media offers the perfect set of tools to carry it out.
In her next blog post, Mary Murphy examines the relationship between diplomats and diplomatic correspondents.