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Measuring reputation through digital diplomacy at international organisations

Published on 12 July 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

There is a wealth of information about digital diplomacy at the state level, and while much of the literature is interesting and informative, it doesn’t really speak to using digital diplomacy techniques at the international organisation level. Few studies examine social media at international organisations. One aim of my dissertation, as part of DiploFoundation’s and the University of Malta’s Master of Contemporary Diplomacy (Internet Governance), was to help close this gap.

For this post, let’s define digital diplomacy as was done by Bjola and Holmes as ‘the use of social media for diplomatic purposes’.

The question we will address is whether digital diplomacy could be used to affect the reputation of an international organisation. This idea originally came from a question from the Director-General of my organisation when he asked if our social media activities were having an impact, if they were moving the needle for us reputationally one way or the other. That is a very difficult question to answer, for many reasons. I remembered that old advertising axiom where an ad manager once said: ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.’

Luckily, there are new ways to measure digital diplomacy activities such as engagement rates, impressions, likes, clicks, etc. But there is still the challenge to determine whether digital diplomacy is having a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect at all on the reputation of an international organisation.

There are four main reasons for this.

4. Digital diplomacy is still emerging

Many international organisations are still adapting to the digital diplomacy revolution. Of 11 international organisations that responded to a survey sent to the UN Social Media Network, most indicated that their social media presence began around 2009/ 2010. At least one did not have a social media presence at all until the fourth quarter of 2015. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly in international organisations and while there are many organisations doing interesting things, in most cases the resources simply aren’t there to provide a comprehensive programme. Many international organisations don’t have a baseline for comparison. This makes it difficult to measure online activities as there are only a few years of activity in which to measure.

3. There are many bureaucratic constraints

Public information offices are traditionally small and have constraints placed on them by their member states. This was identified as an issue as far back as 1953 by Robert H Cory in his study of public information at the United Nations. This goes to the natural tension between an international organisation and its member states. As Cory notes, a delegate arrives with their national interests in mind, which may be at odds with some messaging from the organisation.

Further, if a member state creates an information campaign against the organisation, like the United States has done in the past regarding budget negotiations at the United Nations, the organisation has little recourse to deal with it itself. The repercussions may come from other member states but not the organisation.

2. Public institutions are notoriously hard to brand

Public institutions like international organisations have mandates that do not necessarily require public support. Similarly, the work of many international organisations is government-to-government and will go on as long as the mandating agreement is in effect. Public support, in many cases, is not necessary or even given much thought.

Of course, this may change in organisations where the public is needed to effectively communicate their mission, like the UNHCR, which uses all resources at its disposal to get information out about the plight of displaced people.

An example of where public input and support is in fact needed is the International Criminal Court (ICC), which uses what it calls ‘network diplomacy’ in order to cement its legitimacy as a world court. Corrie (2015) noted that they use network diplomacy to build sustained connections among different actors, from ‘networks of states, international organisations, and even public support’.[1] This is important, Corrie says, because the ICC works ‘under the belief that sharing timely and accurate information will enhance support and cooperation from states, international and intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, and the public, and will ultimately increase their perceptions about the ICC’s legitimacy’.[2]

1. Social media analytics aren’t currently built to measure sentiment

It isn’t news that it is difficult to measure sentiment through automated social media tools. These tools currently cannot detect sarcasm or the use of negative words in a colloquial sense, nor can they detect differential differences in sentiment. For example, a tweet saying Coke is better than Pepsi would have two different meanings depending on which soft drink manufacturer is tweeting.

Many international organisations do not measure sentiment for this reason. One issue that cropped up among some organisations is that the keywords associated with their work always returned a negative sentiment. For example, ‘Chemical weapon stockpiles destroyed in Syria’ will return a negative sentiment despite it being a positive statement.

Future areas for research

Few studies discuss digital diplomacy or social media at international organisations. The main one is the Twiplomacy study. This is a rich area for further research. Some areas that could benefit from examination include:

  • How humanitarian response programmes can be effectively mainstreamed into digital diplomacy initiatives. This may help identify and close any gaps that may exist.
  • A content analysis on the types of postings created by organisations and measured against what people who engage with international organisations find important and relevant to engage in could help create more effective digital diplomacy campaigns.
  • Research into how social media is affecting diplomatic negotiations. For example, if social media is being used by member states or international organisations as a form of intelligence gathering and being used as evidence during negotiations. This may point to new ways that social media is being used for diplomatic purposes not related to public information.


This is only the tip of the iceberg on how digital diplomacy can be studied and implemented at international organisations and indeed, my dissertation only included an extremely small piece of the digital landscape. Some colleagues and I are working on an initiative called Globiunity that we will use as a vehicle to examine these issues and more. You can view our video on digital diplomacy and register to be informed of when our site goes live at Globiunity.com. Finally you can follow us on Twitter @globiunity or me personally at @kpdig.

Keith Powell is Web Content Manager at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at The Hague. In 2015, he completed his Master in Contemporary Diplomacy with the University of Malta and Diplomacy, with distinction.


[1] Corrie KL (2015) The International Criminal Court: using technology in network diplomacy. In Bjola C and Holmes M [eds] Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge New Diplomacy Studies, p.151

[2] Corrie, 2015, p. 161

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