As a fairly recent recruit to the ranks of Twitter, I’m still undecided when it comes to assessing the kind of tweets which are likely to be effective from a public diplomacy point of view. What is clear is which are not. Why, for example, would anyone want to read tweets which resemble truncated versions of the dull press releases that I thought had gone out of fashion with the advent of social media; or those that merely contain a link to a press statement or speech with no hint as to content or posture? We’ve all seen them. Pick any one of several dozen official Foreign Ministry institutional Twitter accounts. Unimaginative, stilted and, to quote Mark McDowell, Head of Public Diplomacy at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, “frankly a little bit dull”. What value is there in a tweet from an anonymous individual that his/her Foreign Minister had a telephone conversation with another Foreign Minister – unless of course it’s between two countries which are sworn enemies. What could be interesting is what they talked about, why, and what conclusions they reached, though this can’t be guaranteed.
Many foreign ministries seem to believe that a mere presence on social media is tantamount to practising modern public diplomacy when in fact they are just feeding not particularly newsworthy news items to the media. I am a firm believer that diplomacy needs to embrace social media – Tom Fletcher, Britain’s Ambassador to the Lebanon, makes a persuasive case in his blog The Naked Diplomat for those who remain sceptical. But it’s easy to forget that social media is still only one of the many tools of public diplomacy. It’s important to understand what purpose public diplomacy should serve, and make informed decisions about what activities can be most effective, including how best to utilise social media or where other activities may work as well. Indeed, Australian diplomats last year responded to criticism about their lack of digital visibility by arguing that cultural events or activities involving young people are just as effective in some regions. Otherwise, there is a risk that diplomatic institutions may just be engaging in trivial chitter-chatter in cyberspace, without impact or influence. With apologies to the European External Action Service, @eu_eeas is one such account which could have plenty to say given the EU’s global diplomatic ambitions but it’s pretty uninspiring.
Where social media comes into its own is that it encourages two-way contact and dialogue with the public, the ‘listening’ function that experts agree is an essential element for successful public diplomacy. Many foreign ministries have got the hang of this; the State Department leads by example, with frequent Twitter Q and A sessions and interactive websites, for example on international exchanges. But how many others are still just speaking without conversing?